“Kids, what animal do you think loves using those Saw Palmettos for cover?” Dr. John Simpson asked as I looked around the tertiary dunes of Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge. We’d just covered ourselves in bug spray, and left the boardwalk to squeeze between the scrubby live oak trees covering the dunes, then trekked over several of them and were standing in the middle of the wilds. There was only one house we could see over the trees, and I was wondering exactly what type of animal we were going to be seeing! “Snakes!” answered two of the kids.
“Please be wrong!” I thought to myself. Nope, Dr. Simpson cheerily affirmed their answer and launched into a discussion about how the Saw Palmetto was an important part of the ecosystem of the tertiary dunes. This led him to walk us to the top of the dune we were standing on and show us the secondary and primary dunes we could see between us and the Gulf of Mexico. Here, we were given a living example of the dune system and taught about how the dunes protect the rest of the land and bay from the winds and surge of hurricanes and storms.
We were in the middle of one of Marine Science Adventures’ eight outdoor classrooms. We had already experienced a sea turtle nest demonstration on the shore itself at sunset, and had the opportunity to get into the Little Lagoon Estuary after dark and use the seines to hunt for fish and bioluminescent jellies the night before. This whole adventure just kept getting more interesting!
Before hiking down the dunes, we got an up-close look at the flora that held them in place and kept the hurricanes from washing the old dunes out to sea. We held lichens, passed flowers and branches around the group, and then all paused for photos. We had the chance to check out the galls on the tree branches that grow from insect larvae, and all learned how important it is to care for our ecosystems by leaving our natural systems to flourish without human interruption.
Eventually, Dr. Simpson was ready to walk us through the secondary dunes and down to the beach. There, our group was encouraged to look through the sand and see what we could find. My children ran up and down the shore finding small bits of driftwood, letting Dr. Simpson identify shells, finding crab exoskeletons, and chasing little ghost crabs as they peaked out of their burrows and skittered across the sand. Once the kids had collected souvenirs and specimens in their bags, we took the boardwalk back to our parking area.
Our next classroom was the Maritime Forest. We watched butterflies flitter from bush to bush and learned about the thousands upon thousands of birds and butterflies that use the wildlife refuge as their last “pit stop” on their southern migrations into Central and South America. It’s a very, very long flight across the Gulf of Mexico for these creatures, and they use the northern shores of the Gulf to fatten up and prepare for their challenging journey. We were also shown examples of trees that had been mined for turpentine, taught about the American Beautyberry, and learned about the difference between the migratory Monarch butterfly and the butterflies that live in one locale.
From the Wildlife Refuge, we traveled several miles down the road and several hundred years back in history to Fort Morgan at the mouth of Mobile Bay and the Gulf. As Europeans arrived in the Alabama area, there were three to four locations along Mobile Bay used as forts. Over the years, the location of Fort Morgan became the primary fort, and for the last 200 years, Fort Morgan has been a very important site, both for the U.S. and the Confederacy.
Upon our arrival, we were joined by a Confederate soldier who led us on a tour through the grounds and facilities. Now, the parents in the group had a great time listening to the soldier tell us all about the armaments, the functions of the fort, and the size of the ammunition that was stored on site. We were fascinated to learn about the role the fort played in the Civil War and the fall of the south. The kids, on the other hand, were enthralled with the soldier’s quarters, the story about all one hundred fifty soldiers sharing one toothbrush, and the wonderful game of Lice Racing…..which is exactly what it sounds like!
The tour finished with a musket firing demonstration, then we stopped for a picnic lunch at the entrance to the fort grounds. We sat at the picnic tables on the shore of Mobile Bay, with butterflies fluttering around and were treated to a burn off of extra methane from one of the natural gas rigs off the shore.
We then left for the next classrooms on the Marine Science Adventures list. It was time for the kids to get up close and very personal with the tidal marshes! Dr. Simpson led the group as everyone slipped, slurped, and squished through the tidal marshes at the shore of Mobile Bay. He taught the kids about the marsh grasses, the brackish water, and the decomposition that takes place in the marshes. They say the sense of smell is the sense most closely tied to memory. The students in our group will not be forgetting about anything they learned in the marsh any time soon!!
After our rather….smelly….group finished their marsh tour, we walked the few yards over to the beach on the bay. Here we were split into several groups and given several fun looking tools. We had a seine (A set of poles with a net in between, used to catch specimens in shallow water), a slurp tube, a plankton net, and a sieve screen. For the next hour and a half, we all took turns dragging the seine through the surf, slurping up the soft sand at the shore line and washing it through the sieve, and filtering the water through the plankton net, all to see what living treasures we could find.
We found all sorts of treasures! From plankton to crabs to many kinds of small fish to comb jellies (scientific name: ctenophore – these creatures are bioluminescent!) to barnacled driftwood and more, there were shouts all up and down the beach as new specimens were discovered. Once everyone had a chance to try each type of tool, we all gathered with our specimen buckets and Dr. Simpson walked us through what we had found. The kids gathered around and were shown exactly how a plankton eating fish’s mouth is made and how it eats, vs. the small creature eating fish’s mouth. The different fishes they’d found were identified, and the jelly fish that had been caught was shown off. We finished off our studies by returning the specimens to the ecosystem and making sure we left only footprints behind on the shore.
After all the adventures of the day, we gathered back at the Gulf Shores Beach Retreat for time playing in the pool and dinner. Marine Science Adventures operates in conjunction with the retreat center. The retreat center is set up to host large groups, like a school trip, camp, or family reunion and is designed with two mirror-image sides. Each side has four dorm-style rooms that house 16-20 students, and then there are staff rooms attached to two of the dorms. Each side has its own kitchen and dining area, its own pool and sports areas, and its own parking spaces. We were hosted in the two-bedroom condo that is also on site. If your homeschool group is large enough, you can easily rent a side of the center and be led on your group’s own Marine Science Adventure. However, if you would like to visit Gulf Shores as just your family, you can contact Tim and ask him about the current homeschooler’s schedule.
After dinner, we were in for a real treat. We were in Gulf Shores during the sea turtle hatching season, and Gulf Shores has a wonderful volunteer organization (Share the Beach) that works hard to monitor and protect the future of the sea turtles that nest on the beaches on the Gulf. One of the MSA staff is also on the volunteer team and let our family know there was a nest of sea turtles that was showing all the signs of “early labor.” See, sea turtle hatching is very much like human labor. There is a general time period when they will hatch, but no set date. There are indications that will show the hatching is near, and one nest in Gulf Shores State Park was showing many indications that the hatch was imminent. Since we only had one night left in Alabama, we lived our motto (“When you get the chance, go!”), and decided we could sit on the beach for a few hours in exchange for the chance to experience such a fascinating sight.
Well…. the turtles didn’t hatch for us that night (the little stinkers waited two more nights then hatched in the wee hours after the volunteers had left!), but we did have a fun time hanging out on the beach and learning all about the hatching process from the volunteers that were there. Since we were on the beach after dark, we were also able to see the sand “glitter” from the bioluminescent organisms that will shine when you dig quickly after a wave! The kids were a little sad that we didn’t get to see the turtles, but were thrilled at the opportunity and are already asking how we can keep a close eye on the nests next year. Thankfully, SuzAnne, the staff member who took us out to the nest, has a Facebook page where we can watch what the team is up to!
After our tired crew had a good night of sleep, we packed up and left Gulf Shores for the last classroom of Marine Science Adventures. We visited Alligator Alley, home of more than twenty huge gators, one of which is Captain Crunch, the world record holder for bite force for an American Alligator. Alligator Alley is a conservation park where twenty plus acres of swamp land have been sectioned off as a home to nuisance and pest gators caught in the surrounding states. Instead of being sold for parts, the gators are given a home. The park has been around long enough that many of the gators have bred, and you can see gators from two weeks old all the way up to thirty or more years old.
We started our tour with the chance for everyone to hold a two-year-old gator, then made our way out to the boardwalk over the swamp. From the boardwalk, we saw gators in the water, gators on land, big gators, huge gators, gator nests, and the king gator himself, Captain Crunch. Once our group finished the boardwalk, we gathered at the overlook and were just in time to see a gator feeding. Our tour guide and another worker entered the enclosure and the twelve to almost fourteen-foot-long gators gathered on the bank of the shore for their meals. He had the gators open wide, and chucked the meat in their mouths. Since we were visiting in October, the cold-blooded gators were fairly relaxed in their feeding, which I was fine with! After the feeding, our group gathered for a quick goodbye, and we were on our way back to the “real world!”
We had just finished a two-year study of marine life, so this trip was a perfect opportunity for our family to take what we learned and see it applied in real-life. When we were studying the shore ecosystems, the kids learned about dunes and we watched a small video on them. That was nothing compared to standing in the middle of the tertiary dunes, surrounded by the scrubby plants, feeling the wind on their faces, and holding the lichen in their hands. They’d learned about sea turtles eating jellyfish and the problems plastic bags can cause, but after sitting by the nest of over a hundred baby turtles, the thought that letting a plastic bag get in the ocean and hurting one of those babies is real to them. I could not have asked for a better learning opportunity to be the finale on our adventure into marine science!
To see more of our adventure, watch the video below:
Want to learn more about Marine Science Adventures? You can click on the logo below to visit their website.
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The Gibbs family was invited to stay at the Gulf Shores Beach Retreat and attend the Marine Science Adventure in exchange for the publication of this post. All opinions of the adventure are Lesli’s true thoughts on the experience. Visit the Disclosure page for more info.
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