Vessel brings island’s harbor history to life
The 50-foot, twin-hulled Seagull II can be seen most days doing the job she was specifically designed to do: providing visitors and Galveston residents with an intimate experience of the history, waters and wildlife of Galveston Bay.
The boat and its mission are the brainchild of Lyda Ann Thomas, who was mayor of Galveston from 2004 to 2010 and became nationally known for shepherding her native city through Hurricane Ike in 2008 and the ensuing recovery.
Thomas is a fourth-generation member of the Kempner family, prominent in Galveston since the 19th century. In the family tradition, she has always been active in improving life for islanders. In the late 1990s, she saw another need, and resolved to address it.
“The port is the very lifeblood of Galveston, but no one was bringing its history to life,” Thomas said. “There were historic homes tours, and walking tours of The Strand, but the port was ignored.”
In 1997, Thomas established Galveston Harbor Tours and enlisted a group of people, many of whom she’d grown up with, to fill the need.
The company’s first vessel, Seagull, was an outboard-driven pontoon “dive boat” that docked at Fisherman’s Wharf at Pier 22.
Thomas persuaded her old friend, Elise Stephens, who was retiring from her position as a history professor, to develop an on-the-water educational curriculum for school groups and to guide it to accreditation by the Texas Education Agency, which allows Texas teachers to earn continuing education hours on the tour.
The program also provides schoolchildren with a fun learning experience. Most of them, even the islanders, have never been on the water before, and some are only dimly aware of the port’s significance and history.
Marine biologist Sid Steffens leads an exploration of the teeming life inhabiting the waters, scooped up in nets dropped and towed by students. Microscopes are provided, and temporarily captured creatures are passed around by delighted students.
The mission quickly outgrew Seagull, and Thomas commissioned and helped design Seagull II.
Delivered in 1998, Seagull II exactly suits her purposes, with a center steering station, heads, a main deck sheltered from sun and rain, and an accessible upper deck providing a panoramic view of the harbor. A speaker system allows the captain/tour guide to be heard from all parts of the boat. A counter supports the microscopes and sample tubs for netted sea life.
Twin diesel engines provide the speed needed to avoid traffic and to extend the range of tours from the oyster banks and bird islands of West Bay to the Bolivar Roads and the Galveston Ship Channel to the east, including a loop around the grounded hulk of the concrete freighter Selma off Pelican Island.
Seagull II is certified for up to 49 passengers. Her mission today includes history and biology tours for students and teachers, walk-on tours for families and individuals, rentals for parties and events and bird-watching tours.
Vandy Anderson, who served for a time as captain and tour guide, is a licensed boat operator well known as the “Voice of Galveston” for his former talk shows on local radio station KGBC-AM.
“The things you need for the job are the ability to run the boat, and the gift of gab,” Anderson, now retired, said. “I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Thomas decided in 2004 to sell the boat to the Galveston Historical Foundation, and Seagull II moved to the Texas Seaport Museum.
Seagull II’s captain/tour guide is Wes Hocott, an experienced boat operator and guide. He echoes Anderson’s enjoyment of the job, and clearly has the “gift of gab.”
As Seagull II’s mission has evolved, dolphins have remained a highlight of her harbor tours. They can usually be depended on to make an appearance, leaping and plunging alongside the boat, seeming to enjoy the close encounters as much as the passengers do.