As Earth Day rapidly approaches, we are reminded of countless ways to appreciate, cherish and give back to the world that exists around us. Name a more immersive way to explore the Earth than learning about our local ecosystems and how their diversity influences our city. Welcome to our monthly Partner of the Month feature, "In the Spotlight," where local businesses' impact is celebrated within Visit Mobile and beyond! We are thrilled to showcase April's Partner of the Month, The Alabama Aquarium at Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Join us for a Q&A session with the aquarium's Marine Educator, Mendel Graeber.

Q: When did the business open?

A: The Alabama Aquarium (originally named The Estuarium) opened as the public aquarium of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) in 1998.

Q: What services or products does your business offer?

A: The Alabama Aquarium provides a fun, immersive learning experience that highlights the animals and ecosystems of coastal Alabama. We also offer several economically-priced Excursions into DISL research labs and local ecosystems. These include Salt Marsh Excursions, Beach, Dune, Maritime Forest Excursions, Boat Excursions, and DISL Research Lab Guided Tours. We also have onsite a Gift Shop for souvenirs of your visit and a Snack Shack, where you can get a light meal or a sweet treat.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?

A: I enjoy teaching about DISL research and the animals and ecosystems of coastal Alabama.

Q: What is your business most known for?

Immersing visitors in our local ecosystems and engaging them in learning about current scientific research

Q: Share a fond memory of your time as an employee at this Mobile business.

A: Many years ago, we got word that a Mola mola had washed up on the beach. Also called ocean sunfish, these are one of the largest bony fish in the world. They are not normally found in shallow coastal areas like Alabama’s shore, and I’d never before seen one here, nor have I since. While it was sad to find this animal dying, it was very interesting to see this huge fish up close and touch its skin that felt like coarse sanding block. Everyone who had the privilege of seeing it was awestruck, and that shared sense of wonder is one of the defining qualities of the DISL community. We explore wild places and encounter wild animals and share these wonders with everyone we can. To share the Mola mola, one of our aquarists made a cast of the fish and from that a wonderful model of the very sunfish that washed up on Dauphin Island. That model hangs in the Aquarium still, and you can find it in our Gulf of Mexico gallery.

Q: What do you think makes your business unique?

A: The Alabama Aquarium is unique for its local focus, on nature and on current Sea Lab research. It is also unique for the quality of the educational experience. Coastal Alabama has remarkable natural diversity and ecological richness, and the Aquarium highlights the wonders of our local waters and shores. Scientists at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab do world-class research, and the Aquarium affords visitors contact with researchers and the tools and products of their research. The Sea Lab has also long valued and prioritized K12 and public education as part of its mission, and the education faculty is experienced and accomplished at engaging learners of all ages.

Q: What do you think makes Mobile unique?

A: Mobile has a long history of human habitation. This is tied to the area’s abundant food and material resources and waterways for travelling and trading from the Gulf of Mexico, north through the large river system. This confluence of cultural and natural richness is celebrated and honored here in this lively city.

Q: What has been your most meaningful accomplishment so far?

A: Our mission is to educate, to engender an appreciation for our local animals and ecosystems, to share emerging science and improve understanding of the practice of science. To me, this work is meaningful, and whenever we inspire someone to continue learning, to value science, to connect with nature, we have accomplished something of significance.

Q: Fun fact that people might not know about your business!

A: DISL’s campus was once a U.S. Air Force Base and many of the buildings onsite have been re-purposed from their military origins. The round building seen near our parking lot was used by the Air Force as an early warning radar station during the Cold War. Now, it is the animal husbandry building for the Alabama Aquarium.

Q: If you had to recommend one thing for a guest to experience while visiting the island, what would it be?

A: Pair a visit to the Alabama Aquarium with a field Excursion to the beach or the salt marsh or out into Mobile Bay. Or get a behind the scenes look at the research spaces at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Excursion tickets are available on our website.

Q: Tell us a bit about the education and outreach opportunities through the Aquarium and/or the Dauphin Island Sea Lab.

A: On April 6th, 2024, DISL is holding our annual open house, Discovery Day! Visitors can tour marine science laboratories, where cutting-edge oceanography, marine biology, and coastal ecology research is conducted. This is free and open to the public with reduced admission to the Aquarium. It’s a fun, festival-style event with education booths hosting science lessons and hands-on activities showcasing research and outreach programs at the Sea Lab and at many local partner organizations.

A visit to the Alabama Aquarium is a wonderful educational experience. On first and third Wednesdays of the month, we hold Boardwalk Talks, free and open to the public, at the Aquarium. These are informal chats with experts, and we discuss a wide range of topics. We offer several economically-priced Excursions into DISL research labs and local ecosystems. These include Salt Marsh Excursions, Beach, Dune, Maritime Forest Excursions, Boat Excursions, and DISL Research Lab Guided Tours. Tickets can be purchased on our website.

Our Discovery Hall Programs offer many educational opportunities for kids and families. These include Sea Lab Science Fridays, Family Camps, summer day camps and residential camps, and a month-long marine science course for high school students.

Q: How does the DISL contribute to wildlife conservation and rehabilitation?

A: DISL is a scientific research institution, so it is not usually directly involved in conservation and rehabilitation activities except in a research and education capacity. For example, researchers here may study the effectiveness of different conservation methods, and the results may be used to improve and refine those methods for future projects. For another example, DISL scientists conduct population studies that are used by resource managers to inform decisions about what species should be targeted for conservation and what measures are indicated. Our efforts to educate and instill an appreciation for wildlife and wild places contribute to a conservation ethic when people learn to value and protect nature.