At first glance, it’s a little misleading. If you go in the late wintertime, the water might look just a little bit murky. The air might be a little dark and cloudy, more than you imagined it would be; and the grass along the shore might look more like pieces of straw stuck into the mud than the lush grasslands you might have read about in your guidebook. You might not, at first, see any animals at all.
It might be windy, too, and surprisingly cold, especially if you happen to take out a boat on a cloudy day. The good news, though, is that they will have blankets–piles of them–on board, and you’ll want to take at least two of them, one for your head and one to wrap around your body and, if you can, your legs.
This was my introduction to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, a place that, before I’d gone to the gulf shores of Alabama, I couldn’t have located on a map. I couldn’t have told you, either, that what started out as a tepid introduction on a cold winter day turned into a fascinating two-hour exploration of what is considered the best remaining delta ecosystem of its kind in the whole United States, a place so diverse it supports nearly a thousand different animal species.
We were spending the morning with WildNative Tours, a tour company based out of the 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort, Alabama, a small town near the larger city of Mobile. Our guide, Michael, introduced himself and told us some of the need-to-know details before we boarded the boat: details like in addition to the many species it supports, the delta is also the second-largest in the entire country. There are over 200 miles of trails around the area, tons of amping sites, fishing and hunting opportunities, and kayaks for rent. I loved listening to his Southern drawl as he ticked off all the ways families and friends could enjoy a place that is beloved to him.
We climbed into the safari boat and started our tour down the river. As we drifted, Michael regaled us with stories about people hiring him to help them hunt alligators at night, about the fact that he might have more European tourists than American ones (and why was that?), and about the 126 species of fish that live year-round in the warm waters. We shared some of our own Alabama stories with him, stories that mostly centered around all the good food we’d eaten and all the parades and balls we’d attended. (It was kind of a gluttonous week).
About an hour into our safari, something started to change. I don’t know if it was the fact that I’d gotten accustomed to the bitter cold or the fierce wind, but the delta started to reveal itself to me in unexpected ways.
It started with the birds. First, an eagle. Then, a family of ospreys, and a group of herons. Then, we turned a corner and a flock of white herons were swooping in and eating bugs off the grasses in the water. Next to them were some tiny egrets, pecking the sandy shore in search of their own breakfasts. In the trees, we spotted some pelicans, and we watched as they sailed down, beaks open, and picked up fish.
I started thinking about the fact that we are so accustomed to seeing one kind of water in our Instagram feeds, photos with bodies of water that have been doctored up, saturated with blue, lightened to look like the water is nearly clear, that we forget that there are other kinds of waters, too. Waters like the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, which, in the wintertime, aren’t clear at all but are perfectly dark and mysterious. Perfect for hiding fish and roaming alligators. There’s something beautiful about a place that is unencumbered like this, a rich, diverse home to hundreds upon hundreds of birds, reptiles, and mammals. There are even bears in the woods, I heard. This is a place that is loved.
By the end of the morning, cruising the delta rose right to the top of my week in Alabama.
Article and photographs by Kristin Winet. All opinions are her own. A special thanks to Verna Gates and the Alabama Tourism Department for sponsoring her trip and introducing her to Mobile!