Sunday, June 13, 2010

Pensacola Pass Before the Booming

We've already mentioned Friday's stroll around Ft. Pickens National Seashore Park. That was when we lucked into a two-hour scoop on word that the Unified Command in the Mobile section had just authorized the booming of Pensacola Pass.

We took a number of other photographs that day which we normally wouldn't bother sharing since we were using a simple little pocket camera and there were on hand a number of far more skilled and much better equipped newspaper and television photographers at the same location. But, as it turns out, they weren't interested in what we stumbled upon, so what the heck.... Let's share.

Here are some more or less selected scenes from our walk-about to the western tip of Santa Rosa Island before the booming. (You can see a detailed view by clicking on each picture.)

At the seawall near Ft. Pickens fishing pier (above), Cheeseburger the chihuahua eagerly introduced himself with tongue and paw. He and his owner, Pensacola painting contractor Ted Dwiggins, were taking the rest of the day off to say goodbye to a healthy Pensacola Bay.

"I finished a job this morning," Dwiggins explained, "and we thought we'd come out here while it dries."

"Got treats?" Cheeseburger asked.

"There are tarballs all along the beach," Dwiggins warned.

He had brought with him a pair of binoculars. Pointing them at the bay he added, "I think there's a large sheet of oil beneath the surface out there. Can't really see it, though."

"Throw ball?" Cheeseburger inquired. "Or stick?"

"We come out here a lot," Dwiggins added. "It's our favorite place. Guess we won't be coming out for months, now. Maybe longer."

"Scratch my back?" Cheeseburger proposed.

We patted our good-byes and walked along the surf line a short distance down the beach before spotting large and small tarballs washing back and forth in the surf (below).

Most were black, crusty things variously the size of a dime to a half dollar. Others were orange-colored, oleaginous blobs of goo.

Some tarballs had been caught up in clumps of seaweed and thin plastic strings that look like cheerleader pom-poms (below).

Those that didn't cling to small bits of seaweed were amorphic in the water. Once deposited on sand above the water's edge, they assumed a somewhat more definite shape, almost like sea anemones, and glinted brightly in the sun as if to counterfeit signs of life.

Our walk along the beach was interrupted by a television crew from Mobile. They were wandering the beach, as we suppose, looking for visually compelling images suitable for a commercial television audience.

The relatively small tarballs at their feet must not have been sufficiently dramatic for the camera lens. But they found Joe Magyarosi.

Joe is a long time, colorful character who lives on Pensacola Beach. He once was a plumber in Allentown, Pennsylvania, as we recall.

Asked by the TV news reporter what he thought about the looming environmental crisis, Joe answered with a question of his own, "Why are we on defense?" he demanded. Quickly, he answered his own question: "We should be playing offense."

Before the startled reporter could respond, Joe dropped to his knees and like a field general in the midst of a battle that's going badly he started to furiously sketch out in the sand a battle plan he had in mind for positioning an entire navy of oil skimmers here, and there, and over yonder. The reporter snapped to attention and the cameraman continued filming (below).

The sun was bright. The sand was dry and powdery. Any finger-digging collapsed easily. The crucial battle lines, circles of imaginary boats, and the sweeping paths of Joe's mythical Skimmer Navy remained elusive to our eye. They probably didn't show up too well on camera, either.

Randomly scattered nearby were used oil booms and plastic garbage bags filled with clumps of thin plastic strips resembling cheerleading pom-poms (below). In the distance, around a gentle bend in the beach, we could make out what looked like a large garbage scow anchored in the water. On shore, a small group of clean-up workers were resting in the shade of a tent.

We stopped to talk with the crew leader. He didn't tell us his name, but said he was from Pensacola. He explained that he leads subcontractor disaster clean-up crews for a living.

He told us he had just arrived back in Pensacola from the Nashville flood. It was "an awful mess," he said. "Got almost no news coverage, though. I guess the media would rather watch the oil."

Farther along the beach we found more evidence of oil pollution on the surface of a discarded motor oil jug (below). The irony was evident.

Some boater, somewhere, had tossed the emptied jug overboard as if this one small addition of plastic pollution could not possibly harm the vast waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Later, fresh oil from BP's broken Deepwater Horizon well had clung to it like a life raft. Now, the whole mess had made landfall to despoil the beach.

More evidence of the transport of leaking oil through man's careless littering rested near the water's edge, fresher than the last. An old, weathered plastic bottle had washed up on the beach (below). Stuck to its underside was an orange-colored, pulpous patty of oil. Grains of sand clung to it, trapped by the sticky substance.

We passed the garbage scow, or barge, we had seen earlier. In the bow was a huge garbage container. Behind that, about midship, we noticed a meeting seemed to be taking place.

About half a dozen men were sitting around a makeshift table under a tent (below). One was writing something down. At that distance we couldn't be sure but it looked like he was dressed in a cream-colored suit and wearing a hazmat vest over it.

Others in work clothes were milling about looking for shade wherever they could find it.

We mused at the scene: a rusty old barge that serves as a meeting place for swells in suits as well as shade for workers in blue jeans dressed for hard labor. A catastrophic oil spill levels everybody.

At the western-most end of Santa Rosa Island we came upon three figures fishing (below).

"You don't plan on eating anything you catch, do you?" we asked.

The two men, both locals, said yes, they did. "Haven't seen any oil yet," one added as he baited a hook.

"There are tarballs all along the beach," we pointed out.

"Didn't see 'em," the other man claimed in a surly way as he turned back toward his pole.

The fishermen didn't seem to want company any more than the blue heron did. As we turned back to retrace our steps it occurred to us that all three of these creatures may well be the last fishers at Pensacola Pass for months or even years to come. Of the three, however, only one of them truly did not know what was about to happen to his way of life.

We turned back to take one last photo. All three were back at their labors, seemingly oblivious to the arriving oil.

Just beyond, we could plainly see the dividing line between bay and Gulf. It's where the turquoise water of the western tip of Santa Rosa island meets the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico (below).

On the return trip we saw a pontoon party boat had been beached. A dozen or so women were swimming, sitting, wading, and standing in the water (below). They appeared to be of a wide range of ages, from their twenties to the sixties.

Although it was early afternoon, these women were feeling no pain. Several of them hollered out and raised their glasses in a raucous greeting as we approached.

"Are you members of some club?" we stupidly asked.

"Thas' raht, hon'," one shouted back amid a din of laughter. "We're the N'awlins Girls."

"Y'all like wimmin or men?" another asked to more peels of laughter.

Standing there at the water's edge, talking with half-dressed strangers in the midst of the largest natural disaster in U.S. history, it seemed an odd question, yes, but we have long since given up judging others for how they are reacting to the BP oil spill.

We considered a judicious reply. We answered that we liked them both but only slept with women.

"Wall, thas' all right, then. Y'all come rah't in the water."

We politely declined and wished the visitors well. That evening, She Who Must Be Obeyed mentioned that she thought she had seen some of the same women on the television news, being interviewed by another TV reporter while they partied on Orange Beach.

It was after this that we passed a Pensacola News Journal photographer. We laughed to ourselves as we contemplated him being cross-examined about his sexual orientation by the "N'awlins Girls."

It was then that we met Dusty Warner, the park ranger who told us he's section head for the Unified Command. He was marching smartly behind us as we walked toward the fishing pier where we'd first met Cheeseburger and his owner.

We stopped and the ranger quickly caught up. He was an enormously friendly, charming man -- and completely open about who he was and what he had been doing.

We were so interested in Ranger Warner's description of his decision to permit booming of Pensacola Pass that we didn't even think to ask him why he happened to be in full uniform walking the beach on such a hot day, or where he was coming from. It was only later that we realized the only place he could have come from was that old barge, the one where we had seen the indistinct figure of a man, dressed in an oddly formal way under a hazmat vest, writing at a table.

We have no way of knowing for sure, but we'd like to think our little pocket camera accidentally captured the very moment history was made on that old barge and Pensacola Pass was closed for the first time since the Civil War.


Beach Blogger said...

I would like to thank the many readers who have sent emails and posted kind messages of thanks and encouragement for our continued blogging about the oil spill. Your appreciation is a most gratifying reward.

Bill said...

My wife and I just returned from a five night visit to Pensacola Beach. We are two tourists whom you earlier described as "not in out right minds", because we did not cancel our reservations.
When we arrived Sunday a week ago the smell of oil in the air brought on my a strong westerly wind made us second guess our decision; however, for the next four days through mid-day Friday, the weather was perfect for the beach with no oil on the beach or water, at least in front of the SpringHill Suites.
We spend a bunch of money down there and even had a brief conversation with "Buck" whom I had earlier recognized from his CNN interviews. It was his positive attitude that convinced us to keep our reservations. We returned to Boston Harbor where we stayed for a couple of chilly days, but left our hearts in Pcola. Good luck to you all down there, and thank you so much for your blog. We read it every day.

Anonymous said...

What a great commentary....even with the pocket camera...I, also, read your blog on a regular basis. Keep it up, it is my daily salvation at work in MN!!!

Kathy Condon

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Large spills even though a relatively minor source of ocean oil pollution can be devastating. The same amount of oil can do more damage in some areas than others.

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