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Sea Grant helps increase nature tourism in coastal Alabama by creating new attractions

By: Chandra Wright / Published: Jun 29,  2016

With its sugar sands, emerald waters and family-friendly atmosphere, it’s no wonder more than 6 million visitors came to the coastal communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, in 2015. The state and local economies rely on the $3.9 billion in economic impact left behind by those visitors. Additionally, there are over 48,000 travel-related jobs in Baldwin County providing $1.3 billion in salaries and wages. Coastal tourism is big business for the whole state of Alabama.

While the majority of the visitors come during the peak summer season between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the coastal Alabama communities work to spread those numbers out more evenly throughout the year. Doing so helps the local businesses maintain enough business to stay open during the spring, fall and winter months, which helps their employees keep their jobs and maintain a steady income throughout the year rather than making the bulk of their annual income in the three summer months. Among the ways the coastal communities have diversified their economies beyond their number one attraction (the beach), have been through recruiting more sporting events throughout the year and through promoting shoulder or off-season events like Coastal Christmas and attracting more winter visitors.

As the nature tourism specialist for the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, one of the ways I am aiding those efforts is through the technical assistance I provide to the Alabama Gulf Coast Reef & Restoration Foundation, a nonprofit committed to enhancing Alabama’s already impressive artificial reef program through deploying and restoring artificial reefs for fishing and SCUBA diving.

Although Alabama has a very small section of coastline, it boasts the largest artificial reef program in the United States with over 1,200 square miles of permitted reef zones. Begun in the 1950s by the local fishing fleet as an effort to increase vertical habitat for reef fish on the flat sand bottom of Alabama’s Gulf Coast, thousands of artificial reefs have been added in the years since with structures being as varied as car bodies, Army tanks, Liberty ships, chicken coops and limestone-concrete pyramids and other structures created by local Orange Beach businessman, David Walter, and his team at Walter Marine. As a result, Alabama now has some of the finest saltwater fishing anywhere.

In 2012, Walter purchased a retired 271-foot long cargo freighter and towed it to his Orange Beach facility, hoping that his home state would find a way to sink it in Alabama waters. As the largest ship to travel that section of the Intracoastal Waterway, the vessel created quite a stir on social media and many folks turned out to see the vessel arrive in Orange Beach.

Capitalizing on the community’s enthusiasm, the local business chamber created a committee to explore the possibility of purchasing the ship and making it Alabama’s first wholly-intact ship to be purposefully sunk to attract a previously untapped segment of tourists: SCUBA divers. With the mild climate in coastal Alabama, SCUBA diving is pleasant as soon as the Gulf waters begin to warm in the spring, throughout the fall and lasting sometimes into winter, making it perfect for expanding opportunities for visitors to come during the shoulder and off-seasons, when lodging costs are lower and restaurants, shops and roads are less crowded.

Soon a nonprofit foundation was formed, funds were raised and the ship, renamed the “LuLu,” was deployed amid much fanfare Memorial Day weekend 2013. In its first year, the LuLu received significant media attention, reaching approximately 11 million people worldwide and putting Alabama squarely on the map as a blossoming SCUBA diving destination.

Photo credit: Chandra Wright/Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium
Photo credit: Chandra Wright/Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium

Since then, the foundation has deployed a second vessel, the Capt. Shirley Brown, and started Poseidon’s Playground, a shallow-water site (40 feet is the maximum depth) of underwater statues designed with children divers in mind but appropriate for divers of all experience levels, as well as instructors looking for a good saltwater training location. Currently, the foundation is working with the Alabama Marine Resources Division to obtain permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for three snorkeling reef sites. Tentatively scheduled for deployment in 2017, those reefs will create more habitat for marine creatures close to shore and allow more people (residents and visitors) to connect with our underwater world without needing SCUBA certification and gear.

Following the LuLu’s deployment in 2013, two new dive shops have opened in coastal Alabama, new jobs have been created, more SCUBA divers have gotten certified and more media interest has been generated - all of which increase the economic impact of nature tourism and lengthen the season for the diving businesses as well as their lodging, dining and shopping partners.

Photo credit: Lila Harris/Aquatic Soul Photography
Photo credit: Lila Harris/Aquatic Soul Photography

It is a privilege to provide the technical assistance and resources of Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant to help the foundation and its partners create more resilient communities by adding new sustainable tourism options that help diversify the economy, and I look forward to deploying more reefs in the years to come.   

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