If you’re vacationing on the beaches of the Gulf Coast, plan to make the short trip across Mobile Bay (consider taking the Mobile Bay Ferry, which docks near Fort Morgan) to spend a little time at the new GulfQuest National Maritime Museum in Mobile, Ala.
There are 90 interactive exhibits, theaters, simulators and displays to explore at the museum, which could keep the family busy for hours on a rainy day. But the staff has chosen seven exhibits they say visitors should not miss.
1. A Place Like No Other
No. 1 on the list is the GulfQuest Theater and the three-screen, multi-media presentation entitled, “The Gulf Coast: A Place Like No Other.”
This 16-minute film explores the rich maritime history and culture of the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay from past to present, with a tapestry of panoramic images and voices that capture what it’s like to live and work on the Gulf Coast.
2. Just An Observation
Second on the list are the Observation Decks. At GulfQuest's highest level, observation decks on either side of “The Bridge” provide awe-inspiring views of Mobile’s working waterfront and historic downtown.
Interpretive panels provide perspectives on the Port of Mobile, commonly seen ships, and other topics. With more than 90 nations trading in the Port of Mobile each year, large ships of all types frequently pass by on the Mobile River and can be seen from the observation decks and from inside the museum.
3. A Unique View Of Planet Earth
“Next, we’ve selected Ocean Planet as the third must-see exhibit,” said Tony Zodrow, GulfQuest executive director. “In this theater, a six-foot diameter planet Earth is suspended, rotating on its axis. With stunning visualizations of our amazing planet, visitors engage in theater programs on the Gulf of Mexico that utilize real satellite data provided by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). From following the paths of hurricanes to observing shipping routes in and out of the Gulf of Mexico, Ocean Planet provides historical and real-time data in a spectacular and interactive display.”
4. Pelican Girls: From Paris To Mobile
Visitors will not want to miss the story behind Pelican Girls, a fourth must-see exhibit. Here, visitors will enter an attic space from the early 1900s and gaze into an old mirror, where the ghostly images of two French women tell their personal stories about sailing from Paris to Mobile on the ship Pelican in 1704: one of the “cassette girls” – young women chosen as prospective brides for the French-Canadian settlers – and the madame who oversaw their journey on behalf of the French crown.
5. Port Of Victory
No. 5 on the list is the Discovery Hull Theater and the film, "Port of Victory." With sound, lighting and fog effects, this eight-minute film covers the history of the Port of Mobile during World War II, focusing on the shipbuilding and shipping industries that helped the nation win the war. It was a treacherous time for shipping in the Gulf of Mexico, with German submarines sinking 45 ships in 1942.
6. Take The Helm, Captain
Possibly the most popular exhibit at GulfQuest, Take the Helm is No. 6 on the list: a pilot simulator identical to those used to train professional boat pilots.
In this theater, visitors get the chance to navigate a variety of vessels around the Port of Mobile, Mobile Bay and the Tombigbee River.
During each show, a “captain” is selected from the audience to take the controls, select daytime or nighttime, fair weather or foul weather – and test their skills piloting in one of six different scenarios.
7. All Aboard The H.L. Hunley
“Our next pick takes visitors into The Hunley, where they board the Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley on the fateful night it became the first submarine to destroy an enemy vessel: the Yankee warship Housatonic,” Zodrow said.
The story of this historic event is told through the eyes of Lt. George Dixon, the Hunley’s captain. The Hunley was built in Mobile and put into service in Charleston Harbor, S.C.
Visiting GulfQuest can be an all-day experience. In addition to multiple decks of exhibits galleries, GulfQuest features its own cafe with outdoor seating (The Galley) and a museum store designed to look like a sunken Spanish galleon (Treasures) that features Gulf maritime merchandise for all ages and interests.