Chandra Wright’s job is to help you discover a side of Alabama’s Gulf Coast that you may not know. The nature tourism specialist for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach has worked tirelessly with other local organizations to grow the market for local tourism that ventures beyond the well-known beaches. Because of that work, those traveling to the shores of the Alabama coast now have areas to explore that had remained mostly hidden and undeveloped until recently.
Curious as how this began, RootsRated caught up with Chandra to ask her how nature tourism works and find out her favorite spots to explore on the Gulf Coast.
What drew you to the Alabama Gulf Coast?
SCUBA diving. I practiced law for several years in Montgomery and took every chance possible to drive down to the coast to dive. After a few years of doing this, I decided to make the move to Gulf Shores so I could enjoy diving on a more regular basis.
How did you become a nature tourism specialist?
I was a trained assistant SCUBA diving instructor who volunteered over the years with several environmental organizations. I combined my education and training as a lawyer with my passion for being responsible for the abundant natural resources here. I wanted to do my part in protecting the coastline as well as creating opportunities for others to enjoy it.
I helped establish the nonprofit Alabama Gulf Coast Reef & Restoration Foundation, which sank the LuLu, formerly The Yokamu, as an artificial reef for fish habitats for fishers and divers in May 2013. That also gave me valuable insight into creating a new tourism market segment.
So what exactly does a nature tourism specialist do?
I work with our nature-based tourism operators to help them be successful financially, to help give our guests a world-class experience, and to do so in a way that also demonstrates responsible stewardship of our natural resources. In a location that offers several kinds of fishing, dolphin and nature cruises, hiking, biking, birding, kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding, zip-lining, and SCUBA diving, there’s a lot of businesses utilizing the same areas. We want to make sure these resources are around for the enjoyment of generations to come.
Why is it important to you?
I can’t think of a more perfect job for me. As an Air Force brat who grew up traveling, I have always loved exploring—from what’s in my own town to another state or foreign country. When I’m vacationing, I don’t want to just sit on the beach; I want to experience as much of the destination as I can pack into however many days I’m there. I know there are thousands of visitors to Alabama’s Gulf Coast who want to get away from their routines for a while and just enjoy our beautiful beaches. But there are so many fun and unique things to see and do here. If I can help play a part in getting those people to enjoy some other things and open their eyes to all that we have, then I have made a difference.
How important is outdoor recreation to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach?
More than 5 million guests enjoyed visiting Alabama’s Gulf Coast last year and our soft, sugar-white beaches and emerald waters are the primary reason for visiting. But with several different types of ecosystems within the coastal area, there is so much more to be explored and enjoyed. There are six different ecosystems just in Gulf State Park and along the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail.
Where are your favorite places to enjoy along the Alabama Gulf Coast?
I love spending time on any of our beaches, but my favorite spots include Alabama Point watching the boats coming in and out of Perdido Pass and the other Gulf State Park beaches. I enjoy spending time on the Gulf State Park Pier, whether I’m fishing, seeing what the anglers are catching, or just watching for sharks, rays and sea turtles that may swim by.
Other places I recommend are Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Fort Morgan, and taking the Ferry across Mobile Bay and exploring Fort Gaines and the Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s Estuarium. Another must-see is the GulfQuest Maritime Museum, which opens September 26. I’ve had a sneak peek, and it is going to be a wonderful place to learn about the maritime history of the Gulf of Mexico in a fun and interactive way.
What is the toughest and/or most fulfilling part of your job?
The toughest part of my job is that I often feel like there’s not enough hours in the day to accomplish all I want to do. With my territory covering the two coastal Alabama counties and three coastal Mississippi counties, there’s a lot of nature tourism businesses to assist.
What do you think your position has added to the Alabama Gulf Coast outdoor community?
I hope that I am a voice for those sometimes hidden gems along our coast. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta ranks in the top 5 regions for numbers of species of plants and animals in the United States and is close to the top worldwide. But we are also losing species at an alarming rate, too. If I can help expose people to something special and get them to care about and help protect it for the future, then I’m making a difference.
What is your next adventure?
I never know where my next work adventure will take me, but I just spent a few hours last week helping out one of our off-bottom oyster farms. It was fascinating to learn about the process of growing gourmet oysters for consumption and helping to harvest them. We’ve begun talking about the possibility of adding some regular tours to their operations so that others can learn about them, too.