Like a dutiful shrimping crew, we wait. And when Captain Skip finally stops the boat and hauls up the net, now filled with pinks, browns and whites (check, check, check), as well as schools of other Wolf Bay tagalongs — puffer fish, mullets, menhadens, mud flounders, croakers, pinfish, catfish, silver eels, bay anchovies (all check) and then (whoa!) a surprise 40-pound tarpon (not on Skip’s checklist) — it gets even better.
Up come the dolphins, six of them, right at the boat, literally snorting at us. Down come the terns and laughing gulls (check, check) — six million of them — cackling in our faces. And out come the cameras. Apparently nothing stirs up a placid bay in Lower Alabama like a free lunch.
“I told you!” barks Captain Skip, like a kid in a playground, as we safely release today’s catch to an infield of grinning bottlenose snouts and swooping bird beaks.
“Did someone get a shot of that tarpon? No one’s gonna believe me.”
“I’ve never been this close to a wild dolphin before,” whispers a voice beside me. Agreed. Any closer and we’d be brunching with them in the bay.
In the days that follow, I also have the chance to amp up my back-bay wildlife checklist, first with a morning kayak paddle with the Fairhope Boat Company through the marshy narrows of Graham Creek Nature Preserve, where we glide past diving ospreys, statuesque great blue herons and hovering swallows, and later with Captain Bill Mitchell of Cetacean Cruises, one of the area’s foremost dolphin authorities, who knows most of Wolf Bay’s bottlenose residents by name — because he’s named most of them himself.
The ultimate highlight: spotting a 1-week-old dolphin leaping around our boat like a little fish. Another thrilling, out-of-Alabama first. (Check.)
It’s the journey, not the destination. We’ve all heard that old adage, but it really does apply just about everywhere — including, thankfully enough, en route to Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve on the remote southeast shore of Mobile Bay, where a variety of noteworthy flora species lie tucked away several miles inland from the beach.
One of 28 such reserves in the country, it includes an educational interpretive center with a nearly mile-long boardwalk that winds through forested wetlands with countless labeled flora species. At the end of the boardwalk is a vast, marshy overlook full of bird life and other creatures great and small, and it confirms what we’ve been told: Tidal estuaries are enormously productive, important habitats not to be ignored.