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Alabama Gulf Coast: Back and better than ever

Albama Gulf Coast offers dolphin-watching cruises

Alabama’s Gulf Coast is one wild place.

It’s a different sort of wild than what you would find at Flora-Bama, the rollicking outdoor nightclub on the Florida state line, or any of the other beach bars frequented by the sand-and-sandals crowd. This is wild as in “wildlife,” the kind of place where you may come face to face with a lemur, a dolphin, an alligator or one of the hundreds of other critters that make their homes in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Although Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and the other towns in the coastal region of Alabama enjoy a reputation as family-oriented beach vacation destinations, visitors with a taste for wild encounters will find abundant opportunities to explore the waters, wetlands and other natural areas along the coast.

I spent several days in the area last fall as a guest of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. During my visit, I enjoyed great seafood, great weather and some wonderful close-up experiences with animals commonplace and exotic.

From shrimp to stingrays
If you spend much time in the Deep South, you’ve likely eaten some of the shrimp, oysters, crabs and other seafood that comes from the waters of the Gulf — I have, especially on this trip. So while aboard a nature cruise with Sailaway Charters I was fascinated to learn more about these creatures and how they are harvested from the ocean.

Captain Skip Beebee operates Sailaway Charters from a small boat docked in a residential area of Orange Beach. I joined the captain and a handful of other visitors on a nature cruise of the bays and bayous in the area. During our hour-and-a-half-long cruise, Beebee demonstrated many of the techniques used by commercial fishers to catch fish and other creatures from the local waters.

“I try to show everyone in two hours most of what I’ve seen in 13 years of living here,” the captain said as we pulled out into the gulf waters. “When I moved here, I had no idea that there was such great shrimping in my own back yard.”

Once we got out a short distance from shore, the captain cast a net from the back of the boat, and we began trawling for shrimp. After several minutes, Beebee began pulling the nets up, and the entire group circled around to see what we had caught.

Beebee emptied the contents of the nets into a large tray on the boat. By my count, there were at least 16 types of fish, mollusks, shrimp and other creatures. For each one, Beebee held up a specimen and pointed out its distinguishing characteristics, such as the markings on the underside of a blue crab that indicate its sex.

In addition to the small animals we expected to see, our trawling that day also brought up a trio of large, beautiful stingrays.

The excursion also included a check of several crab traps, where we found a number of stone crabs and blue crabs, as well as a visit to the bayou area where oysters grow.

“Alabama is lined with this marsh grass,” Beebee said. “That’s where everything likes to hide, and it’s what makes this area so good for oysters.”

Dolphin express
On another sunny afternoon, I boarded another boat on an expedition into the gulf to see more sea creatures. The cruise is called Dolphin Express, and the goal of the experience is to see as many dolphins as possible.

The dolphins in this part of the gulf inhabit deeper waters, so as we cruised from the marina in Foley, Captain Ritchie Russell played tropical music, told some jokes and gave us some background information on the animals we were about to see.

“Dolphins can dive as deep as 200 feet and can stay underwater for eight minutes before coming up for air,” he said. “And if you look closely at their dorsal fins, you’ll see that no two dolphins are exactly alike.”

Dolphins travel in groups called pods, and it seemed that Russell and his crew knew exactly where their favorite pod of dolphins could be found. State law prohibits boaters from throwing fish into the water to attract the dolphins, so they began to swing the boat around in large arcs, telling us to look off to the bow. The captain said that the dolphins love swimming through boat wake, because it helps them clean themselves.

At first we saw one, then several dolphins jumping up through the wake. They were beautiful, larger than I expected, and moved through the water with a surprising grace and speed. As they jumped from the water, they would arc, twist and squeal — almost as if they were putting on a show.

Animal encounters
Lemurs love cameras. That’s not to say they enjoy being photographed; rather, these energetic, curious animals love to nibble on, lick and play with cameras and any other expensive electronic equipment that comes across their paths.

At the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, groups can get up close and personal with lemurs and numerous other animals.

“We’re a little zoo,” said director Patti Hall. “We’re very hands-on and personal. We want people to touch and feel and smell and feed.”

I took Hall up on the offer to experience the lemur encounter, one of the zoo’s most popular interactive programs. We entered an enclosed tent with a handful of other visitors and sat in a circle. A zookeeper then brought in a quartet of juvenile lemurs, exotic members of the primate family native to the island nation of Madagascar.

As soon as they entered the tent, the lemurs leapt into a frenzy, playing a fast-paced game of follow-the-leader in circles around the tent. After a few minutes, though, they became curious about us and began to jump into our laps, paw at our faces and grab our cameras, sunglasses and anything else they could find to play with. By the end of the session, the lemurs were snuggled in our arms as we rubbed their bellies.

The lemur program is one of several encounters at the zoo. Guests can also pet baby kangaroos in the outback area or hold a seven-foot-long albino python or a baby alligator in the reptile encounter.

With some special planning, groups can also arrange to have feeding encounters with a pack of wolves or even a pair of Siberian tigers named Salt and Pepper.

Kings of the swamp

In 2004, Summerdale local Wes More converted several acres of cypress swampland he owned into an alligator refuge because, as he told me, “it’s safer than teaching school, and chicks love an alligator man.” Since then, Alligator Alley has become a fascinating inland attraction with more than 170 alligators living in their native Alabama habitat.

When I visited, staff caretaker Evan Wheeler showed me around the grounds of Alligator Alley, telling me about the gators and how they came to live there.

“We’re a nuisance-alligator rescue sanctuary,” he said. “We’ve got 173 that have free reign of the swamp. On any given day, I see 60 to 70 of them.”

I quickly lost track of the number of gators I saw during my visit, which included a walk around the elevated boardwalk that Moore and his friends had built through the swamp. Many of the reptiles hide just below the surface of the water, but I saw dozens sitting lazily on higher ground as well.

During our walk through the property, Wheeler explained the gators’ social structure, which is dominated by the largest, fiercest alpha males. “Here, if you’re not at least 13 feet long, you get no love,” he said.

At the top of the pecking order is “The Colonel,” a 131⁄2-foot gator that weighs some 900 pounds. But more notorious than that is “Captain Crunch,” an adult gator so aggressive that the caretakers have isolated him from all other creatures at the sanctuary. Captain Crunch holds the world record for the most forceful bite of any animal on earth: When his jaws snap down on a bit of prey or other piece of food, they exert 2,982 pounds of force. It takes only 400 to 500 pounds to break a human’s leg.

But the highlight of my visit was feeding time. With a long pole in one hand, Wheeler hopped over the safety fence into the gators’ territory, bringing with him a cooler full of pork parts. One by one, the gators lunged out of the water with jaws wide open.

Wheeler made a game of throwing the hunks of food into the gators’ gullets, hearing a satisfying “plunk” as their jaws snapped around the food.

“I do this three times a day every day,” he said, “and it never gets any less cool.”