We were on our way to Gulf Shores, Alabama, when we heard the news: BP had been able to place a 75 ton cap on the blown-out Deep Horizon well. For the first time in nearly three months, oil was no longer gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.
We’d rented a condo for the weekend on the Fort Morgan peninsula. From our balcony on the 10th floor the water looked clean, but the marshland around the Beach Club condo complex did not. Two weeks ago, Hurricane Alex sent six foot waves crashing over the land, fouling beaches from Louisiana to Florida with oil and tar balls.
The marshes and dunes around our condo were blackened with oil. Some of the pools were so thick with oil, they looked almost solid. Birds drank from the cleanest of the pools.
We sat on our balcony and counted the oil rigs out in the Gulf. There were at least twenty dotting the horizon. We saw a ship we thought might be a tanker, visiting the rigs, taking the oil into its belly. When night fell, the rigs were lit, and we realized there were many more than we’d counted. Altogether, there are about four thousand active wells in the Gulf. Twenty-seven thousand more have been pumped out and abandoned.
Hotels along the beach were flying two red flags; do not swim in the water. We walked to the beach. We saw dead fish that had washed up in the night. There were tar balls in the sand and in the water. Each wave brought in more tar balls, then took most of them out again. I picked one up. It was small, about the size of a quarter, partially covered with sand. I squeezed. It was soft, oily. It left a brown stain on my fingers I could not wash off. There are Dawn Cleaning stations at the end of the boardwalks. Dawn is especially good at breaking up oil and grease, but not so good at removing oil from Crocs. The BP oil seems to like plastic. They are cousins, after all.
We saw hotel sifters move slowly up and down the beach, sifting the sand, removing the debris left by the retreating tides. A boy brought out beach chairs and umbrellas and set them near the water. At the end of the day only a few were occupied.
Between Fort Morgan and Orange Beach there are at least three BP staging areas: tents, trailers, heavy equipment, makeshift buildings surrounded by high fences. In Gulf Shores we saw a BP Claims office.
Coming home from dinner in Orange Beach that first night we found ourselves behind two huge BP dump trucks, rented from Hertz. Their top speed was 18 miles per hour. It’s a dark, two-lane road, and there was no chance to pass. When they finally pulled to the side, we went ‘round them, only to come up on three giant sand sifters. It took us a half hour to get back to the condo.
On both Friday and Saturday we saw BP workers in their lime green vests a half mile down the beach. There were about 8 vehicles and 20 workers. They kept their motors running, but the vehicles never moved and the people never seemed to actually do anything. We walked down.
One man had a shovel. Another held a black plastic bag. The man with the shovel was scooping up tar balls and putting them in the bag. A third man stood close by, watching. The other 17 sat in their vehicles. Doing nothing. Waiting for time to pass.
On Sunday the vehicles and the workers were gone. Back to the staging area, we guessed, to park their vehicles, collect their paychecks, and go home to their families.
We went to Lulu’s to eat that night. Her open-air restaurant on the inter-coastal waterway in Gulf Shores is famous. Last week Jimmy Buffet performed there. He’s Lulu’s brother, and he loves the Gulf.
There are lots of reasons for putting up two red flags: rip tides, oil in the water, dispersants of unknown chemical composition. Still, I swam in the Gulf. There was a sand bar out in the water that was irresistible. On our last day the waves were kicking up high, and again I went for a swim in the Gulf. I might never be able to do it again. But maybe, in a month or six, I’ll go back to that place, and that sandbar will beckon me, and I will swim out to it.