SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — It’s not hard to imagine the Buntin family with its own reality show.
The reality of this sprawling, musical, nautical, entrepreneurial clan — now ensconced on South Padre Island — may be beyond the grasp of television.
Helmed by Texas native Rupert Buntin, the Buntins’ adventures have taken them to Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico and Washington state, attracting media attention and entertaining/mystifying crowds along the way.
In January, the family purchased the Palm Street Pier on the Island, renaming it the “Lobo del Mar Café.” All the family’s business ventures — parasailing, marine charter, entertainment, etc. — are done under the Lobo del Mar moniker.
The Buntins arrived here from Port Hadlock, Wash., where they owned a marine salvage operation, a parasailing company and a trading post. During their spare time, they entertained tourists and locals with their trademark, homegrown musical extravaganza featuring guitars, drums and bagpipes, Celtic, Middle Eastern, flamenco and Mexican folk music, and Irish step, hula and belly dancing.
“Our show, what we did in Washington and Hawaii for a long time, that’s three hours long usually,” said Brady Buntin, a bagpipe player, bagpipe builder and the ninth of Rupert and Carrol Buntin’s 11 children.
“There’s 18 dancers and they do these big numbers. It’s got all this stuff going on.”
So much that it won’t all fit in the Lobo del Mar Café, thus the full show has been staged only a few times on the Island, and at other venues. Still, Lobo del Mar features live, local music seven days a week, including the “fam jam” every Tuesday.
“It’s just us boys, and I’ve got a niece that plays slide guitar and Dobro,” Brady said. “She plays with us, and it’s just all of our tunes that we like to play, that Mom and Dad like to hear.”
It’s been nice trading the kilts — yes, kilts — for boots and jeans, Texas style, he said. Brady builds a number of other old-world instruments in addition to bagpipes. His parents’ families were musical, and his father played steel guitar before joining the Navy, he said. Instruments always were laying around the house — in this case, the boats on which the home-schooled Buntin siblings grew up.
Several of the older kids were raised in the Northwest before the family set sail in a caravan for Alaska, where Brady grew up. Lobo del Mar is from the name of the Buntins’ second boat, Sea Wolf.
“We worked as gill netters in southeast Alaska,” he said. “We did electrical work. Then we went to Mexico when I was still a teenager, and lived there for 14 years.”
The family had begun to disperse as the children reached adulthood and went off to pursue their own careers, though they realized they liked it better when they were together, and so they regrouped on the Sea of Cortez during the early 1990s. There the Buntins ran a charter boat business for the tourists. Some of the boys married Mexican women, then the whole group relocated to Hawaii in 2006 and resumed business, bagpipes, belly dancing and all.
“There were only 50 of us then,” Brady said. “Last time we counted, I think there was 60 or so. Every time we count, someone else has a kid. I think there’s going to be 61 at the end of this year.”
After six or seven years in Hawaii, where another couple of brothers married locals, the clan weighed anchor once again and headed back to Washington so Rupert could eat salmon and Dungeness crab, which he missed, Brady said.
“He’s really footloose,” he said. “My dad just loves to travel, loves to see the world. That’s how we grew up. Every few years he’s like, ‘Let’s go somewhere else.’ He’s always saying there’s too much of the world not to see.”
But after four years of cold, damp life in the Northwest, Rupert’s thoughts turned to his first home — Texas.
“He came down here last February,” Brady said. “He’d never been to the Gulf. He could not believe South Padre Island. It was just like a jewel. So he called up the family and said, ‘I’m not coming back to Washington,’ so we sold all of our businesses and moved down here.”
The clan came down in batches, with Brady moving his family here about one year ago. The clan has been busy sprucing up its restaurant/bar while trying to hang on to the “washed-out beach feel,” he said.
“You can pull your boat up, gut your fish on the dock, and walk up and have a drink,” Brady said.
Lobo del Mar has two boats and offers parasailing, fishing charters, dolphin tours, sunset cruises and watercraft rentals. The family kept on most of the staff, has installed a new kitchen and tweaked the menu, Brady said.
“We kept all of the good stuff,” he said. “We’re just adding more stuff that we like to eat and upping the quality of everything. Keeping the prices low but upping the quality. The family eats here. We like good food.”
Brady describes the family as “laid back people” who work seven days a week.
“Except for me,” he said. “I just try to look busy.”
Carrying on a ritual the Buntins have observed for years, every evening at sundown the pipes come out. No matter where in the world they happen to be, Rupert wants to hear the pipes every night before he goes to bed, Brady said.
Business is good, meanwhile, and the people are “awesome,” he said. As for the chances of restlessness one day causing the family to up and leave, Brady declined to speculate.
“We don’t make plans like that, but I’ll tell you this about South Padre Island: From what I’ve seen and all the brothers and sisters I’ve talked to, this is the favorite place we’ve ever lived,” he said.