GoMRI Mourns the Passing of Dr. John “Wes” Tunnell

Dr. John “Wes” Tunnell was a renowned marine biologist/ecologist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies and was known as much for his integrity and honesty as he was for his expansive body of research. Credit: Texas Sea Grant/Stephan Myers.

Dr. John “Wes” Tunnell was a renowned marine biologist/ecologist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies and was known as much for his integrity and honesty as he was for his expansive body of research. Credit: Texas Sea Grant/Stephan Myers.

It is with deep sadness that we share the news that Dr. John “Wes” Tunnell passed away on Saturday July 14, 2018 after battling cancer. Tunnell was a marine ecology and biology professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and an early orchestrator of the Harte Research Institute (HRI) for Gulf of Mexico studies. His work related to the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) was with the C-IMAGE consortium’s Gulf-wide studies comparing the Ixtoc-I and Deepwater Horizon oil spills.

HRI Executive Director Larry McKinney praised Tunnell as being instrumental in establishing HRI, “World renowned ocean explorer and advocate Sylvia Earle was the inspiration and Ed Harte was the visionary, but Wes was the one to put it all together and make HRI a reality. Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, the Coastal Bend, and the Gulf of Mexico owe him a debt of thanks for meeting that challenge. Wes and a small handful of dedicated colleagues stepped up when the opportunity arose to deliver on Ed’s vision. Where others may have faltered, they triumphed. All of us at HRI and beyond have reaped the benefit of that labor of love and determination. Many hands made HRI what it is today, but at its foundation, its soul, stands Wes Tunnell alone.”

Tunnell’s experience in Gulf studies spanned more than five decades, and McKinney described his understanding of how the Gulf works as being “unmatched by anyone.”

Tunnell played a monumental role in expanding C-IMAGE research to work with Mexican colleagues in the southern Gulf of Mexico (known as OneGulf) and look for residual impacts from the Ixtoc-I oil spill. Tunnell was studying corals off the Texas coast when the 1979 Ixtoc-I spill began and documented where oil washed ashore. Then in 2016, he guided C-IMAGE researchers to the same locations that he had been monitoring with the goal of better understanding how the northern Gulf of Mexico might fare in decades to come after Deepwater Horizon.

C-IMAGE Director Steven Murawski reminisced, “While I knew Wes by reputation for many years, it was not until 2014 that I got to work with him on projects in the Gulf of Mexico.  He took a cold call from me and was at once intrigued by the prospect of re-activating his research, originally conducted in the early 1980s, on the IXTOC-I oil spill in Mexico.  Since then all of us at C-IMAGE have come to know the warm, generous, funny, inspiring man that Wes was.  He literally opened many doors for us in the international Gulf of Mexico research community, and we are forever in his debt.  Always a mentor, his legacy will inspire many more generations of marine scientists.”

The C-IMAGE Technical Director and Program Manager Sherryl Gilbert described Tunnell as a colleague and friend. “We all lost a tireless advocate for the Gulf, one with a deep, soft spoken voice, fit for storytelling.  Of those, he had many.  I consider myself lucky to have been able to hear some of them, of his travels through Mexico, his “Tunnell Trek” during his Ixtoc studies, and of his time spent with his wife and family at his favorite hacienda. We share our deepest condolences with this family, and promise to keep his legacy alive by working to advocate for our Gulf of Mexico community.”

Tunnell taught a Coral Reef Ecology class for 32 years, taking students on field trips to Veracruz or the Mexican Caribbean as part of an international teaching and research program. He was known for conducting class from the deck of a boat and lecturing in scuba gear. GoMRI Program Manager Kevin Shaw said, “I am honored to have known Wes for over 50 years. He was instrumental in guiding me into marine science beginning in high school and has always been a mentor for many students over the years.  He will be dearly missed.”

Tunnell assisted in the development of two bachelor degree programs, four master’s programs, and two doctoral programs. He was instrumental in establishing seven graduate student scholarships at the Center for Coastal Studies, and he advised or co-advised 71 master’s students, seven Ph.D. students, and four post-doctoral research associates.

Dr. Tunnell held honorary positions such as the Endowed Chair of Biodiversity and Conservation Science at HRI, Regents Professor, and Professor Emeritus. He was also a Fulbright Scholar. A prolific writer, Tunnell published over 120 papers, book chapters, and proceedings, as well as seven books. The most notable were The Laguna Madre of Texas and Tamaulipas, Coral Reefs of the Southern Gulf of Mexico, Encyclopedia of Texas Seashells, Texas Seashells-A Field Guide, and Pioneering Archaeology of the Texas Coastal Bend — The Pape-Tunnell Collection. He was also editor of two book series for Texas A&M University Press: Gulf Coast Books, with 31 titles; and the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies Series, with 14 titles.

The GoMRI science community extends sincere sympathy to Dr. Tunnell’s family, friends, and colleagues. A celebration of his life is scheduled for July 28, see here for details.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, please send donations to the Dr. Wes Tunnell Gulf of Mexico Fellowship Program (https://giving.tamucc.edu/) and designate Harte Research Institute with special instructions to “Dr. Wes Tunnell Fellowship.” The Endowed Fellowship supports graduate students pursuing degrees at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.


The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative or GoMRI is a 10-year independent research program established to study the effect, and the potential associated impact, of hydrocarbon releases on the environment and public health, as well as to develop improved spill mitigation, oil detection, characterization and remediation technologies.  An independent and academic 20-member Research Board makes the funding and research direction decisions to ensure the intellectual quality, effectiveness and academic independence of the GoMRI research.  All research data, findings and publications will be made publicly available.  The program was established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP.  For more information, visit https://gulfresearchinitiative.org/

© Copyright 2010-2018 Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) – All Rights Reserved. Redistribution is encouraged with acknowledgement to the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Please credit images and/or videos as done in each article. Questions? Contact web-content editor Nilde “Maggie” Dannreuther, Northern Gulf Institute, Mississippi State University (maggied@ngi.msstate.edu).