Warning signs or not, Gulf beachgoers have to read between the lines.
Words and photos by Matt Walker
Wakeboarding. Skateboarding. Picking up trash.
We won’t lie to you: barring a hurricane, we’d be doing the same damn thing any other International Surfing Day on the Gulf Coast. The difference is, any other ISD we’d be doing it somewhere else. Maybe even on the beach.
“This place just went from being the dirtiest water around to the cleanest overnight.’”
Photog Nik McCue isn’t referring to the piles of litter he just pulled from the marsh. Five years ago, before the DEP dredged-and-scrubbed it to questionable levels, where we’ve posted up was one of Pensacola Bay’s nastiest hunks of bayou. And 60 days ago, you’d still opt to powerboat in more pristine stretches. But with the Deepwater Horizon spitting oil for 60-some days — and BP adding dispersants to sink it and spread it in invisible ways — the resulting cocktail has made a mysterious mess of both the Gulf Coast beaches and inland waterways. What’s clean? What’s not? Nobody knows. And what we do know changes on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. Sorta like Forrest Gump’s infamous “box of chocolates” — you never know what you’re gonna get.
To the west in Alabama — nowhere near Greenbow, but close to where Sterling Spencer surfed his heaviest hurricane session — the inside ripplers are rippled with oily black swirls. The sand goes from white sugar to a thick band of brown silt. There’s orange booms and work crews on either side. Before you even leave the parking lot, red flags, posted signs — and most notably, a pungent, petrol-stench — all scream, “Do not enter the water.” But drive a few minutes, the flag turns yellow, the smell turns invisible, the skimming boats disappear and the message turns positively rosy, with smiley Bob Riley — the Governor himself —spending his PR-spun Father’s Day telling folks: “Y’all come on down!”
To the east in Panama City Beach, TV ads and newscasts spill the same propaganda. How clean the beach is! How bright the sun shines! How cool the water feels! Even though Emerald Coast Surfrider is partying in a new, last-minute location ‘cause the oil hit Okaloosa. And one day before, kids in nearby Seaside came out of the ocean sporting greasy shins. Instead of posting no-swim notices — they put up clean-up stations.
Pensacola’s right in the middle. No sheen to be seen. Just a smattering of small tar pebbles and plenty of work crews with plastic bags and rakes to keep them out of sight, if not out of mind.
But somewhere between the red flags and green lights lies a toxic margin of error that shifts with the currents and winds. And nobody can tell you where that margin is. So with 1500-lb tarballs showing up in the Pass a week earlier and rumors of burning skin running the grapevine, the prudent route seems to be “better safe than seawater.” Even on International Surfing Day. Instead, we willingly grab a tow rope and take turns snorting outboard fumes in a pond once famously feared for sewer outflows.
That evening, Sterls Spencer hooks up with his dad and brother — Yancy’s III and IV — for a Fathers’ Day SUP session across from his house. He does his best to step from dry sand to molded foam. And even then he only lasts a few minutes before riding right up on the beach and ditching the paddle. Between the unforeseen sheen and the invisible “topkill,” the whole situation smells funny no matter how crystal-clear the water may look.
“I’m not going surfing in the Gulf for a while,” says Sterling, as a herd of cow rays cruises past in techni-color like a Sierra Club postcard. “Not until this whole thing’s over.”
And what’s scary is that could be many ISD’s from now.
For more coverage from the Gulf Disaster, see our ISD coverage in the October Issue of SURFING — and to voice your opposition to the problem, join the international Hands Across the Sand gathering on Saturday, June 26 from 11am to 12:30. With more than 500 beaches participating, it’s easy to find a location near you. And even easier to participate.
Cleanup is a relative term.
Sterling Spencer bought his own place right on the beach last year — now he may actually have to relocate due to noxious fumes from the leaking oil.
Water is supposed to be blue.
Perverse incentives for a region that courts tourists as aggressively as oil platforms. Check yourself.