Photo | Shane Rice
Among the biodiversity that makes the Mobile–Tensaw River Delta so interesting is the nutria. It was so abundant in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s hunters would compete in a rodeo for the rodent.
Unlike a typical rodeo, contestants would not ride the animal, but instead would try to be the most successful at killing it.
“A nutria slaughter is what it was,” Capt. Micheal Dorie said from the captain’s chair of his WildNative pontoon boat during a tour of the delta. “It was a shooting gallery.”
Contestants, as Dorie tells it, would light the marshlands on fire and lie in wait for the non-native creatures to take to the water in order to kill them.
“It was when the population was really out of control,” Dorie said. “It was designed to eradicate nutrias.”
The creatures are still around today and can be seen on the delta, along with hundreds of other species of flora and fauna that makes the area unique.
“You feel like you’re in another world,” Dorie said of being out on the water in the delta. “You don’t have to go far to get away from it all.”
For Dorie, a Michigan native, it’s the small things that make the delta great, not just the aspects of it everyone knows.
“Everybody wants to see a 14-foot alligator, but there are so many little things,” he said. “Those, to me, are the things that make the delta so incredible.”
While the delta is made up of more than five rivers, it’s only five that eventually empty into Mobile Bay, Dorie said. Those rivers are the Tensaw, Mobile, Spanish, Apalachee and Blakeley. All told, it brings about 27 million gallons of water every minute into the bay, Dorie said. It’s the third largest transfer of water in the U.S. behind only the Mississippi and the Columbia rivers, he said.
The Mobile–Tensaw Delta is a big reason why the state itself is so rich in plant and animal species, 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center Assistant Manager and Education Coordinator Mark Wetzel said.
Alabama has 2,902 species of vascular plants, 63 species of mammals, 326 species of birds, 85 species of reptiles, 68 species of amphibians, 284 species of freshwater fish and 120 species of freshwater snails, and the delta’s unique ecosystem contributes to all of it, Wetzel said.
In fact, the state is fifth in biodiversity, with more fish, snails and crawfish species than any other state, he said. At 250,000 acres, the delta is packed with some of these species.
“There is more diversity in this small spot than in any other area of its size anywhere in the world,” Wetzel said.
Just on one 90-minute excursion with WildNative, brown pelicans, egrets, a blue heron and osprey were spotted. This is in addition to several bald eagles’ nests, which were spotted along the way. It’s a sight Dorie never gets tired of. That’s because in 12 years of guiding tours on the delta, the national birds have become more and more prevalent.
“The first two years we were doing these tours, you were more likely to see a unicorn than an eagle,” he said. “We still don’t see them on every tour now, but we see them more regularly.”
Unlike an eagle, which makes its nest hard to see from the water, ospreys build giant nests on the tops of trees. Dorie said the male ospreys begin the nests to attract a lifelong mate.
Another interesting note about the osprey is the birds can reverse their talons in order to carry fish as much as half their size through the air. They also grab smaller fish to snack on while on longer journeys, Dorie said.
On a delta tour, the WildNative captain enthusiastically explained that an egret’s white color is perfect camouflage from underwater predators and that despite its name, Spanish moss is neither Spanish nor moss.
“It’s an epiphytic, an air plant,” Dorie said. “It pulls nutrients out of the air.”
The delta breaks down into three distinct areas, Dorie said. One is the area folks along the coast are probably most familiar with and that’s the marsh in the lower delta region. The next region is the central delta and it’s a cypress swamp. The central delta is home to the state’s largest and oldest known cypress tree, Wetzel said. It’s over 300 years old.
The northern delta is the third region. It is more of a lush forest with habitat for white-tailed deer and hogs, Dorie said.
“There is a lot of diverse habitats,” he said. “All of that stuff makes it a really cool place.”
Hunter Nichols, a filmmaker and recreational user of the delta, became very familiar with its uniqueness while on a 44-day canoe trip in 2011 from his hometown of Birmingham to Horn Island, off the Mississippi Coast. He understands the immense ecological value of the delta.
“In recent years it’s taken on the nickname of ‘America’s Amazon’ and that’s a fitting title,” he wrote in an email message. “It’s a maze of creeks, rivers and lakes with daily tidal flows that pump water in and out like one massive ecological heartbeat. There are few places in America where you can see such a diverse array of wildlife. From black bears to 14-foot alligators, manatees, wolf spiders the size of your hand, you never know what you might see in the Tensaw Delta.”
It’s not only the biodiversity that makes the delta great, it’s also environmentally important, as Airboat Adventures Capt. Mark Pillion points out.
“It provides a lot of clean water for Mobile Bay,” he said. “Rain is filtered through the marsh grass and it helps keep the water clean and clear of sediment.”
That environmental benefit and the ecological uniqueness of the delta could be put at risk due to industry.
On his 2011 trip, Nichols said in a phone interview, he tried to avoid the Mobile side of the delta for that very reason.
“I had to stay away from the west side because of industry and pollution,” he said. “If you don’t smell it, you hear it.”
One of the major industries located in the heart of the delta is Alabama Power’s Barry Steam Plant, and its nearly 600-acre coal ash pond along the Mobile River’s edge. Coal ash pond levee breaks in other states have been environmental disasters, and with 21 million tons of the wet, toxic ash present in Plant Barry’s pond, environmental groups such as Mobile Baykeeper have warned of the dangers a similar type of spill pose to the delta. A potential levee break isn’t the only danger Baykeeper has warned of. Groundwater pollution has been an issue and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) has already fined Alabama Power for toxins being released from the unlined pond at Plant Barry.
Still, the company plans to cap-in-place the coal ash it has dumped in that pond over the past 55 years, removing the water from the pond and essentially burying the remaining coal ash. While the method is one allowed by the EPA, most states are having utilities remove coal ash and move it to lined landfills. Alabama Power is committed to capping in place ponds at six different locations around the state, including Gadsden, where the company was fined in May for arsenic and radium leaking into the groundwater from a pond upon which the process had already been completed.
Alabama Power has said it is committed to the safety of its customers and employees who live locally, and defends both its levee system and the safety of cap-in-place. Still, Baykeeper and others believe toxins will continue to leech into the groundwater at Plant Barry and ultimately into the delta if the coal ash is buried there. Nichols is someone who thinks pollution as a whole presents a big threat to America’s Amazon.
“I think most Alabamians can agree that protecting the delta better from developments, industry and pollution is very important with serious consequences if we fail to do so,” Nichols said. “In terms of the delta’s economic impact on our seafood and the recreation industry, it’s probably too big to measure and too scary to think about losing. The delta is a vital fish nursery to Mobile Bay, just as the bay is a nursery to the Gulf of Mexico.”
Blakeley State Park Director Mike Bunn said some of the most fascinating aspects for him about the delta is its place in history. The area was claimed by European powers during the colonial era and later was involved in the last battle of the Civil War.
The park offers the longest-running boat tour, Bunn said. A scheduled tour on the Delta Explorer boat is offered three to four times per month, he said.
The delta is home to Indian mounds in Bottle Creek, which is accessible by boat, Wetzel said. There are kayak and canoe trips available to that area. The story of the town of Blakeley is also interesting, Dorie said. At one time, the town on the eastern banks of the delta was larger than Mobile, but yellow fever wiped it out, he said.
One possible reason for Blakeley growth was that area of the water was naturally deeper than anywhere else, Dorie said. The Mobile River, which is home to the seventh largest port in the U.S., has been deepened by dredging, he said.
Nichols wrote that as a child he used to dream of exploring the delta from the backseat of a vehicle traveling along Interstate 10.
“In my early 20s, that’s what I started doing in canoes with several camping trips into the delta, including one trip that was made into a feature-length documentary called ‘River Dreams,’” he said. “Spending a week camped out and exploring the delta was definitely the highlight of that film to me ….”
Nichols wrote that he hopes to be back soon and looks forward to spending money here, even if it’s more or less buying an ice cream at a fish camp in Stockton.
Local tourism officials, like Visit Mobile CEO David Clark, have begun to catch on to visitors’ demand for more water access and how the Mobile River and delta play a huge role in that.
In addition to several motorized and airboat tours, local companies are offering kayak and canoe trips up and down the delta. To accommodate these tours, the city installed a floating dock near Cooper Riverside Park. Clark is looking to help the city take advantage of that with even bigger plans for the public park on the banks of the Mobile River.
“The iconic Cooper Riverside Park is very underutilized by our residents and visitors,” he said. “It has so much wealth and assets with respect to GulfQuest [National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico] being there and the Convention Center being there.”
Most cities in the country use their waterfront for tourism and Clark wants to make that happen in Mobile. In addition to the dock that brought WildNative and the Perdido Queen paddlewheeler to the downtown area, Clark said an outdoor dining option and container bar on the park property isn’t too far off.
“You know, we revolutionized containerized shipping throughout the world and we have a container dedication inside the GulfQuest museum; why not put some containers out there …,” Clark said. “Splash in some art and some local music and really get this park jazzed up every weekend … I think that area should have a quarter million to a half million visitors a year.”
The delta itself includes public lands for hunting, Wetzel said. There are also camping platforms and small cabins available for travelers. He said it would take about a week to paddle the area.
“You could easily do it in a week,” he said. “It’s 23 miles long and 18 miles wide. It’s not that big.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).