Riding across the three-mile bridge into Dauphin Island is like slipping into a time capsule and finding, among long-hidden artifacts, the iconic family beach vacation. A place where fun was found hunting seashells in the surf or feeling a tug at the end of the fishing line. Where shoes were immediately kicked off and never put back on until the station wagon was loaded up to head back home.

Here, there are no rowdy bars or jam-packed beaches; no high-rise condos blocking the burnt orange sunsets over the Gulf. There’s only one hotel – and it’s a classic motel. Traffic signals are virtually nonexistent, and most roads don’t allow cars to travel above 30 miles per hour. Even restaurants live on island time, always welcoming but in no rush to seat the hungry. And an early morning cup of coffee is as hard to find on the island as an icicle in July.

What can be found is the embrace of wildlife and history in a quiet community that hides well the scars of Mother Nature and industry. A sanctuary where birdwatchers flock to see a spectacular variety of species – and researchers wade knee-deep in the wetlands, seeking ways to save endangered sea life. And a land that remembers the tragedy of its past – one cannon blast at a time.

 

The Wondrous Estuary

If the Alabama Gulf Coast were painted on a canvas, Dauphin Island would be a single brushstroke, a thick dollop of land on its east side – gradually trailing off toward the west. Like all barrier islands, the borders of this 6.5-mile swath of sand and seashells consistently change at the will of Mother Nature. Through the years, hurricanes have washed out – and washed back in – the long tail at the island’s west end. Houses here are elevated to accommodate the inevitable high tides.

The island plays an important role in protecting much of the state’s coastal resources from winds and waves.

It also harbors estuarine habitats such as oyster reefs, marshes and seagrasses, making it the ideal location for the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, the state’s primary marine education and research center.

The Sea Lab, which occupies land that used to host a U.S. Air Force radar, offers education camps and programs for students in Kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as college and graduate students. Visitors will also find the Estuarium, an aquarium with hands-on exhibits showcasing the four key habitats of coastal Alabama.

On this day, Samantha Linhardt sits at the table in Dr. Kenneth Heck’s lab in the far reaches of the campus. Tweezers in hand, she meticulously sifts through a container of soggy seagrass, separating roots from leaves and veins to study factors that threaten the health of the marine plants. On the floor just feet away are a half-dozen pairs of haphazardly strewn boots, remnants of the team’s recent romp in the seagrass meadows near Florida’s Port St. Joe to obtain the specimen.

What’s happening here supports the ongoing health of the entire Gulf Coast. And the expertise of Sea Lab personnel extends beyond preservation and conservation. These professionals have been called upon amid crises, including during the recovery from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

They rarely draw headlines. But for nearly 50 years, the work of the Sea Lab team has helped restore, preserve and maintain the Gulf for future generations.

 

Birds of a Feather

The most beautiful sight to cross Andrew Haffenden’s binoculars happened seven years ago, shortly after he moved to Dauphin Island. He spotted a snowy plover mother teaching her hours-old chick to forage for food in the white sand. He pulled out his camera and snapped a photo. “It’s pretty grainy, but still …” From that moment, he was hooked on spying plovers and other shorebirds that descend onto the island during migration season. He’s hardly alone.

Andrew Haffenden is a respected photographer on Dauphin Island since moving there seven years ago./GARY TRAMONTINA PHOTO

Dauphin Island is home to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, one of the top four locations on the continent to view spring migrations, a vitally important stretch of protected forest, marshes and dunes for neo-tropical migrant birds. About 445 species have been documented here, many of whom fly hundreds of miles nonstop across the Gulf from places like the Yucatan Peninsula, making their first landfall at Dauphin Island. The birds often arrive exhausted and weakened from their long flight, sometimes hours from death and in desperate search of nourishment. Once recovered, most continue northward for the months ahead.

Not long after the island was incorporated in 1988, the town sought and obtained sanctuary status, which protects 137 acres from development. During migration, birdwatchers from around the world vigorously tweet and text to fellow enthusiasts their miraculous finds and the best places along the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail to spot them.

Some favorite spots include Indian Shell Mound Park, Pelican Point, the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, Cadillac Square and Goat Tree Reserve. Common sightings include warblers, piping plovers, terns, gulls and, on rare occasions, reddish egrets. Serious birdwatchers can refer to the Audubon Society’s Trail Guide & Checklist.

 

Standing Guard

In the summer, when temperatures reach well into the 90s and there are few clouds to shield the relentless sun, the interior of Fort Gaines is like an oven, blocking the steady breeze of the nearby coast and amplifying the gunfire blast from a 12-pound field artillery piece to a near-deafening decibel. The well-preserved ramparts and original cannons at the eastern end of Dauphin Island have stood watch at the entrance to Mobile Bay for more than 150 years. Long retired, they are a popular draw for field trippers and history buffs.

Fort Gaines is one of the key sites in the famous Battle of Mobile Bay, an engagement of the American Civil War, during which U.S. Admiral David Farragut shouted his order, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

One of the best-preserved Civil War-era masonry forts in the country, Fort Gaines now houses a museum, tunnels and a blacksmith shop that give a peek at what life was like within well-planned harbor fortification. On most days, a tour guide donning period attire fires a cannon, and a blacksmith pounds glowing bars of hot steel against an anvil near a blazing coal fire.

Fort Gaines sits across the Mobile Channel from another preserved historic site, Fort Morgan, which can be accessed by the Mobile Bay Ferry.

 

Island Life

The amateur captain of a bay boat who was born and raised on Dauphin Island (now a corporate type by day) takes acquaintances into the Gulf, where views of the horizon are interrupted by distant oil rigs and shrimp trawlers surrounded by a festival of pelicans. He says in his fluid Southern drawl that Dauphin Island is really just a fishing village at heart. Those who come expecting a resort vibe will be disappointed. Those who come to fish will be elated.

“That’s why people come here,” says Barry Collier. He is a commercial fisherman who runs trucks to Kentucky to sell the fresh-caught Gulf seafood (especially red snapper) at his market, AB Seafood. “I’ve fished all over the world. If someone were to ask me where’s the best place to fish, I’d say Dauphin Island. I’m not saying that because I live here, but because of the broad range of species and the abundance of fish,” he says. “It’s as good as any place in the world.”

The secret has apparently gotten out. Each July, Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo brings more than 3,000 anglers and 75,000 spectators to town. These waters are ripe with red snapper, redfish, Spanish and king mackerel, cobia, amberjack, blue marlin, wahoo, mahi, swordfish and tuna. There are no shortages of deep-sea fishing charters either, leaving little doubt that the best meals here are prepared in kitchens and beachside grills.

Collier grew up fishing on the island, riding his bike and catching crabs. The beach, of course, is the beach. But the small inland swatch, with its modest homes and narrow streets, he says, “is just like being in rural America.”

I think we offer something you don’t find much anymore along the Gulf Coast.
Jeff Collier, Mayor of Dauphin

“I think we offer something you don’t find much anymore along the Gulf Coast,” adds Jeff Collier, Barry’s cousin and the town’s longtime mayor. He won a seat on the city council when the town incorporated more than 30 years ago, and has served as mayor since 1997. He admits Dauphin Island could have capitalized on its costal status, but that would have killed its small-town charm. Now, that charm is its selling point.

“People come here to get away from civilization. Just chill,” he says. “They like us for what we don’t have as much as what we do.”

The bay boat captain couldn’t agree more. He docks his boat and lends a hand to help the writer and photographer back onto dry land, but pauses before leaving them to tell the story of Dauphin Island. “Don’t make us look too good,” he says with a smile. “We like it this way.”