By Land & Sea
What creatures will you encounter along Alabama’s Gulf Coast?
by Mark O'Brien
Ospreys, bald eagles and herons fly over the shimmering water, home to colorful fish and marine life as well as intriguing sites for divers and snorkelers to explore. Kayakers mingle with other vessels as they enjoy the water, either the Gulf of Mexico or calmer inland bays, rivers, creeks and marshes. And at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge—one of Alabama's 10 natural wonders—thousands of animals nestle in woods, beaches and inlets. Bon Secour lives up to its French name, "safe harbor." The refuge's 7,000 acres protect threatened and endangered species in dunes, swales, wetlands and scrub habitats. But humans can easily see large parts of it, thanks to trails, boats and tours.
Whatever your pleasure in outdoor activities, you will find it in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, where 32 miles of coastline creates amazing natural habitats.
Dolphins enjoy Gulf Shores and Orange Beach for the same reasons humans do: Plenty of warm clean water and tasty seafood.
Bottlenose dolphins are so plentiful that the playful creatures are often the main attraction on a dolphin cruise. Take your choice of vessels—schooners, sailboats, glass-bottomed vessels—and see plenty of other wildlife on your memorable voyage.
Bottlenose dolphins, which get their name from their bottle-shaped beaks, come in many shades of gray. Some captains know the dolphins so well that they can recognize them by their fins.
Millions of migratory birds pass through every spring and fall, joining the local egrets, skimmers and loons that reside in woods, swamps, and rivers that are never far from the main roads.
The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail will keep birders occupied for days. It covers 200 miles along six routes, stopping at parks, beaches and nature preserves that make the area a birder's mecca.
Birds aren't the only animals you will find in some parks, especially the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail. Its 13-plus miles of paved trails are great for biking, jogging or walking—with benches thoughtfully located here and there.
Butterflies, alligators, deer and other animals share the diverse habitat—swamps, old pine forests, a pitcher plant bog and a coastal ecosystem that has been evolving for centuries. Children will like Boulder Park for rock-climbing.
If you want to get underwater yourself, you have numerous options. Snorkeling and diving choices include close-to-shore and deep-sea expeditions, with opportunities to take photos, spear fish or just enjoy time in the deep.
The LuLu, a 271-foot freighter, was sunk in the gulf in 2013 and already has attracted a wide array of marine life. Other reefs are right offshore. The Whiskey Wreck, for instance, is only 150 yards offshore from Gulf Shores. Nearby areas let snorkelers and divers examine kelp forests and brilliant coral that attract many fish and plant life. For more advanced divers, there's the USS Oriskany, the world's largest artificial reef, more than 200 feet under water and 24 miles south of neighboring Pensacola.
Another fun way to eyeball nature up-close is via kayak, a safe, quiet method to travel creeks and rivers. Want to go fishing? Rent a fishing kayak, which leaves both hands free for reeling in your catch. Launch points are easily accessible, letting you decide where to begin and end your visit to this aquatic wonderland.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach support the Dolphin SMART program and Coastal Nature Guide, which provide visitors with guidelines for enjoying the natural beauty of the area without disrupting the wildlife or the habitat.
Connect with nature; download the Backcountry App to navigate the trails in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores!
Six trails make up more than 11 miles of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, and this easy-to-use app will help you navigate the trails.