While in Gulf Shores, AL, we made sure to take the Mobile Bay Ferry over to Dauphin Island to further explore the area.
We picked a calm, sunny day and drove to Fort Morgan again to catch the ferry. When you reach Dauphin Island, there are several attractions within walking distance of the ferry’s landing: the estuarium, Fort Gaines and the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. The sanctuary and the estuarium were at the top of our list, so we decided to leave our truck behind and spend the day on foot with a packed lunch. Since we had just visited Fort Morgan, we decided to pass on Fort Gaines.
Mobile Bay Ferry: The ferry holds 28 cars at a time, and the trip lasts about 30 minutes one way. It is a great way to get out on the water and to get a closer look at the oil and natural gas rigs. We actually got to see a helicopter land on one of the rigs – you can see it in the video below. On our return trip, there were dolphins swimming ahead of us.
Here is the video. We do not talk at all in it, so if you don’t want to hear the humming of the ferry’s engine, you can mute it. If you want an authentic experience, you can leave your volume up – you will hear me in the background chatting up a nice lady from Michigan that we met. Enjoy the ride…
Audubon Bird Sanctuary: Why is this worth a stop? This bird sanctuary is ranked as the 4th best in North America!!! It is one of the first stops for migratory birds who make the long flight over the Gulf. As such, the variety of birds include sub-tropical species. The Spring and Fall are the best times for birding at this migratory stop. What types of birds can you expect to see? Painted buntings, scarlet tanagers, and so many more. The sanctuary offers almost 5 miles of trails with access to Gator Lake (there are alligators here, but we did not see them) and the beach. We were too early in the season to connect with the migratory birds, but we did see herons, turtles, bluebirds, mocking birds, an egret, and we had lunch on the beach beneath an osprey in its nest.
Estuarium: The beauty of visiting this estuarium is that it focuses on the Tensaw River Delta, Mobile Bay and the Gulf ecosystems. It also functions as a Sea Lab for several universities. They have plenty of species of fish and animals that are local, and they share about how these local ecosystems function and how they have been impacted by oil spills and hurricanes.
As we were leaving the estuarium, we were right on time with when the ferry would be leaving to return us to Fort Morgan. If we missed the ferry, we would have to wait over an hour for the next one. We were being cognizant of the time, but as we left the building, we saw some movement around the outside wall. I went in for a closer look, and there were people surrounding a touch pool. One pleading look at Chris, and he knew we were going to need a few more minutes.
“Go ahead, Jen.” Chris allowed.
We walked over to the tank and sallied up to a woman with her 2 children, as 7 sting rays glided past us. The touch pool was fairly large with a 12 foot diameter and the water was about 3 feet deep. Due to its size, you had to pick your moment carefully and wait for the sting rays to rise enough to be touched.
The sun sparkled off the surface of the water, as we patiently waited for the rays to complete their circle. As they came around the second time, I was ready. I felt the first gelatinouse wing as it swam by and then reached for another. As I was reaching forward, I noticed that something was swimming in the water behind the flock of sting rays, and it was much lighter in color. That’s odd, it was more elongated than the rays. Wait – I can see it now…it is…a shark!!!
My hand flew out of the water just as the silver body rounded near me, and the woman next to us jumped in the air.
“I know it must be safe if they have it in the tank, but my instincts make me jump every time!” she exclaimed.
What kind of touch pool was this? That shark was 3 feet long! I let out a nervous laugh, as I contemplated what was happening. I wasn’t sure of the species of shark. It did not look like a true hammerhead, but it’s head was scalloped. While my rational side began to sway my judgement and Chris reminded me that we were going to be sprinting to the ferry; I threw caution to the wind…I wasn’t leaving until I touched that shark.
As the rays and shark rounded again they were too deep for my reach. I had to bide my time. The next time, they were making their circle within reach. I didn’t waste any time on the rays, I focused in on the shark. Still not sure that it was actually safe, I decided I would go for the tail and avoid the head completely. It came within reach fast, and I pushed my hand down through the water. I touched the shark’s tail, and he jumped sideways in the water.
“What, did you punch him?” Chris accusingly asked.
“No, but I did poke him pretty hard. I did not want to miss him.” I replied.
So, I touched a shark, along with the rays. The shark was felt more muscular and less like jelly, but the skin was smooth. I wish I had had more time to reenter the estuarium and find out why a shark was in the touch pool, but we were already running behind. Chris grabbed my arm and we took off running. We made it to the ferry just in time, and we enjoyed our return ride on the water.
If you get a chance to visit Dauphin Island, take the ferry, and please find out at the estuarium what the deal is with the shark.
Fun Facts & Logistics:
- The ferry runs every hour and a half in the winter (there are 2 ferries in the summer). We paid $10 for the two of us roundtrip – we thought that was very reasonable. The fee for two adults and a vehicle is around $35. See the ferry website for more details. You can take a bike on the ferry for free, and Dauphin Island had a great bike path. If you plan to take a vehicle, get there early! They filled the vehicle spots 20 min. before the ferry was scheduled to leave – it was the mid-morning ferry, probably their most popular. There are public restrooms at both landings.
- The bird sanctuary is free. Take your binoculars.
- The estuarium costs $10 per adult.