Paddling With Dolphins on the Alabama Gulf Coast

Paddling along the Gulf Coast is one of the best ways to see dolphins in the wild.
Paddling along the Gulf Coast is one of the best ways to see dolphins in the wild. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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There is absolutely nothing like it: paddling your kayak or stand-up paddleboard among a pod of dolphins. No matter how many times you encounter these playful, inquisitive marine mammals, each is always a magical and memorable moment.

Fortunately for outdoor enthusiasts in Alabama, the state’s Gulf Coast has several excellent places to paddle with the dolphins. Here’s where to go and what to know for a summer adventure you won’t soon forget.

What To Know Before You Go

The most common dolphin on the Alabama Gulf Coast is the common bottlenose—like Flipper, the most famous of all dolphins, with a shiny solid grey upper body and light gray-to-white belly and what looks like a perpetual smile. Other species exist in the Gulf, including the Atlantic spotted, Pantropical spotted, and Risso’s dolphin (sometimes also called gray), but encounters are less common since they prefer deeper water.

Remember that it’s impossible to predict where dolphins will pop up, making paddling with them a chance encounter. In other words, don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any your first few trips; get out there enough and it will happen.

While many animal protection groups encourage seeing dolphins in their natural habitat, they also advise you to use caution. The executive director of the Whale and Dolphin Conservancy, Regina Asmutis-Silvia, reminds us that the Gulf’s dolphin population is still recovering from the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The population is experiencing significant lung issues, reduced birth rates, and high infant mortality rates. Researchers say that it could take up to 40 years for the population to recover.

"As a result [of the spill], we strongly recommend that responsible viewing of dolphins is very important regardless of the vessel platform (power boat, kayak, paddle board, etc.)," Asmutis-Silvia says. “We recommend adhering to NOAA’s guidelines for dolphin watching to reduce any additional stress to the dolphins or risk of interrupting their natural behaviors.”

Time to Hit the Water

A bottlenose dolphin plays in the water of Wolf Bay.
A bottlenose dolphin plays in the water of Wolf Bay. Stephanie Pluscht

First things first: Keep in mind that if you are not an experienced paddler, you need to stay close to shore. Gulf winds along the waterways described here can make for a stiff and dangerous chop, plus there are strong currents and tides. Also, these areas are very popular with boaters, so use extra caution during your paddle.

1. Wolf Bay (Orange Beach)

Paddle the brackish waters of Wolf Bay, where the salt water of the Gulf mixes with the freshwater of several streams that flow south including Wolf, Sandy, and Graham Creek. This brine concoction creates an amazing fertile ecosystem, one that is filled with a wide variety of wildlife such as manatees, bald eagles, alligators, and yes, dolphins.

The bay is one of several destinations along the Orange Beach Canoe Trail. Begin your journey at the beautiful oak-lined Orange Beach Waterfront Park, which is on the north side of the island and Orange Beach. From here, choose your route to the east or west. Either way, you’re in for a fun paddle and the dolphins are waiting.

2. Portage Creek (Gulf Intracoastal Waterway)

Paddlers are surrounded by some very playful dolphins.
Paddlers are surrounded by some very playful dolphins. Unsplash

The Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway, or Portage Creek, is a long trail of a waterway that spans from Texas to Florida, tucked neatly between the barrier islands of the Gulf Coast and the mainland.

This part of the Alabama section is basically a long, lazy, paddle from Orange Beach to Mobile Bay. It is a very busy waterway, with both fishing and pleasure boats, and on occasion large barges, plowing its waters, so always use caution.

In addition to the dolphin encounters along the way, what makes this trek special are the many bayous and backwaters that extend from the main channel. A favorite segment among local paddlers is a circular loop around Oyster Bay. Start this trip at the Happy Harbor Restaurant on County Road 6 in Gulf Shores. The paddle takes you straight west on Portage Creek then south into the wide bay.

3. Bayou St. John (Orange Beach)

Do a little island hopping in Bayou St. John, a wide body of water that cuts its way between Orange Beach and Ono Island near Perdido Pass. This trip is also part of the Orange Beach Canoe Trail.

There are three islands in the bayou, each framed with white sand beaches and grassy shoals, and teeming with waterfowl including a variety of heron and terns. The water around the islands has been designated no-motor zones, which makes them perfect for paddling. And of course, there’s the reason we’re here: Paddle away from the islands to a little deeper water to catch up with pods of dolphins that find their way into the waterway to frolic with passing boats.

Speaking of which, you’ll need to be very careful here. This is a popular boating destination with lots of traffic, so proceed cautiously.

Start this trek at the Orange Beach Boat Ramp (aka Boggy Point) and paddle your way about 600 feet across the channel to Bird Island. From there, head north to visit Robinson Island, then if you want more, head east to Walker Island. A complete round trip of all three islands is around 2.5 to 3 miles.

4. Pelican Island (Dauphin Island)

This is a great sea kayaking trip around a small sand peninsula that sticks out into the Gulf from Dauphin Island. It’s about a 3- to 5-mile circuit around this spit of land with scrub brush on top of the dunes and hundreds of brown pelicans, sea gulls, and assorted waterfowl vying for position to get their daily meal. Of course, you will have an excellent shot at paddling with the dolphins as you sail along the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Remember, even though you’re close to this sand peninsula, you’re still paddling in the open waters of the Gulf, where there can be strong currents and pop-up thunderstorms. This trip is not recommended for beginners unless they are accompanied by an experienced paddler. The put-in is at the public beach one mile west of the Dauphin Island Bridge on Bienville Boulevard.

If you’re a novice kayaker or paddleboarder or need to rent gear, there are plenty of local outfitters that have regular guided dolphin paddling tours for paddlers of all stripes, along with gear rentals. Visit the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism website for a list.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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