After our fabulous 2 weeks in Louisiana, it was time to move on; we had some friends that we wanted to see in Florida before heading north to see Greg (he’s deploying to Afghanistan in March).
On the way to Florida, we stopped for a few nights in Alabama. We crossed the state line in the late afternoon, so we didn’t take in any sights, but we did pick up a King Cake that night, and remembered our first King Cake, last year in Tuscaloosa.
Eli SHOULD have had to buy it, but since he isn’t with us this year, he got out of it. LOL! Emma has to buy it next year 😉
The next day, our first exploratory jaunt into coastal Alabama was south off of I-10, down to Dauphin Island. Dauphin Island is an hour drive from Mobile, but it wasn’t quite that far for us; it took us about 45 minutes from Tillmans Corner.
We daytripped with just the van, but after a day on the island, we wished we had blocked off a week to take the rv down and play!
The drive itself is beautiful, and we always love a good long bridge! The bridge, over the intracoastal waterway to get out to the island, was about 3 miles long.
We found Dauphin Island to be a charming place, with a clean, small town feel. People still greet you, kids ride their bikes on the (nearly) island-long bike path, and fuel is the same price as up in Mobile. 🙂
This is the main road. It extends the length of the island, and the bike path is on the right side in the pic…
We had a full day planned on the island, and were excited to check it out! While we have spent considerable time exploring the Tuscaloosa area (while Vaughn and the bigs disaster rebuilt with Samaritan’s Purse) the closest we have come to exploring southern AL has been to stop at the USS Alabama.twice. That’s it. So, we were pretty excited to see gems we had been passing by on our drive-thrus on I-10.
First we went to the Estuarium, which is just a small part of the DISL (Dauphin Island Sea Lab). The DISL covers 30 acres of the island, has 40 buildings, and offers classes and programs for K-college degree holders. We went to the Estuarium, which is a 10,000 sq ft exhibit hall; we weren’t quite sure what it would be like – either a small aquarium-like hall, or a dry educational exhibit with lots of plaques to read (we’ve been to plenty of both! LOL!). But, what we found was like nothing we’ve ever been to.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am a roadschooling junkie. I love books and all, but there are so many things that book learning can not give justice to. And I love ‘field trips’, but not the herd mentality that often accompanies them. I love hands-on learning opportunities, but sometimes they don’t have the structure that I would like to get as much learning out of them as I hope. The Estuarium was a perfect fit for us! (and the kids even liked it too 😉 )…
It was a last minute visit for us, so I didn’t get prepared for it as much as I would now on a return visit (but that is totally optional). The Estuarium is somewhat like an aquarium in that there are a lot of tanks full of sea/water creatures, and informative displays/plaques; and you could just walk through it, spend an hour, and have a really great visit.
Or, you could turn it into a full day’s worth of science exploration!
When you first enter the exhibit area, you can watch an 8 minute, looping, close-captioned, overview film that tells you about the area (FYI, there is a bit of evolution a the beginning but that was the only place I noticed it). The Estuarium focuses on the 4 key habitats found here in coastal Alabama: the Mobile Tensaw River Delta, Mobile Bay, Barrier Islands, and the Northern Gulf of Mexico, and each area’s micro habitats. Each of the 4 areas has their own section of the Estuarium.
The film was actually very interesting for those of us not familiar with the area! We learned a lot about the bay that we had driven next to to get down here – did you know that Mobile Bay is the fourth largest bay on the gulf? or that it contains the largest natural gas field in America? We didn’t!
Right after you leave the film viewing room, you come to this large tank, which features the wildlife found in the swampy areas down here. This was my favorite tank, and the littels’ too. 🙂
I did not know it before we went, but if you go to the DISL website, then on the left-hand side, click on the tab for ‘K-12 & Teacher Education’, then ‘Teacher and Student Resources’, you can print off all sorts of educational worksheets for your kids to do at the Estuarium! (that is so up my alley 😉 I’d love to go back just so we could do the worksheets while we were there! LOL!) The worksheets are broken up into various difficulties, and there are other activities that are also available for download, like a 9 page coloring book that would be great for your non-readers to do while the others are working on their curriculum. (there are a ton of different educational options) You can find the resource page here…and I’m printing several of them off even tho we are no longer in the area, just because they are such great activities for the kids! <3
Many of the display tanks have long stable box-like step stools in front of them so the littles can look in them themselves. <3
In the Delta section, there is a touch table that is covered with preserved specimens. The docent in this area, Howard, was incredibly informative, and he gave us an incredible science class right there…
He found out where we were from, and he adjusted his talk for our knowledge of the delta area sealife (as in told us everything starting with the basics! LOL!). The specimens were not the usual dried animals, or their skeletons, but were the animals preserved in alcohol (made me think of high school biology – I had an awesome teacher and thought that one day I would be a marine biologist 😉 ). We got to pick them up and handle the animals, and Howard answered all our questions.
*Emma with a squid…
The Delta area also was home to tanks of live fish, snakes, baby alligators, and turtles.
The Estuarium has a cute area for the littlest ones…
The Billy Goat Hole has several activities to facilitate early learning (and some just for fun) – the kids loved the boat that they could get in and turn the wheel. There were also books, a table for activities, and a boat ‘hull’ that stretched the length of the wall and had rows of holes in it. The holes were covered, and in each hole was something for the kids to feel and then guess what the item was.
Just outside of The Billy Goat Hole is this touch screen that mimics a microscope. The kids could chose what they wanted to look at up close, and explore the different creatures that were featured.
In the Gulf of Mexico area, there is one of three large tanks, this one features fish commonly found in the gulf – like Red Drum and Sharksuckers (which look like they are swimming upside-down – very facinating!); there were lots of other fish also.
And, if you look up while standing in front of the gulf tank, you will see this crazy creature!!! I think he looks like something’s eaten his lower half, and this is all that is left, but this is his whole body!!!
He is a mola mola – or an ocean sunfish. And they were designed to look like this!!! (God has a limitless imagination!)
The center had a tank of Lion Fish, and talked about how they do not belong in the gulf, but they were probably released by people who had them in their fishtanks and either didn’t want them anymore, or the fish got too big (could very well be a case of “all drains lead to the ocean” 😉 ). I think they are beautiful, but they are fierce predators.
There is a touch tank in this area that had 2 horseshoe crabs, a horse conch, and a smaller area with hermit crabs in it.
The volunteer here told the kids all about these animals, and let them touch and hold them (except for the horse conch, who was stubbornly stuck to the tank by his bright-orange-fleshed foot!).
The bottom of the horseshoe crabs didn’t look ANYTHING like what I thought they would! LOL!
We kept returning to the Gulf tank – for various reasons, and one of those reasons was the Sub Voyager. The Sub Voyager is a remote controlled little sub with a camera in the front (yellow thing on the left side of the pic, in the tank).
You can run it ($1 – FYI, only takes one dollar bills, no quarters) from this machine right outside the tank, and manipulate it to see the creatures and habitat in the Gulf tank closer. The boys especially loved it!
We were there during feeding time. They take turns putting food in the big tanks, so you get a chance to watch all three habitats feed…
There were a few fun photo ops! 🙂
The whole Estuarium center was fun and inviting for kids, while interesting for us olders too 😉
The Estuarium has it’s own penny squisher (oh, the joy for our collectors! LOL!), and it has a fabulous gift shop. There were tons of fun things for kids – from paper-pencil games for in the car to inexpensive stuffed sea creatures for a souvenir.
Outside, we stopped at the Rays of the Bay touch tank. The tank here is very large, and besides the 7 sting rays in the tank, there were 2 small hammerhead sharks!
There were a couple of the rays that loved attention. They would find where the kids were, and swim back and forth in front of them waiting to be ‘petted’. 🙂
The kids love it when they swim vertically along the side of the tank, with some of their wings out, waving. 🙂
After we finished at the touch tank, some of us took the boardwalk that walks along the island’s edge.
There were learning opportunities out there too, even to the point of explaining the unique parking lot base and how it collects any oil or vehicle fluid drips.
You can take the boardwalk out the front of the Estuarium, and walk it coming out at the parking lot.
We spent 3 hours at the Estuarium, including the boardwalk (which didn’t take very long because it was really windy!). We could have condensed it by skipping the talks at the touchtables and the feedings ( 🙁 ), or we could have enjoyed it longer, especially if we would have printed out some of the educational activities on their website!
And that isn’t the extent of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL)’s educational offerings – they have month-long summer camps that qualify for high school credit (what fun!) and even offer day camps! They have lots of homeschool groups that go through the Estuarium, and even tour groups.
We loved the Estuarium as we felt that it really informed us about our (unfamiliar) surroundings – we LOVE to learn about the new places that we are visiting!
Dauphin Island has a great RV park (we really want to go stay there for a bit, but they DO charge ‘extra kid’ fees, and you know how we feel about that!) also on the island is Fort Gaines and an Audubon Bird Sanctuary trail (posts to come), and the small-town atmosphere really would be a great place to spend a week. The island is thin, and the ocean is always very close, no matter where you are! LOL!
But even if you chose to not stay on Dauphin Island, the Estuarium got all thumbs-up here, and is, unanimously, worth a day trip down to explore!