It might as well be the year 1519, the same year that Spanish conquistador Alonzo Alverez de Pineda first sailed into the bay he named Espiritu Santo, the Holy Spirit.
The explorer was the first to map the curves and dips of Mobile Bay and much of the Gulf Coast. He was the first outsider to meet the thousands of animal and plant species that called the area home.
Now, 500 years later, award winning environmental journalist Ben Raines skates in his boat across the top of those same waters of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, pushing the craft’s nose gently into the same hidden crevices that Pineda took care in measuring and charting.
Larger vessels full of fishermen hurry past, headed to the Gulf’s open waters never venturing up these water-logged trails that lead deep into wetlands, floodplain forests and the estuary. It is here in these places, hidden in plain sight, that Raines sees the same world that Pineda did – green, flourishing spaces exploding with life so diverse it has been dubbed “America’s Amazon.”
Alligators sit quietly as the boat floats past. White Delta lilies puncture the bright backdrop of green and blue. Above an osprey tears across the sky in an offensive move against an American Bald Eagle. The larger bird soars and then strikes, the pair tussle, fall and strike again as they fight for dominance of their treetop world.
Raines knows those fishermen may never cruise up into these paths and witness the amazing beauty they hold. He knows that many residents in neighboring Mobile and Baldwin counties may not even know this place exists.
He also knows that without help he may be among the last generation to have the opportunity to savor the beauty that remains largely unchanged since Pineda first found it so stunning he christened it with a moniker inspired by the heavens themselves.
This year Raines, a Fairhope resident, released Saving America’s Amazon. The book is filled with facts, numbers and studies that help the uninitiated understand the importance of the waters that most hurry past each day on the Bayway.
It is also full of Raines’ breathtaking photography of the Delta and stories of the animals and plants he has met there over the years. It reads like a love letter to Alabama herself and an impassioned plea to the rest of us to help him save her.
“To protect something people have to love it,” Raines says as he looks around the buzzing delta. “We are in the process of making more people love it.”
Don’t look away
Raines, who was born in Alabama, grew up hopping from state to state to follow his father’s newspaper career. In each place, he says, he connected with the natural world around him.
In Florida, his family lived on a small lake and at age six Raines was allowed to boat on his own, but not swim. Each day he rowed out of sight and dove into the water. He headed home only after his hair had dried.
Later, as a teen, he joined the Boy Scouts to spend more weekends camping than his family allotted. He nurtured six aquariums full of creatures in his bedroom.
As an adult, that love of nature fueled an award-winning career in environmental journalism. As newsrooms shuttered and slashed staffs, those fighting to keep Alabama’s rivers safe from pollution were forced to find other ways to continue to shine a light on the destruction.
“When you don’t have that loud voice of journalism there is a lot they are going to get away with when no one is paying attention,” Raines says.
Raines quickly became one of the region’s foremost environmental watchdogs. He served as the executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation for a number of years and worked on several books and films including the 2017 documentary, The Underwater Forest, an exploration of the ancient underwater cypress forest in the Gulf of Mexico.
In 2018, Raines made history when he discovered the remnants of the Clotilda, the last American slave ship, at the bottom of the Mobile River near Twelve Mile Island. Now he is working on two more documentaries and another book.
Every once and a while he offers personal tours of the Delta. After a single online post, he booked enough gigs to fill the coming months. Many visitors, he says, are unprepared for how overwhelmed they will be by the beauty of this place, once considered for National Park status.
“Everybody that comes here leaves with a sense of wonder,” Raines says. “They didn’t know this was here.”
Really, in Alabama?
Nationally Alabama is known for being the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, the Jim Crowe era and many of the darkest days in American history. Ask anyone outside of the state for a one-word description and rarely will it touch upon the phrase, “biological oasis” a quote in Raines’ books from scientists exploring Alabama’s central waterways.
Alabama’s modern ecological wonders are compliments of its climate, millions of years ago.
When glaciers covered much of North America, Alabama was cold, Raines says, but not cold enough to freeze. That meant ecosystems survived and continued to flourish and evolve. The animals, flora and fauna in Alabama now are the result of millions of years of evolution. Life on much of the rest of the continent is just thousands of years old after those regions were snuffed out by frozen ice sheets.
The result is that Alabama is one of the most biologically diverse places on the continent.
As Raines explains in his book, the Mobile River system drains most of the state and is the most diverse river network in North America – 77,000 miles of water stretching from the Appalachian foothills to the white sugar sands of Gulf Shores’ beaches.
Lots of water means lots of wildlife.
More than one-third of all known freshwater fish species in the U.S. Canada and Mexico are native to Alabama’s rivers and creeks. The waters of Alabama are home to more species of fish, crayfish, salamanders, mussels, snails and turtles per square mile than any other aquatic system in North America.
And, new species are being found every year. In January, 2020, for example, researchers found two new types of burrowing crayfish: the Lonesome Gravedigger and the Banded Mudbug. Both are tiny and bright blue in color. Every new discovery is a reminder about how much we don’t know about the water we live near.
What Alabama lacks is protection for these creatures and places.
Raines said forward thinking leaders in industry and government in other states have helped to protect those wild places. But Alabama, he said, “has always been 20 years behind the environmental movement.”
There are no large universities here sending biology graduate students out into the Delta to study it. Ecotourism is just emerging here after being a driving force in the economy of other states for the past century.
The Delta is poorly understood even by scientists, Raines said.
“We are home to one of most diverse places in North America and almost nobody knows it,” Raines said.
Raines’ book, Saving America’s Amazon, is beautiful. The pictures are enchanting. But the end of the story is still being written. Is it a fairy tale or a horror novel? That, Raines makes clear, is up to the reader.
Throughout the book, Raines reminds readers not just what might be lost, but also, how.
Locks and damns built up and down Alabama’s waterways stop the natural flow of migrating fish. Industrial and agricultural pollution rolls into the creeks, streams and rivers causing havoc.
The edges of those waterways “are the biological hot spot in any ecosystem” he says. These areas are the most critical to protect. They are the literal definition of wetland.
It is also where the most hard-fought battles occur between people and nature.
“Those edges, that interface between land and water, the people, animals and plants, they all want to be there,” he says. “When the rub between those three grows, in Alabama, money always wins.”
In other states, Raines says, it is common to see a 25-foot buffer required by law around every waterway. There is no such rule in Alabama. In fact, Raines points out in his book that Alabama has more aquatic species than any other state, more per square mile than any other state yet spends the least amount of money to protect them.
The result is that Alabama also ranks first in the highest number of extinctions in the continental United States. The state has lost nearly twice as many creatures as any other.
What you can do
So, what now?
As Raines’ boat speeds past an alligator floating along the edge of the banks and towards the hum of trucks cruising along the Bayway, the vibrant colors of the delta give way to the dull greys of the manmade structures that rise above it.
Progress has literally cut through this place of wonder. What can one person do?
Raines says involvement is the best way to help.
First, he says, and perhaps most importantly, join local environmental groups that support the issues important to you.
As those organizations grow in membership, so does their voice in the halls of the state legislature and the state capital. More memberships also mean more resources.
Mobile Baykeeper, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the Mobile Bay watershed, employed just one full-time worker upon opening its doors 20 years ago. Today their team includes nearly 20 paid staff members.
Residents, Raines said, need to begin speaking up for their state and paying attention to what laws harm and what laws protect the environment. They need to speak out. They need to believe.
Raines said despite what seems like an impossible task, the Delta, and all its wonders can be saved.
“I wouldn’t be spending all my time on this if I didn’t have hope. I believe in this,” he says.