In title and abovet: Sea turtle hatchlings making their way to the ocean. Trenches are dug to the water’s edge to facilitate their trek from their nests to the water. Mike Reynolds/Share the Beach photos
Below: To protect bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf, area conservation groups established viewing practices, including not feeding or swimming with wild dolphins. The Dolphin Ecology Project photo
Since 2007, the Nature Tourism Initiative–a collaboration between tourism and conservation agencies–has been evaluating and working with nature-based businesses in order to ensure quality experiences for visitors and encourage good stewardship of coastal natural resources. The sea turtles are one of the initiative’s success stories.
Sharing the Beach
“When tourists lounge on the beach or fish the shoreline, few are aware they’re sharing the beach with nesting sea turtles,” said Mike Reynolds, executive director of Share the Beach. “Our mission is to help preserve and protect sea turtle nests and assist in mitigating the effects of harmful beach lighting that’s been the result of urbanization–beachfront condos and businesses. We work to shield the light from new hatchlings.”
New hatchlings naturally are drawn to the lightest thing they see, which is the water. They follow the light into the sea. Without reaching the water, they’ll die. Artificial lights from businesses and condos distract hatchlings, leading them in the wrong direction.
“Before we can monitor the nests, we have to find them,” said Reynolds. “Volunteers walk the beaches every morning looking for turtle tracks.”
Share the Beach assembles and trains volunteers to walk and search portions of approximately 40 miles of Alabama beaches from Perdido Key at the Florida-Alabama state line to Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island. Once nests are located, they are roped off and surrounded by light-blocking shields. The nests are watched over until they hatch. In preparation of the hatching, trenches are dug to the water’s edge. Visitors, who often stumble along nest watchers while vacationing in the area, also are invited to volunteer to help.
“This is an open process and people love to get involved, ” said Reynolds in regard to volunteering. “We encourage anyone interested to come and be a part of the process and observe. Sometimes we need extra help counting hatchlings or digging a trench.”
Sea turtles nest from May to October. Volunteers are recruited to assist along Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in Alabama, and South Walton Beach in Florida. The level of involvement will determine how much training is needed.
“Anyone is welcome to come and observe our night watches. You may get lucky and witness a nest hatching,” Reynolds said.
Viewing wildlife safely was the catalyst that established the Dolphin SMART Program, which sets guidelines for both professional and individual recreational boat owners to protect wild dolphins. The five points of the program are:
- Stay at least 50 yards from dolphins
- Move away cautiously if dolphins show signs of disturbance
- Always put your engine in neutral when dolphins are near
- Refrain from feeding, touching, or swimming with wild dolphins
- Teach others to be safe around dolphins
Joanne McDonough, nature tourism specialist for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, explained how Dolphin SMART educates and certifies tour operators in viewing practices that will protect and preserve one of Alabama’s most valuable natural wonders, the bottlenose dolphin.
“As nature tourism continues to grow along the Alabama Gulf Coast, balancing the dual roles of conservation and public access is a challenge,” said McDonough. “The Dolphin SMART program offers boat operators the opportunity to set examples of good stewardship and sustainable wildlife viewing.”
Dolphin SMART was developed in partnership with the National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Dolphin Ecology Project, and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. Dolphin SMART tours are easily recognized; look for the display of the program’s logos and current year flags.
Cetacean Cruises was the first dolphin cruise operator to become recognized as a Dolphin SMART tour in Orange Beach, Ala. Cetacean owner Captain Bill Mitchell offers dolphin and a combination dolphin and nature cruise aboard two vessels, a 52-foot Hawaiian catamaran sailboat and a glass bottom 40-foot pontoon boat. Cetacean’s pontoon boat’s shallow draft allows it to meander through backwater creeks and swamps where gator- and aquatic bird-watching is at its best.
After casting off, it doesn’t take long for dolphins to appear and escort the boat around the bay.
“That one (dolphin) we call Mr. Friendly,” said Mitchell. “He’ll follow us until we set off into the backwaters, where you’ll never know what might be around the bend. Sometimes we’ll see deer along the shoreline, an alligator sunbathing or catch a nesting osprey.”
To explore more of the Gulf Coast’s natural wonders, get off the beach and discover the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center at the 48,000-acre Nokuse Plantation in Freeport, Fla. The center is open Friday–Sunday from June–August, and on Saturday during the school year. Its mission is to educate children and engage adults in the importance of conservation and the role it plays in sustainability. Visitors learn about the natural environment through interpretive exhibits and hands-on nature programs that incorporate Nokuse Plantation’s extensive trail system.
The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail was designated as a National Recreation Trail by the Department of Interior in 2010. Backcountry boasts 11 miles of paved and natural trails through the city limits of Orange Beach and Gulf State Park. The Mississippi/Alabama Flyway provides excellent bird-watching while hiking or biking along what was once abandoned roadbeds and Indian trails. Signs along the trails identify flora and fauna, area locations, and services. Two-hour guided eco-tours in covered electric carts are available for $15, and reservations are required.
Unlike many natural trails, Backcountry offers a few modern comforts for visitors. There is a screened picnic pavilion with an adjoining butterfly garden and restrooms, which are all handicap accessible.
Another treasure, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, is a haven for more than 370 bird species, sea turtles, and various native mammals, including fox, alligator, wild boar, and the endangered Alabama beach mouse. It’s an apt name because Bon Secour’s translation from French means “safe harbor.”
The reserve encompasses beaches, sand dunes, scrub forest, salt and fresh water marshes, and swamps. Collectively, these elements comprise Bon Secour’s standout feature, the largest undeveloped accessible land parcel on the Alabama coast. Getting out on one of the trails is the best way to experience Bon Secour.
And the best way to enjoy Alabama’s beautiful beaches is to be mindful of their diverse and fragile natural beauty.
Suzanne Corbett is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.