Eco-travelers should not always overlook their home soil for ideal opportunities to enjoy and protect nature at the same time. The U.S. Gulf Coast in Alabama and Mississippi offers both, and can easily match its beauty and sustainability efforts to any place in the world.
There are unique, breathtaking outdoor experiences around the world, but sometimes if you look in your own backyard, so to speak, you will find the same type of ecotravel opportunities. Contributing to sustainability at home while enjoying an eco-tourism adventure is easy when you look to the U.S. Gulf Coast, especially in Alabama and Mississippi. This is a location that does not get the same global attention as top ten ecotourism destinations such as the Galapagos Islands, the oceans of Palau or Playa Matapalo, Costa Rica. Yet the Gulf Coast offers as much (and in some ways more), because it has dunes, wetlands, forests and some of the whitest sand beaches in the world. Through the effort of people dedicated to preserving the coastlands, it is also a haven for more than 15,000 different species of wildlife including sea turtles, sharks and dolphins. Sustainability efforts are blended with outdoor adventures for visitors to create an ideal eco-travel spot.
From Forts to Nature Trails
As an ecotraveler, you want to give back to the environment, and it is understandably tempting to look at global locations. Global travel and sustainability efforts are part of the big picture of environmental sustainability, but sometimes you need to look closer. At Gulf Coast you can swim, hike, view wildlife, launch a kayak, go fishing, bike ride and enjoy some of the best seafood in the world. The sugar-like beach sands and gorgeous turquoise-colored waters of Alabama’s Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are just a sample of what lies in store.
Alabama Point East at Gulf State Park has 6,000 feet of beach, sand dunes, and boardwalks. This area also offers the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, which is a marine education and research center with public aquarium highlighting the habitats of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, Mobile Bay, the Barrier Islands, and the Northern Gulf of Mexico. On the Alabama Gulf Coast you can also enjoy the Living Marsh Boardwalk, or visit the Bon Secour national Wildlife Refuge that protects the delicate dune ecosystem and endangered species. Water lovers can go kayaking, join a group on a charter boat and spot playing dolphins, or learn shrimping and crabbing.
In Mississippi you find Gulf Island’s National Seashore, America’s largest national seashore established by Congress in 1971. It is a place of history, culture, and nature. This area was a focal point for explorers and colonizers from Spain, France and England until the coastal Mississippi territories were annexed in 1804. You can explore Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, or roam Fort Massachusetts Island, where the beginning of the campaign to capture New Orleans in 1862 began. In Mississippi you can visit ecological wonders such as the barrier island Cat Island, and the marshes and woodlands of the Davis Bayou Area. Ships Island is 12 miles off the Mississippi coast and has a fort and a swim beach.
An estuary is a spot where the rivers meet the sea, and Mississippi also has the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is 18,000 acres of pine savannas, salt pannes (water retaining depressions in a salt marsh), salt marshes, bayous and bays and habitats for wildlife. The Reserve was established in 1999, has 18,000 acres and offers the rich variety of estuarine ecosystem. There are oyster reefs, open-water habitats, and shell middens that support brown shrimp, oysters, speckled trout and finfish. In the deeper waters are sea turtles, bottlenose dolphin and sometimes manatees.
Adventures in Sustainability
The coastal waters are home to a slew of federally listed threatened or endangered species. The Gulf Islands are rest stops for migrating birds. The sight of slow-moving cumbersome brown pelicans suddenly and smoothly diving for fish is a sight to behold. There are blue herons patiently stalking the shoreline for food, and small piping plovers who appreciate the warmth of the coastal area in the winter. The ghost crabs dart in and out of their holes by the water’s edge, and alligators stalk the bayous and salt marshes. There are only seven species of sea turtles in the world, and five of them are found in the waters of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Walking along the beach from May to September, ecotravelers are likely to see small areas with temporary fencing - places where sea turtles have laid their eggs.
The Gulf and its beaches are continually attacked by extreme storms and a rising sea level, leading to beach loss and threats to wildlife. Several organizations are working to preserve and restore natural habitat. When you eco-travel to the Gulf Coast, some of your money goes to these efforts.
The coastal areas of the Gulf offer so much to see and do. There is canoe and kayaking on the Wolf River, and eco-tours of the cypress swamps and salt marshes of the lower Pascagoula River, where you are likely to see alligators and migratory birds such as ospreys and bald eagles. The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail systems consists of seven paved trails (so you leave no footprint) in six different ecosystems within the Gulf State Park. These trails lead you to places such as live oak maritime forests, and the Coastal Hardwood Swamps, where you are likely to see an alligator warming itself in the sun. Rent a beach bike and pedal on the trails, too, getting some exercise with the best scenery possible.
Active or Lazy Days…Your Choice
Along the coast there is biking, fishing, hiking, swimming, and of course, lazy days just lying on the beach and listening to the soothing sounds of the ocean. The Florida Gulf Coast gets a lot of attention and is also beautiful, but it is also often hectic. The Alabama and Mississippi Gulf Coast has a more relaxed atmosphere, and in so many ways is ideal for true eco-travelers who just want to enjoy the coastline in all its natural glory.