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On A Tour Of 'America's Amazon,' Flora, Fauna And Glimpses Of Alabama's Past

A field of pitcher plants are nestled in a bog within the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Ben Raines calls pitcher plants "carnivorous wonders" because they draw most of their nutrients from insects they kill and digest.
A field of pitcher plants are nestled in a bog within the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Ben Raines calls pitcher plants "carnivorous wonders" because they draw most of their nutrients from insects they kill and digest.

On a bright November morning, the writer and photographer Ben Raines launches his fishing boat into Mobile Bay, the city's skyline visible in the distance.

"Right on the doorstep of this big American city, we have one of the largest intact wilderness areas in the country, certainly one of the largest wetland wilderness areas," he says, pulling away from the dock.

His boat is at the top of Mobile Bay, where a confluence of freshwater rivers flow into the salt marsh and eventually drain into the Gulf of Mexico. It's known as the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

"Coming out in a boat in the delta, you may as well be in the Amazon," Raines says. "It's just so seductive."

In his new book, Saving America's Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation's Most Biodiverse River System, Raines explores the remarkable array of flora and fauna, as well as the history, found in this vast river delta on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Think pitcher plant bogs, purple iris fields, colorful dart fish and tiny seahorses.

"We are in the most diverse river system in North America," says Raines, navigating upriver as captain and tour guide. "There are more species of fish, turtles, snails, salamanders, crawfish and mussels here than any other river system in America."

The Mobile-Tensaw Delta is "the most diverse river system in North America," says Ben Raines. "There are more species of fish, turtles, snails, salamanders, crawfish and mussels here than any other river system in America."
/ Ben Raines
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The Mobile-Tensaw Delta is "the most diverse river system in North America," says Ben Raines. "There are more species of fish, turtles, snails, salamanders, crawfish and mussels here than any other river system in America."

The Nature Conservancy has ranked Alabama No. 5 in the U.S. for biodiversity — putting a relatively small state in competition with the likes of California, Texas and Florida. Yet Raines says the Mobile Delta gets little recognition — with Alabama much more famous for its football prowess and fraught racial history than its natural wonders.

"Part of the reason it escaped notice is because it was in Alabama," he says. "We have this long history. We have this incredible natural place with all these species, and it's escaped destruction largely through benign neglect."

But Raines' book, which comes out Dec. 15, notes how pressure is mounting. There's pollution from industry on the banks, more and more people moving to the coast, and the damming of the rivers upstream.

He says it's critical to protect the edges, where the land and water interface.

"That's always the hot zone in biological terms — where aquatic creatures and land creatures, terrestrial creatures, interact," says Raines.

But he says that's also where people want to be, living by the water and exploiting the abundant resources.

"That edge is where all the biological activity happens," says Raines. "If we don't protect it, if we build on top of it, and live on top of it, or destroy it through logging, what have you, we lose that."

A step back in time

Fields of iris are seen around Alabama's Little Bateau Bay. The plants play an important role in the swamp ecosystem, helping to hold the mud in place.
/ Ben Raines
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Fields of iris are seen around Alabama's Little Bateau Bay. The plants play an important role in the swamp ecosystem, helping to hold the mud in place.

"We're gonna run up and then we'll tuck up into the swamp," Raines says, picking up speed in his boat, the Auriculatus, named for an extinct giant shark whose teeth he finds in the region.

We pass the remains of a military battery first built by the Spanish trying to keep the French at bay. He says it was later occupied by the confederate forces during the Civil War.

"They dug a trench on the other side to pull barges in back in the Civil War," Raines says. "And they made that hill to put the cannons on top up so they could shoot that little bit further."

At another spot, he is able to spot shards of Native American pottery, and an alligator sunning on the river bank as white pelicans fly overhead.

Further upriver, the landscape shifts from sea grasses lining wide open muddy water, to more narrow swamps and black water bayous with huge cypress trees on the shoreline.

It's like stepping back in time. Raines says the area has likely looked much the same since the Ice Age.

"Really that's the secret of Alabama's diversity," he says. "The reason we have all these creatures is because Alabama never froze and so everything that ever evolved here is essentially still here."

Efforts to establish a Mobile Delta national park have fallen short — even with support from noted Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, an Alabama native who wrote the foreword to Saving America's Amazon.

"This is such a haunted place"

The eye of a two-foot long alligator creeps out of the water in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
/ Ben Raines
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The eye of a two-foot long alligator creeps out of the water in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

Raines, a former environmental reporter and photographer for the local newspaper, has spent 20 years documenting the Mobile Delta.

But his most significant discovery came two years ago in the Mobile River.

"This is where the wreck of the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to America was found and I actually found it right here behind us," says Raines, beaching his boat in tall seagrass.

"The ship is about 20 feet deep," Raines says. "It's cock-eyed in the mud. You can follow its outline around the edge and feel the ship shape of it."

It's the Clotilda — long rumored to exist, a ghost that haunted both descendants of the enslaved, and the family of the man that brought them here around 1860, on a bet.

Ben Raines has spent 20 years documenting the Mobile Delta, but he made his most significant discovery two years ago when he found the wreck of the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to America.
Debbie Elliott / NPR
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Ben Raines has spent 20 years documenting the Mobile Delta, but he made his most significant discovery two years ago when he found the wreck of the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to America.

"A wealthy plantation owner and steamboat captain named Timothy Meaher bet that he could smuggle a bunch of slaves into the country, which was illegal and had been for 50 years," he says. "You could still have slaves, but you couldn't bring in Africans."

Just before the start of the Civil War, the Clotilda returned from West Africa with 110 captives and snuck in through this network of rivers instead of coming through the port of Mobile. The captives were hidden in the swamp thicket.

"After they got all the slaves off the boat, they lit it on fire and sank it to hide evidence of the crime," says Raines, who is now working on a book about the Clotilda. "We're in a very desolate place. There's nothing around. The reason the ship is here is because they wanted to hide it. And they wanted no one to know what they had done and where they had done it."

On the shore by the site of the shipwreck, Spanish moss drapes from the cypress trees along the shore creating a ghostly image.

"This is such a haunted place," Raines says.

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