Cruising Alabama’s Coastal Backwaters

Tommy Rachel got into the boat tour business in an unorthodox way.

It involved balloons. Tommy’s Taking Off Hot Air Balloon Company takes clients for balloon rides, and balloon ascensions can only happen under ideal weather conditions. Along the Alabama Gulf Coast the weather is sometimes not ideal, so Tommy developed the idea of taking people for nature cruises around the coastal backwaters, an area ideal for spotting birds and wildlife.

many boathouses in the area have mailboxes

One beautiful fall morning we boarded his 25-foot Panga boat (developed in Central America for use in deep or shallow water) just outside Magnolia Springs, Alabama at Tommy’s family farm which is home to a variety of rescued animals including donkeys, potbellied pigs, goats and poultry. Tommy has a number of pickup spots for his boating clients, including a couple which are convenient for those staying at the Gulf beaches. Today we cruised down Nolte Creek near the home of Brutus the 7-foot alligator (who was out prospecting for brunch) past the remnants of the old ferry which served the area before the creek was bridged. This is one of the few places left in the country where mail is delivered by boat; many of the boathouses we passed had mailboxes.  Tommy says one hazard of getting mail by water is having to deal with mail-robbing gangs of raccoons.

Golden Eagles nest in this stand of trees

Tommy’s boat tours may head up the Magnolia River to look at the elegant homes lining its shores, or all the way out to the lighthouses in Mobile Bay. We were headed across Weeks Bay into Mobile Bay in search of golden eagles which arrive this time of year to spend the winter near the coast. Bald eagles nest in this area too, and ospreys along with great blue herons can be seen fishing year round. In spring and fall, Monarch butterflies flutter past on their migratory route.

A Great Blue Heron fishes from an old pier

We passed pods of dolphins and shoals of mullet jumping; in the summer, visitors may see manatees. As we watched pelicans diving, Tommy noted that they along with ospreys and eagles have made a comeback in recent years. Brown pelicans are plentiful on Gaillard Island, a spoil island created in Mobile Bay out of dredged material. The island, which doesn’t have predators, is the ideal spot for pelicans, terns and other ground-nesting birds and Tommy especially likes to take clients out there in spring after the young birds have hatched.

At the shoreline stand of trees which is home to the golden eagles, we spotted a big dark bird weaving through the pines; we don’t know if it was a golden eagle, but we did spot bald eagles, including a mated pair, perched in the trees along the water’s edge.

Tommy Rachel’s boat tours are headquartered in Magnolia Springs, Alabama, near the Alabama Gulf Coast. In addition to fishing trips, he offers nature cruises ranging from two hours to all day. For more information check the website at and click the Boat Tour button.

Photos by Jack Purser


Kathie Farnell
Kathie Farnell
Freelance writer Kathie Farnell lives in Foley, Alabama, ten miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, with her husband, photographer Jack Purser, and a flock of cats. She has written travel articles for print and web publications since 1992, and also produces programming for public television and radio through her nonprofit corporation, Artemis Media Project. The couple enjoy exploring off-the-beaten-path destinations and spending time on the Gulf beaches.

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