Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Estuarium (DISL)

Dauphin Island Sea Lab The Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) is a marine research and education center located on the east end of Dauphin Island, a barrier island off Alabama‘s Gulf Coast in Mobile County. Surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile Bay, and the Mississippi Sound, it is an ideal setting for marine research. DISL coordinates education programs with Alabama schools and universities and informs and offers the public opportunities to learn about the marine environment and its ecosystems through its aquarium and marine science museum, the Estuarium. The DISL campus spans 36 acres with more than 39 buildings, including class rooms, laboratories, offices, and living and recreational quarters for up to 160 students, faculty, and staff.

Ray Tank at the Dauphin Island Estuarium The DISL was created in 1971 by the Alabama legislature to organize and consolidate the state’s marine science education programs and was built that same year on the site of the former Dauphin Island Annex of Brookley Air Force base near historic Fort Gaines. In 1972, the state established the Marine Environmental Sciences Consortium (MESC) to streamline marine education resources and named DISL the administrative home of the Consortium. DISL is also a member of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium (MASGC), a cooperative of nine educational institutions devoted to scholarship on and economic development within coastal systems, one of 30 such agencies of the National Sea Grant program of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). At the time of its creation, MESC membership consisted of 14 Alabama colleges and universities that used the DISL for summer field programs; as of 2016, 17 of the 22 member institutions participated in the lab’s undergraduate summer program and four institutions in the graduate program. The facility hosts marine science students who attend classes and perform laboratory- and field-based research. Eight of the participating institutions grant graduate degrees in conjunction with studies at DISL. The facility offers several graduate-level courses during fall and spring semesters, and the majority of enrolled students attend the University of South Alabama (USA) in nearby Mobile. Out-of-state students can attend courses at DISL by registering under transient status through any MESC school.

In 1973, MESC introduced K-12 education when it rented DISL space to Tennessee high school teacher Kelton Tidwell for a high school program. In 1974, the program became the Marine Biology Institute in conjunction with the Sea Lab, and in 1975 continued under the name Discovery Hall (named after the British research vessel Discovery) with USA biology instructor Tom Walker at the helm. From 1978-2009, Sea Lab instructor and USA professor John Dindo was chair of Discovery Hall, and today it is led by Tina Miller-Way, director for education and outreach. Discovery Hall offers marine science education programs of varying lengths and intensities to primary- and secondary-school students. The program has become one of the largest marine-science education programs in the nation. Instruction for the youngest students includes educational beach walks and “touch labs”—similar to petting zoos but with the preserved bodies of sea creatures. Upper-level high school students earn credit for completing sessions similar to college-level course work. The program also provides public outreach and teacher-training services.

R/V Alabama Discovery DISL and its staff also are involved in research and environmental protection efforts. In March 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated Mobile Bay an estuary of national significance, making it one of 28 U.S. estuaries targeted by the EPA for preservation through its National Estuary Program (as authorized by the Clean Water Act of 1987 and the Estuaries and Clean Water Act of 2000). Six months later, the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP) was established, administered, and funded by the EPA in partnership with other government agencies, businesses, and private groups (including DISL) to manage and promote protection of the newly designated estuary. The DISL also serves as the host institution for the Coastal Policy Center (CPC), a consortium of scientists, planners, and teachers who consult with various government and private agencies on matters of sustainable coastal resource development. In 2002, the MBNEP established a conservation plan as its mission statement and partnered with CPC for a broader approach to managing the estuary.

In 2005, DISL acquired the marine research vessel, E.O. Wilson, named for and christened by Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard entomologist and Alabama native Edward O. Wilson. Through an educational bond issued to raise funds for a floating classroom, DISL acquired the 65-foot research vessel Alabama Discovery in 2008. This vessel allows for up to 44 passengers and crew to participate in trawls in Mobile Bay and explore near-shore environments of the Gulf of Mexico waters. In 2007, DISL broke ground on the Richard C. Shelby Center for Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management, which is located at the entrance to the DISL campus and named for Alabama senator Richard Shelby. Completed in 2009, this 15,000-square-foot structure is a gold-certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building, the first on Alabama’s coast and designed to be energy-efficient and ecologically friendly. The Shelby Center research programs are funded by the University of South Alabama, the Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, the Nature Conservancy, MASCGC, and the National Science Foundation.

DISL employees and affiliated researchers also have contributed more widely to the marine science knowledge base. In March 2007, for instance, DISL marine scientist Sean Powers co-authored a scientific paper that links depleted shark populations in the Atlantic with the rising stingray population. Gulf of Mexico Science, a biannual journal published by the MESC, reports findings of marine scientists working in the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding waters. Outside institutions and organizations, including the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (held off Dauphin Island every summer), coordinate with scientists and student researchers at DISL to provide samples of sea life for study. DISL executive director George F. Crozier retired in 2007 after 30 years at the helm and John Dindo, director of the Discovery Hall Program, served as interim DISL executive director until L. Scott Quackenbush assumed those duties in July 2008. Tragically, Dr. Quackenbush died four months into the position, and the Board of Directors asked Crozier to return for a two-to-three year interim. On June 1, 2011, the MESC executive committee named John F. Valentine as DISL executive director.

Dauphin Island Estuarium The Estuarium portion of the complex opened in 1998 to display the flora and fauna of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, Mobile Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico and to promote the preservation of the estuary’s fragile ecosystem. The facility, which charges a modest entrance fee, includes a “living marsh” boardwalk and a 12,000-square-foot exhibit hall. Four galleries of displays contain the habitats and inhabitants of the region. A number of smaller aquaria showcase individual aquatic species. In March 2017, a new addition titled “Windows to the Sea” opened in which visitors can enjoy technology-based exhibits that offer videos on climate change, marine habitats, and DISL programming overviews. The Estuarium is open year-round, and activities for the public include Sea Lab Summer Excursions, a program offering educational field trips through DISL’s partnership with the North Gulf Coast Institute and “touch tanks” where visitors can handle live marine animals.

In addition, the DISL Foundation, the sea lab’s non-profit fundraising arm, has established the George F. Crozier Endowment to fund expansion of the lab’s educational programs. The two primary annual fundraisers of the Foundation are the “Cocktails with Critters” held in May and the Marine Environmental Awards Luncheon held in the fall. In 2016, the awards luncheon featured Sylvia Earle, a famed oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer in Residence.

DISL is overseen by the MESC board of directors, made up of the presidents and chancellors of its 22 member institutions, with an executive committee representing Auburn University, Troy University, the University of Alabama, the University of Montevallo, and the University of South Alabama.

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