The sun is preparing to set over the Gulf, its bright orange band backlighting the beach houses and condos that ring the lagoon. Your paddle dips quietly into the water, guiding your kayak silently across the turquoise water as you head home following a fun day on the water.
As you make your way back to shore, you find yourself being escorted by several graceful bottlenose dolphins breaking the surface of the water next to your boat, so close that you can almost reach out and touch them. It’s an incredible sight and the ultimate way to finish your paddle.
Two of the most playful, inquisitive, and graceful sea creatures make kayaking along the Alabama Gulf Coast an exciting adventure -- bottlenose dolphins and the “gentle giants” of the sea, manatees. But it’s not as easy as merely putting your kayak in the water and poof, there they are.
Let’s take a look at these fascinating and fun creatures, give you some tips on how to see them, and tell you about a few of the best places in Alabama where you have your best shot at seeing them.
1. Dolphins And People
While dolphins are friendly and inquisitive when it comes to visiting with people, they still tend to be a little shy. You never know when (or where) they might pop up, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t see one. Just be patient and keep trying.
The most common dolphin you will see is the bottlenose with its grey upper body color, light grey to white belly, and what looks like a perpetual smile. There are others like the Atlantic spotted dolphin, but they are extremely rare to spot since they prefer deeper water.
2. Sea Cows, Mermaids, And Manatees, Oh My
What’s the difference between sea cows, manatees, and mermaids? Nothing. They are all the same.
Early sea voyagers believed these gentle giants were “female figures swimming in the ocean.” They called them mermaids.
Officially, they are called West Indian manatees and are actually closely related to elephants. They sport short, trunk-like snouts with long whiskers that protrude from their full, round heads. Their pouty eyes are small pitch-black dots, and their body is a thick barrel with flippers on each side. The body’s shape tapers down into a powerful, flat tail flipper.
Manatees are uniquely adapted to live in a variety of environments -- salt, brackish, and fresh water, all of which can be found in Mobile Bay, the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, and the Gulf around Mobile.
Even though they can live in the salty Gulf waters, they still require an adequate daily supply of fresh water to survive.
3. Best Time To Visit
Manatees can be found year-round in the waters of Florida, but when the heat of summer moves in, they head out and move up to the central Gulf -- the Alabama Gulf Coast -- where they are found in water anywhere from 3 to 7 feet like those found in Mobile Bay or 10 to 16 feet deep in the Gulf waters. They prefer to live in shallow, slow-moving rivers, back bays, and estuaries with water temperatures over 60 degrees.
Your best bet is to take to the water between June and late August if you want to see one. Just remember, they can be an elusive find, even more than dolphins. And even though they are big (anywhere between 1,200 and 1,600 pounds), they tend to blend in with Mobile Bay and the delta’s dark waters, hide in the thick delta grasses, and stay underwater for up to 20 minutes.
Dolphins, on the other hand, can be found frolicking in the waves just about year-round. But that doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed to see them. They like their privacy, too. One day you will be surrounded by them, the next, not one. Patience will be rewarded.
4. Paddling With Dolphins
As we’ve mentioned, spotting dolphins while kayaking is still a chance encounter, but when you do paddle with a pod, do not overstress them by getting too close or making any aggressive moves closer to them. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has established guidelines for safe viewing of marine life.
Best Places To Paddle With Dolphins
One of the best places to experience a paddle with the dolphins in Alabama is Pelican Island, a 3- to 5-mile-long circuit around a spit of sand that juts out into the Gulf from Dauphin Island. The island (which is actually just a peninsula) is beautiful in and of itself, with hundreds of brown pelicans and seagulls vying for their daily meal.
This trip is not recommended for beginners unless accompanied by an experienced “Yaker.” The put-in is at the public beach 1 mile west of the Dauphin Island Bridge on Bienville Boulevard.
Another fun paddle where you may catch the waves with dolphins is the Intercoastal Waterway. The waterway stretches from Florida to Texas, tucked neatly behind barrier islands where commercial barges navigate their way from port to port in the protected waters. The wide, slow-flowing channel also gives us another chance to paddle with dolphins.
Put in at Happy Harbor on County Road 6 in Gulf Shores. From there, paddle south a half-mile and turn right (to the west) down a narrow channel that in 1 mile arrives at Bon Secour Bay where you can explore the shoreline and, with luck, meet up with some dolphins and possibly a manatee or two.
Wolf Bay, which is part of the Orange Beach Canoe Trail, is a wide bay where fresh water from several streams mixes with the salt water of the Gulf to create a fertile ecosystem. Alligators, eagles, and any number of animals and birds will be seen as well as manatees and dolphins.
For this paddle, put in at the beautiful oak-lined Orange Beach Waterfront Park, then choose your path. Whichever direction you paddle, you’re in for a fun day, and the dolphins are waiting.
5. Paddling With Manatees
The volunteers and scientists at the non-profit Save-the-Manatee organization tell us that if you spot a manatee, view it by practicing “passive observation.” Always keep a safe distance, around 100 feet. Avoid excessive noise and splashing, and do not touch them. Above all else, do not feed them or give them water.
Best Places To Paddle With Manatees
Your best bet is to visit the Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s Manatee Sighting website. Here you’ll see a map of where they have been spotted over the years and where you will most likely be able to see them again. The map shows that Alabama has become a hot spot for manatee sightings, with the loveable “mermaid” traveling deep into Mobile Bay and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
If you do spot a manatee, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab asks that you report it to their 24-hour sighting hotline so that they can help protect these gentle giants for years to come.
6. Safety First
Keeping the dolphins and manatees safe is important, but don’t forget about your own safety.
It’s best to travel with an experienced guide, especially if you are a novice paddler. They will keep you safe and take you to the best possible viewing locations.
Whether you are in the enclosed waters of a lagoon or Mobile Bay or out on the Gulf itself, high winds and seas, dangerous rip currents, and severe pop-up thunderstorms can turn an otherwise fun day into a tragic one in the blink of an eye.
And always, ALWAYS, wear a U.S. Coast Guard certified life jacket.
7. Guides And Rentals
Even if you are an experienced paddler, taking a guided tour is always the best. They know the best places to visit. The Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism website has a link to the best guides in the area.