Dauphin Island: 3 History and Nature Attractions to Explore

When British military occupied Dauphin Island during the War of 1812, they described the land as full of snakes, alligators, and mosquitoes. The island was “very barren…and produces nothing at all…a very marshy nature.” I suppose some of that is true today, since we saw warning signs about alligators. But developed with museums, restaurants, and condos, the island is a far cry from what the British soldiers experienced.

We visited Dauphin Island twice during our month-long stay in southern Alabama. Well, three times, really, if you count the one time just driving through to reach the toll ferry. On our first visit, we did a self-guided tour of Fort Gaines and strolled through the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. We returned another day to visit the Alabama Aquarium.

Here are our experiences:

Fort Gaines

Following the War of 1812, it was obvious the U.S. had to step up its coastline defenses. A fort must be built on Dauphin Island. But, between engineering problems and land disputes, it wasn’t quite complete by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861. The Confederate States of America put the final touches on the fort by 1862 and expected it to protect Mobile Bay. That didn’t happen. In the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay, Union Troops took Fort Gaines.

You may have heard the famous quote by Admiral David Farragut, “Damn the Torpedoes, full speed ahead!” The Battle of Mobile Bay is where he purportedly said that, although no one knows if he did actually say it.

The Self-Guided Tour

Armed with the brochure we received at the entrance, we followed the map to the numbered stations. Between signage and descriptions in the brochure, we got a good understanding of each fort section. Besides gun mounts, ammunition magazines, and other war-related items, I felt the humanity in other areas. A bakery… officer’s quarters… and the latrine—a ten-hole latrine. Can you imagine?

Walking the quiet fort grounds and looking out over the Mobile Bay waters on a clear and sunny day, it was hard to contemplate a war having taken place there. We found the fort fascinating and spent almost two hours exploring it.

Audubon Bird Sanctuary

What better place to view birds than a bird sanctuary, right? Well, yes and no. It depends on the time of year. The 164-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary on Dauphin Island is huge for bird migrations. In fact, Wild Bird Magazine named it one of the top four locations in North America for viewing spring migrations. At least 347 bird species have been identified in the sanctuary.

Unfortunately, we visited in January, not during spring or fall migration time. We saw a whopping two birds in the hour or so we spent there. Through our camera’s zoom lens, an osprey (we think) sat on a nest. We saw a small bird, as well, which we couldn’t identify.

Our birding experience was disappointing, but the fern-lined forested paths and the boardwalk trail made for a nice walk. I’m sure if we visited during a migration period, our experience would have been completely different.

Alabama Aquarium

The Alabama Aquarium is part of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a research and education center. It focuses mainly on Alabama’s coastal habitats. Although there aren’t huge amounts of sea life on exhibit, like with other aquariums we’ve visited, we learned a lot about estuary and delta marshes and the life in them.

A film in the museum’s theater gives a nice overview of natural processes of watershed flow into Mobile Bay, as well as animal and plant life in area waters. 

On the day we visited, several elementary-school age children were there on field trips. The kids seemed to especially enjoy the outdoor touch pool. (We liked it, too!)

Dining on Dauphin Island

If you plan to eat on Dauphin Island, you have plenty of options, from burgers to seafood, take-out to sit-down. We picked up a list of restaurants when we were at Fort Gaines, but if you’d like to plan ahead, here is a list of them: https://www.townofdauphinisland.org/restaurants

Getting to Dauphin Island

If you come from the west side of Mobile Bay, you cross a bridge to get onto the island. Coming from the east side of Mobile Bay, you must take the Mobile Bay Ferry to reach Dauphin Island. Check the website for pricing and schedule.

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