New Mobile exhibit is a must see

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 16, 2015

By David Rainer

With the holiday season upon us, plenty of people will be traveling around the state. Usually there is a bit of “down” time during the holidays, and a new exhibit on the Alabama coast should be on everybody’s must-see list.

It’s called the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf Coast on the banks of the Mobile River in downtown Mobile.

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I need to add one cautionary note: Allow plenty of time to enjoy the enormous museum. An hour or two is just not going to be enough time. Plan to spend at least four hours or more to do justice to the bountiful knowledge and experience that can be gained from exploring the five decks of a simulated sea-going vessel. The 90 exhibits, many of them interactive, provide examples of the shipping industry, the ship-building industry, marine recreational opportunities and the natural resources utilized to make life on the Gulf Coast so enjoyable and important to our nation’s economy.

Other than the exhibits, the 120,000 square-foot GulfQuest includes a museum store, a museum café and event space. In addition to the excellent entertainment value, the museum provides a major educational attraction for Mobile and the state of Alabama.

Mike Beasley, GulfQuest’s Development Director, and Diana Brewer, the museum’s Marketing and Public Relations Director, shared the history behind the genesis of the museum idea and how it was accomplished.

“Even in the gift shop, we have screens that are tracking the ships coming up and down the bay and the river, whether it’s tugboats or barges or container ships,” Beasley said. “It tells you where they’re coming from and what they’ve got on board. We get ships from all over the world.”

And at the entrance of the museum, the café and gift shop are open to the public without paying the museum fee.

“People don’t have to have a ticket to come have lunch and enjoy the view of the river,” Beasley said. “They can watch the river traffic with the best seats in Mobile.”

For those who buy a ticket to the museum, visitors are urged to sit in the state-of-the-art theater and watch an introduction video that highlights life on the Gulf Coast, from harvesting oysters to the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo to loading enormous container ships for voyages to the far side of the world.

After the video, visitors walk into the main exhibit and look up four decks at the stern of a container ship with stacks and stacks of simulated containers.

“The idea is that the museum is a container ship docked along the Mobile River,” Beasley said. “The first deck is designed for kids and adults to learn about the basic concepts and history of navigation, how propulsion works on a ship and how sails propel vessels. There are interactive stations where visitors can load barges and containers. It shows them just how hard it is to do this.”

One exhibit is a joint effort with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) that is called “Science on a Sphere.” Images are projected onto the carbon fiber sphere from a wide variety of datasets, including shipping activity, commercial airline traffic, current weather pattern, as well as historic weather events like hurricanes Ivan and Katrina.

The middle decks include exhibits about what goes on in the container shipping industry, loading and unloading processes and artifacts and tools used in stevedoring. One deck highlights the seafood industry and recreational fishing opportunities. A video shows the oyster-tonging process with a familiar face on the Alabama coast – Avery Bates of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama.

For history buffs, an awesome theater setting features a video on how World War II impacted Mobile and the Gulf Coast in terms of construction of vessels and other equipment for the war effort. The theater provides a Disney-like experience with vibrating seats during explosions on the screen.

“The board spared no expense to immerse the visitor in the experience,” Brewer said.

Another interactive exhibit provides a detailed overview of the oil and gas industry in Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico as well as a look at the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

At the top of the museum are the bridge and observation decks where visitors can look north at the city of Mobile and Mobile River and then south into Mobile Bay.

One of the main attractions of the bridge is a simulator that lets the pretend pilot choose from three vessels to navigate. The choices are towboat with barges, container ship or U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat. Naturally, I chose the Coast Guard vessel because it goes the fastest. The scenario provided was a response to a ship entering the port of Mobile that was not responding to radio messages. I chased down the ship at 46 knots, pulled alongside with sirens and lights flashing. The vessel then responded according to protocol, and the Coast Guard vessel made a quick turn and headed back down the Mobile Ship Channel. The multiple screens and responsive controls added to the realism of the experience. The hard turn almost had me believing the room was moving.

The museum opened in September and has seen more than 15,000 visitors in short order, according to Brewer, who said they had a soft opening with a number of school groups to determine the capacity of the museum.

“We had 700 kids at one time in the museum during that soft opening. That’s when we decided we would cap the number at 500 with school groups,” Brewer said with a laugh. The museum uses a team of 170 or so volunteers to accommodate the large crowds.

Tony Zodrow, GulfQuest Executive Director, was hired 10 years ago to make the GulfQuest board’s vision a reality. Zodrow personally developed an exhibit to detail the history of the Gulf Coast from 10,000 B.C. to present day.

“The board traveled around the nation and overseas to look at different museums,” Beasley said. “From what they saw in the United State as well as Europe, the board knew this museum would have to be interactive, and it had to have a regional focus to draw people in. What we wound up with here is something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.”

I’ve barely touched the surface of the educational and recreational opportunities available at the $60 million facility. You’ll just have to see it to believe it. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Ticket prices range from $14 for kids from 5-12 to $18 for adults. Group rates are available as well as annual memberships. Go to for details.

Because it is located on the riverfront, it takes a little maneuvering to get to the museum. Coming from I-10, take the Water Street exit. “The best way is to come down Water Street to Government. Turn left on Government, then a left on Royal and a left on Monroe,” Brewer said. “That will take you straight into our parking lot.”