Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Estuarium (DISL)


The Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) is a marine research, policy, and education center located on the east end of Dauphin Island, a barrier island off Alabama's Gulf Coast in Mobile County. The Dauphin Island Sea Lab, located in southern Dauphin Island Sea LabSurrounded 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 30 buildings, including class rooms, laboratories, offices, and living and recreational quarters for up to 160 students, faculty, and staff.

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 its marine education system and gave the organization oversight of DISL. DISL also joined 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, MESC membership consisted of 17 Alabama colleges and universities that used the DISL for summer field programs; as of 2010, A young visitor comes face to face with Moray Eel at the Dauphin Island Estuarium21 institutions participated in the lab's summer and graduate programs. The facility hosts marine science students who attend classes and perform research. Eight of the participating institutions grant graduate degrees in conjunction with studies at the sea lab. The DISL 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 an 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 chairman of Discovery Hall, and today it is led by Tina Miller-Way, associate 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.

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 The 65-foot research vessel A.E. Verrill is the R/V A.E. Verrill(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 a new marine research vessel, E.O. Wilson, named for and christened by Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard entomologist and Alabama native Edward O. Wilson. In 2007, DISL broke ground on the site of the future Richard C. Shelby Center for Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management, which will be located at the entrance to the DISL. A 15,000-square-foot structure, it will be a certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building, the first on Alabama's coast. LEED buildings are designed to be energy-efficient and ecologically friendly. Construction of the $2 million facility, named for Alabama senator Richard Shelby who appropriated the funds, is slated to be completed in September 2009. Shelby Center research programs will be funded by the University of South Alabama, the Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, and potentially from pending proposals to MASCGC and the National Science Foundation.

Sea Lab 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 examples of sea life for study. DISL Executive Director George F. Crozier retired in 2007 after 30 years at the helm and L. Scott Quackenbush assumed those duties in July 2008; Dindo, the lab's assistant director, served as interim director in early 2008. Tragically, Dr. Quackenbush died four months into the position and the Board of Directors asked Dr. Crozier to return for a two-to-three year interim.

Young visitors take the opportunity to touch a Dauphin Island EstuariumThe Estuarium portion of the complex opened in 1998 to display the flora and fauna of 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 10,000-square-foot exhibit hall. Four galleries of displays contain the habitats and inhabitants of the barrier islands, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, Mobile Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. A number of smaller aquaria showcase individual aquatic species. 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 fund-raising arm, has established the George F. Crozier Endowment to fund expansion of the lab's educational programs. DISL is overseen by the MESC board of directors, made up of chief executive officers of its member institutions. The DISL's summary budget for 2009 was approximately $5.6 million, down from $6.6 million in 2008, with an additional Alabama Special Educational Trust Fund appropriation of $3.9 million. External funding for other expenses such as construction vary dramatically year-to-year.

Ben Berntson
Auburn University


Published August 27, 2009
Last updated August 27, 2013