By Morgan Montalvo
For seven decades, glass-bottom boats have plied the quiet waters of Spring Lake in San Marcos, but years of use have taken their toll on the onetime tourist craft's sturdy mahogany hulls.
The oldest boat in the fleet, delivered in 1945 when the lake was host to the long-running Aquarena Springs theme park and hotel - known worldwide for its underwater mermaid shows and a swimming pig act - is back on the waters after an upgrade to a modern fiberglass hull.
"Aquarena," as it was known, ultimately was absorbed by Texas State University and, since 2002 has been the site of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.
But the five-boat glass-bottom fleet continues in operation as educational tools to promote awareness of Spring Lake and its endangered aquatic species.
"It's awesome," said Andrew Sansom, executive director for the Meadows Center, at Thursday's re-christening ceremony for Boat 1945, "and particularly because it's going to save us so much money in the future and allow us to to continue to bring thousands of people here to enjoy these springs."
Sansom says maintaining the boats in their original imported-wood configuration had become prohibitively expensive.
The change to modern materials, he said, will allow each reconfigured boat to remain in the water longer, an important consideration for the center, which hosts an estimated 125,000 visitors each year. about a third of that number school kids on field trips. An increasing percentage of those students each year, Sansom added, are from disadvantaged and predominantly minority schools that lack resources for hands-on and up-close science.
Miranda Wait, assistant manager for the Meadows Center's education programs, says no two glass-bottom boat trips on the federally protected lake - also the headwaters for the San Marcos River - are the same.
"This is a living laboratory," Wait said. "It's constantly changing; no one ever sees the same ting twice. On one tour you might see a spotted gar, another tour you might see a soft-shell turtle. It's always different.
The glass-bottom boats, Wait said, are "the one way that people can get an up-close view of the springs,"
For more about Texas State University's Meadows Center for Water and the Environment and its glass-bottom boats, log on to: http://www.meadowscenter.txstate.edu/
PHOTO: Andrew Sansom, executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, welcomes visitors aboard a newly restored vintage-1945 glass-bottom boat used to educate the public about Spring Lake, a federally protected ecosystem in San Marcos. Photo by Morgan Montalvo