Second in size only to the Mississippi River Delta, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta spreads across 250,000 acres north of Mobile Bay. Congress declared this wet wilderness a National Natural Landmark in 1974.
Many thousands of people glimpse these marshes every day as they drive along Interstate 10 or U.S. 98, better known as Battleship Parkway or the Mobile Causeway, between Mobile and Spanish Fort. But most people never venture into these wetlands. With an airboat, people can easily tour this special wilderness sitting almost in the shadow of downtown Mobile.
From February through mid-November, Geoff and Brittany Woodliff leave daily from the Causeway to take people on airboat tours. Also called a fan boat, an airboat uses the power of an aircraft engine and propeller safely enclosed in a wire cage to push a boat over weeds, through extremely shallow waters or even over wet mud.
“I saw my first airboat when I was about 10 and I’ve been interested ever since,” Geoff says. “We use two 18-foot Diamondback airboats, each with big block Chevrolet 496 engine that creates about 460 horsepower. These boats are very versatile with shallow drafts. They can go where other boats cannot go. We have mufflers on them to be as ecofriendly and noise-friendly as possible.”
Geoff is from northern Alabama and Brittany is from Florida; both fell in love with the delta and each other. Married since 2008, the two U.S. Coast Guard certified captains began their airboat business about 15 years ago. Now they run tours seven days a week, weather permitting.
“We never do a tour exactly the same way,” Geoff says. “It just depends on what we see and what the people in the boat want to do. Every tour is customized for them. Sometimes people don’t care about the plants, trees and flowers. They just want to go fast and have fun. That’s fine. Some people want to shoot a lot of photos. We tailor it to the people on the boat.”
On each tour, passengers might see numerous herons, egrets, pelicans and other birds or waterfowl. Passengers might also see feral pigs, raccoons, snakes, otters, turtles, fish and other creatures that call the delta home. The captain stops the boat regularly to point out various plants or animals and provide information about them, often sprinkled with a few tall tales and good-natured jokes.
“All kinds of animals live out there,” Geoff says. “One of our most unusual sightings was a bobcat swimming in the water. Every now and then we see a deer, but they usually hear the airboat and run off. I think the people enjoy how we stop to talk to them. It’s not just a ride. It’s an adventure. If someone wants to take a picture, we stop so they can take it.”
Of course, most people want to see alligators. Many riders come from places where they cannot see tidal marshes or wild alligators. During warmer months, guests frequently see alligators, including some really big ones.
“I really enjoyed looking at the alligators almost eye to eye in the water,” says Marie Wines, who with her husband, Jeff, now lives in Spanish Fort. “The captain gave us an education on the alligators and about how the temperature of the nest determines the sex of the alligators in the eggs. That was very interesting. Whenever someone comes to visit us, we take them out here because it’s an education and it’s fun. We don’t see this kind of terrain in Ohio.”
“Captain Geoff always does a great job,” echoes Jeff. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s entertaining too. He tells us a lot of interesting facts about the alligators and the birds. We learn something new every time we go out with Geoff. He tells a different story and takes a little different route every time.”
Marie and Jeff grew up in Canton, Ohio. On this occasion, they brought Jeff’s father, Ernest Wines. A Korean War veteran who still lives in Ohio, Ernest had never ridden in an airboat before.
“I thought it was really great,” Ernest says. “The captain knows how to drive that boat. I’ve never been in a marsh before. We saw some things I’ve never seen before. There’s a lot of fish out there. My favorite part was when we were going through the reeds. It was quite a sensation.”
To book a tour, call the Woodliffs at 251-370-7089 in Spanish Fort or visit airboatexpress.com.