Brownsville, Port Isabal, and South Padre Island – fun in the sun with humidity

After almost a week in the wilds of Big Bend Ranch State Park, then over to Big Bend National Park, I found myself exploring an area of Texas I didn’t know quite as well – Brownsville, Texas. I’d walked the sands of South Padre Island and driven the Queen Isabella Causeway in the past, but I’ve not photographed the resacas (waterways) in this border town. I had the opportunity to basically be guided around the area by a local, and jumped at the chance.

My friend – I’ll call him Mark for now – is a photographer, as well, and better than he gives himself credit. We met in San Antonio just after lunch and made the drive to Brownsville. Mark had written down 25 potential locations for me to shoot, locations in Brownsville, Port Isabel, and South Padre Island. He’d made arrangements for us to stay in Brownsville, so that first night we focused on a few scenic resacas.

Before the trip, I had never heard the word resaca. Now I know these waterways are remnants of the Rio Grande River flow. Ten percent of Brownsville is taken by these waterways, and with the sun low in the horizon followed by a setting crescent moon, the evening offered some nice photographic opportunities.

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Bridge over a Resaca in Evening, Brownsville 1 : Prints Available

A crescent moon sets in the west over a resaca in Brownsville, Texas. These waterways are found throughout this border town and add beauty to the city. This footbridge crosses the water on the campus of Texas Southmost College.

That first night, I noticed traffic seemed a little haphazard. In some ways, it reminded me of my younger days when commuting in Rome. I once had been driven around the eternal city by a monsignor at the Vatican (he was an American serving there). I asked him what was his secret to managing the driving madness. His answer: Don’t make eye contact! He said if your eyes met the eyes of another driver, that gave him permission to cut you off. I asked if he’d ever been in any wrecks. His answer, grinning: Sure, everyone who drives here has. Brownsville wasn’t that bad. As we weaved in and out of traffic on a Thursday night in Brownsville, I asked Mark if it was always so crazy driving here. Smiling, he said: It’s Brownsville. I’m glad to say we never had any fender-benders, but driving was a bit sketchy at times.

We awoke on Saturday morning well before dark. Our destination this a.m. was past Port Isabel and over the bay (Laguna Madre) to the sand dunes of South Padre Island. We had planned on driving down Ocean Blvd until we found some nice dunes, but high water prevented us from traveling more than a few miles before the road was too much under water for us to continue. I had no idea that a hurricane 600 miles away could affect the water levels on the beach. But it had. So we parked, scampered up and over the sand to the east, then dropped down the other side and headed toward the ocean. From there, on a windy October morning, we both enjoyed a beautiful sunrise. The beach was filled with shells and parts of shells. When the water would recede between waves, the shells would leave zig-zagged and curving lines in the sand. With the sun’s glow on the sand, I really liked the lines in the beach.

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South Padre Island Seashells in Surf 1 : Prints Available

From South Padre Island, this is a beautiful early morning sunrise. As the waves washed out to the Gulf waters, the lines in the sand created by shells tumbling in the shifting surf weave a tapestry in the orange light of morning. Overhead, three gulls watched my work from overhead.

We played here, photographing every angle we could manage, then headed to the other side of the island to photograph any fowl we might find. After that, a trip over the causeway to Port Isabel allowed us a brief stop to photograph the Lighthouse in the center of town. After that, I was guided to an amazing Mexican restaurant, but not before shooting the courthouse of Cameron County.

After a midday siesta, Mark took me back to the island,but this time we were shopping for stuffed dolphins. Yes, being away from my family sometimes requires me to bring my girls a gift as pennance for being gone. And they love dolphins. After stopping at several tacky tourists shops, I finally found a pink and a blue dolphin – perfect for a peace offering. From the tacky tourist are, we shot several locations – birds on a stump in the water at sunset using a 400mm prime lens, the east side of the Queen Isabella Causeway, and the west side of the Causeway.

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Queen Isabella Causeway from South Padre 1 : Prints Available

The Queen Isabella Causeway stretches 2.37 miles from Port Isabel to South Padre Island. It spans the Laguna Madre and is the onlyl road connecting the south Texas mainland with the island. This image was taken from the South Padre Island as a crescent moon was setting in the west.

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South Padre Island Sunset 1012-1 : Prints Available

On a humid October evening on South Padre Island just north of Port Isabel, the sun last light spreads across the water between the Island and the mainland. In the foreground, an egret searches for fish who may swim his way.

We tried to photograph some shrimp boats, but in asking for permission from (apparently) the crew, the gnarly guys working did not speak English. I tried talking slower and louder and using hand gestures, but one fellow just took a drag from his one-inch cigarette, turned, and walked away. The other said, I think, we needed to talk to the boss. When asked where the boss was, he shrugged and sat back down to do whatever was doing before being interrupted.
That night, after a long, hot, and humid day, Mark took me to a street taco dive. Both outside and in, the area was teeming with Hispanic folks enjoying the evening. I am 100% sure we were the only gringos in the place. And the street tacos – bisteak and barbacoa with avocado and goat cheese were amazing. I tried the sauces, too. The orange sauce, whatever that was, left the right side of my face numb – as if I’d been to see the dentist. Some might ask if I was a true Texan. The answer is yes – 4th generation! And that stuff was numbingly hot. The left side of my face will remember how good those tacos tasted. The right side remembers nothing.

A little more time in Brownsville shooting around Texas Southmost College and the resacas made it a successful, fun, and enlightening trip. I had some great food, donated some blood to the local mosquitoes around the water, and enjoyed exploring a new location.

My lingering thoughts on Brownsville and the coast…
– the people I met were truly friendly and kind
– the food was amazing – lunch, street tacos, and a bakery we found the final morning about 6am
– the mosquito population is alive and well
– Brownsville has some surprisingly gorgeous areas
– I’m still finding sand from a windy morning on the beach
– It is a long drive from the Hill Country to the Texas/Mexico border.

I can’t wait to return!

Vaya con Dios!


Photographing Port Aransas in June

The Texas coast is a favorite beach destination for Texans. It is relatively close and accessible, has affordable accommodations, and has a little sand in which to wiggle your toes. I recently had the opportunity to spend several days down there –primarily to photograph Port Aransas and the beach front in that area.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a beach person. And I think I was spoiled in my youth – just out of college – as I backpacked Europe on the cheap, sleeping on warm sands in the Cinque Terre of the Italian Rivera and strolling on the shimmering sands of south France (all the while living out of a backpack and sleeping on trains – just so you know we were not traveling in style!) My wife and I even took several trips like this in our first years of marriage. Two kids later, and those days of carefree trekking are but a vague memory. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. So with the kids out of school, I was able to take my family with me on a little photography expedition along the Texas Riveria!

I certainly don’t know the coastline like I know the Texas Hill Country, but I’ve been to Corpus Christi, Rockport, and Port A a few times. If I were a birder, this would be a paradise for photography. While I don’t have the patience to stalk our feathered friends, I was able to incorporate many of the seagulls and herons into the images. I also obsess over weather forecasts before trips, checking every outlet I can find in the days leading up to departure. For this trip I did not decide to drive to the coast until just a few hours before we left. The timing paid off, and several sunrises and sunsets were filled with oranges, blues, pinks, and other pastel shades.

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Port Aransas Caldwell Pier Sunrise 2 : Prints Available

Seagulls soar overhead and follow the coastline near Port Aransas, Texas, on a colorful summer sunrise. This image of the gulf coast is several photographs stitched together. First, the coast, pier, and sunrise were captured. To capture the seagulls that were everywhere, I increased the shutter speed to freeze the birds in flight. The two were blended together to show the beautiful scene that played out along the beach that morning.

For this trip, I mainly stayed along the beach near Horace Caldwell Pier (seen below).

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Port Aransas – Caldwell Pier Panorama : Prints Available

This panorama of the beach at Port Aransas with Caldwell Harbor in the distance was taken at sunrise on a beautiful (and windy) June morning. The sky lit up with color and the seagulls ran along the sand.

This image is available in custom sizes. Please contact me for more information.

This structure is a fishing pier that juts out 1200 feet into the gulf, putting anglers in prime position to hook their next meal. For me, this pier served as a natural point of interest both from the side and from beneath. I always look for symmetry, whether in nature or in man made structures, and this pier offered exactly that.

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Beneath Caldwell Pier at Port Aransas 1 : Prints Available

Horace Caldwell Pier appears here in the evening as lights from the fishing bridge light up sectoins of the walkway and the water. I loved the symmetry of this structure. The pier reaches 1200 feet out into the Gulf of Mexico from the Port Aransas beach and offers fishermen a place to (try to) catch dinner.

Along the beach, my girls and I discovered that seagulls are not shy about begging for food, so when we smuggled some extra bread from of an overpriced pseudo-seafood restaurant, the gulls were quite pleased. They were skilled at catching morsels of bread in the air, and I used this trick later in the evening to capture these graceful creatures in flight during a beautiful sunset.

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Port Aransas Seagull Sunset 1 : Prints Available

Along a quiet beach in Port Aransas, sea gulls glide in the breeze as the sun sets to the west. With the last light along the Texas coast, the low clouds turn orange and purple as the evening quickly comes to a close along this beautiful area of Texas.

If you have question about the details of these images, please feel free to contact me. I suspect there is much more to Port Aransas than just the beach. And that just opens up the opportunity for another trip – perhaps in the fall when the temperatures are not so hot. In the meantime, safe and happy travels to everyone out there!

Vaya con Dios, Texas!
~ Rob