A year after BP’s historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the media is abuzz with annual updates to the catastrophe. In most of this reporting, however, remains an ocean of unknowns. One of the most important fisheries on Earth was polluted beyond any such event known to mankind and we still cannot estimate the damage. In the lingering of this uncertainty a year later, I thought I’d republish a piece on what it felt like to be a Gulf surfer at the time. One of my hosts in Pensacola, Yancy Spencer III, recently passed on. In re-reading this piece, I’m reminded of what a great advocate Yancy was for a his coast and its surfers.
The Plight of the Gulf Coast
Day 68 — John’s Pass, West Coast of Florida, 3,095,581.4 Barrels Spilled
The light on the Gulf settles like a fine powder on all it illuminates—falling on distant clouds, glinting water, beaches of burnished sugar. In this granulated atmosphere Shea Lopez and his friends Skip, Matt, and Dane are on the lookout for silvery flashes, telltale signs of prehistoric fish that regularly grow to 150 pounds. Tarpon are mysterious creatures, moving with select tides. On the hook, they leap and they fight. Pictures of men holding tarpon on boat decks look like men holding teenaged children—the father proud, the child limp in its protest at being held. We speed below cantaloupe-colored tourist towers and only yards off of man-made beaches. Ninety-six percent of this sandbar-and-inlet-country outside of Tampa, Florida, is developed, and from the water these buildings take on the dimensions of a city in the clouds. Shea casually points to childhood surf spots that came alive or died with this or that engineering scheme—dredging, jetties, sandbags—and yet, just a few strokes this direction from the shore and everything is wild.
Shea wanted me to see the Gulf of Mexico he grew up in. His phone call was confidant yet urgent. The national reporting, he believed, was completely missing the most important aspect—the magic of the place itself. So on day 68 of the B.P. oil disaster, with three million barrels of crude and unknown tanker-loads of “dispersant” already a part of the ecology, we set forth from John’s Pass in a sport fishing boat.
The tides go wrong on us without a shimmer of tarpon, but a new adventure is quickly hatched. Soon Matt’s roaring engines have us hurtling out to a submerged shipwreck 22 miles offshore. The water turns blue to the point of assaulting. Yet today it has a more impressive quality: this blue-blue water is as clear as crystal even at 80 feet down. The dark outlines of barracuda stack up like Lincoln Logs. Jewfish hover with the territorial nature of obese pit bulls. Schools of baitfish shimmer past, redirect, flash again. It’s not pristine, until a few years ago this very spot was a fertilizer dump—but it’s close to the heart, it’s beautiful and it feeds people.
On the way out to the wreck, Shea’s friend Dane Karcher spots what looks like flotsam and says, “Look at that big ol’ loggerhead turtle. He lives right there, you know, same one. There’s a cave under that coral head. It’s his home . . . He’ll be dead soon.” That trailing off of hard statements concerning the spill was something I’d get used to.
Day 71 – Florida Panhandle, 3,232,151.1 Barrels Spilled
As soon as I set foot on Pensacola Beach, I see thick paddies of brown and orangish crude. It rolls along the high-tide line and even at a distance, like cactus stickers in the desert, has a way of attracting itself to you. The long, white beach is empty. Now and again people come down the wooden walkways in twos or threes just to look at the oil. They stand over it like they’re appraising a dead seal—amazed, stupefied, sickened. It smells of diesel. This big stuff arrived a week earlier. In the two months it took to run ashore thousands of potential visitors from Louisiana and Mississippi canceled vacations here. On the second Tuesday in June President Obama came to this very beach, walked down just like I had, and took a moment looking at perfectly white sand. He gave up looking and made a speech. Eight days later, as local surfer Mikey Peyton tells it, the tar came upon them like “a snaking black highway just running aground.” At points, the slick was two miles wide. They call this day “Black Wednesday.”
I drive over to Innerlight Surf and Skate where Yancy Spencer III, an East Coast Hall of Fame inductee and the patriarch of Gulf Coast surfing, has arranged for me to pick up a board. The two young Southerners running his Gulf Breeze location are more than happy to give me directions to a beach “unaffected by oil.” Ten weeks into the spill and this is how locals are adapting. If oil rocks up on your sand bank, you simply move down coast. The problem is, once the oil hits Panama City—two hours east of Pensacola—the next closest surf spot in terms of driving time is on Florida’s Atlantic seaboard.
From Gulf Breeze I take a couple of wrong bridges and end up in Navarre. I only know as much because a water tower spells it out for me. There’s a new looking pier, some ugly hotel towers, pale grass on white dunes, 4-foot waves, and blue-green, 88-degree water. No wind. I’ve never surfed in the Gulf before, and I’m thrilled—in my mind it’s like discovering a break in the Caspian Sea and falling in love with it. Despite the oil I’ve just seen in Pensacola, I reason that Texas and Santa Barbara surfers braved tar for years. This is no problem. I consider Facebooking something like: “Get down to the Gulf, the water is fine.” On the classic pier sandbar, I see a white-haired man surfing with an antique, yet refined style. He gets a lot of waves. I take mostly lefts. But because of the rip on the inside, all rides seem to end in the same spot, and there’s Yancy. “Kimball,” he says. And I realize he knows me because I’m riding his son’s surfboard. In conversation the man is blunt but easy-going. He tells me his birthday is in July and he hasn’t surfed Gulf waves near his birthday in 40 years. Swell is a rare event for this time of year, and with millions of barrels of toxic oil floating six miles offshore, its timing is exceptionally bad.
In the parking lot after the session we run into Yancy’s son Sterling and his friends Mikey Peyton and Johnny Smith. Mikey and Johnny are amped to surf and they’re harping on Sterling for passing. He’ll watch, he says. And as the three of them continue over the dunes, Yancy says, “My son has the freedom to surf anywhere in the world. For him to say he’s never going to surf the Gulf again—he’s been surfing here since he was four—to say that is a pretty radical statement.” A conversation between father and son can’t be judged, but I wonder.
Later, once Johnny and Mikey are in the lineup, I find Sterling on the walkway. A collection of locals has assembled around him. An older guy is talking about the dispersants, the heavy metals and toxins—none of which can be seen. Despite the lack of tar balls the nasty stuff could already have infiltrated this lineup too. This is when I learn turtles and baby dolphin have washed up a few miles away. The locals indicate the location of these events with nods of the chin, hesitating to even look that direction. My high at having surfed a new ocean turns into an itchy cancer-fear. Noting Sterling’s body language, however, I realize his decision isn’t as neurotic, and may not even be about his personal health—the only professional surfer within 400 miles of any direction you care to point, refuses to surf his own ocean—this looks like a protest.
Day 72 — Whataburger — 3,277,674.4 Barrels Spilled
I’m sitting across from Yancy in a Whataburger joint. As an Orange Beach, Alabama surfer told me, “You don’t have to go mentioning both ‘Yancy’ and ‘Spencer’ at the same time around here.” For such a big fish in this small Flora-bama pond, Yancy runs a pretty normal surfer’s life. He’s got a van full of boards and a bit of time to wander. We’d been trying to get down to Destin, an alternative spot when the winds go wrong at Pensacola. An accident blocking a bridge halted this plan however. So we sit in Whataburger and Yancy tells me about the time Greg Noll arrived in Pensacola to promote Yancy’s first pro model—this is early in 1970. “Nobody around here had ever seen flip-flops,” he says, “And here’s big Greg Noll just off of his historic Makaha wave, stepping from the plane in a trench coat, t-shirt, corduroys and rattan flip flops.”
Behind Yancy’s distinctive white hair, a TV mounted in the corner of the restaurant broadcasts a news report that reads: “Dangers of Alex!?” The tropical depression we surfed the evening before had attained hurricane status overnight. With 45,000 barrels of oil pumping daily out of the sea floor just 180 miles from here, the development of a hurricane is the worst-case scenario and everybody knows it. Depending on trajectory, even a small-time storm has the potential to splatter four out off five Gulf states ankle-deep in oil. And right on cue, here’s Alex flexing muscles.
It reminds me of a little known fact, Pensacola was the very first European settlement in the United States. Fourteen hundred Spaniards broke ground here in August of 1559. A month later, a hurricane destroyed the colony and dispersed its population to the four corners.
“Gulf people are used to waiting for disaster,” Yancy says. “Waiting for the oil spill to end has caused a similar kind of stress, but it’s the scale people are worried about now.” Modern Pensacola was wracked by hurricane Ivan in 2004. People slowly rebuilt. Then, the recession just about wrapped things up. And this, Yancy says, “It’s eventually goin’ to hit every beach on the coast. It’s goin’ to go on for years.” Despite random oil events on beaches from Texas to the Panhandle, fishermen suspect that canyons off shore are brimming with the real masses of black gold. My mind searches for images of a liquid floating on a liquid. I imagine a black and tan, the lighter weight ocean water disguising canyons of heavy crude. Where it will end up is anybody’s guess.
Looking around Whataburger, a Southern institution, I see a lot of young people wearing surf clothing. Sales of surfboards at Innerlight, Yancy says, stopped almost as soon as the Deepwater Horizon went down in flames. It may seem petty in comparison to the lives lost on the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting environmental devastation, but without fishing, surfing or tourism, these barrier islands could end up about as populated as they were in October of 1559.
Jimmy Buffet’s free concert intended to boost morale and tourism, has been cancelled due to the surf created by hurricane Alex. Authorities say the stage on the beach may be in danger. The swell isn’t big, however, and the wind is calm. Some speculate that the sight of oil at the concert venue might be worse for tourism than no concert at all. Buffett has a lot of money tied up in a new Pensacola hotel that opened June 28th. Money aside, he’s still the area’s greatest cultural icon—having written the sound track for this coast. A Los Angeles Times article recently pointed out some of the irony buried in those lyrics:
Nibblin’ on sponge cake,
Watchin’ the sun bake,
All of those tourists covered with oil . . .
Buffett’s 162-room hotel, in fact, is named Margaritaville. The indulgence of that name is not lost on 24-year-old Sterling. Anyone who has followed his blog knows Sterling is a funny dude. In person that humor is more subtle. A conversational ploy he’s developed is to simply replace the names of ordinary things. “Sex,” for example, has recently become “pre-marital.” You can see the spark in Sterling’s eye when he drops “pre-marital” into a sentence where the word “sex” would have sufficed. “Do you think she has pre-marital?” he asks one day. It’s a loaded question here in the Bible Belt, this pre-marital. But just when those around him are confused, just that bit unsure of the situation, is when Sterling shines. They’re thinking about “pre-marital” and he sees them thinking it. This is funny, but not always a game. Lately, Sterling’s been referring to Pensacola as “Margaritaville,” and in this way, turning the decadent marketing of the name into a jab at those who accept it.
The return of Sterling’s humor is a welcome change. When I spoke to him over the phone a couple of weeks before arriving, he’d been troubled, morose even. Sterling’s had a rough start to the year, and his hometown has had a rough decade. He told me that after the hurricanes, rebuilding and recession, this was the year everyone was looking forward to. Considering what the year delivered, he’d said, “We can’t really process it.” Upon arrival, however, I discover the dark humor always bubbling underneath catastrophe seeping up into the entire Gulf landscape. In Louisiana, I learn, locals had begun to refer to the washed-up tar balls as “Obama eggs.”
Like Jimmy Buffett, the pop singer/song writer Jason Mraz has been threatening to arrive in Pensacola for days now. He is, in fact, somewhere on the Gulf Coast. Maybe he’s shucking oysters in the Big Easy, maybe he’s kissing babies in Mobile. But every few hours Mraz’s handler Joey Santley sends messages updating Sterling on Mraz’s tentative arrival. Sterling had never heard of Mraz. In fact, I realize, Sterling had never heard of me. I begin to have doubts about my presence on the Gulf at this time. I’ve begun to fall for it—the grass on the dunes, the long days, the Southern drawl. And yet, like the carpetbaggers 140 years before, journalists and celebrities are descending upon it, even Laird Hamilton. Is Laird bringing attention to the Gulf, I wonder, or the other way around? This may be the one disaster in living memory you can’t throw money or celebrities at and expect much outcome. Mraz’s campaign while on the coast, Santley tells Sterling via text, is to heighten awareness of recycling.
Sterling checks Mraz’s cred with some young women he knows, however, and he discovers that Mraz’s music seduces women into contemplating “pre-marital.” So when Sterling is asked to find a venue for the wooing of Pensacola’s females, Sterling organizes a club. Then Santley sends word that Mraz won’t be playing music when he arrives; he just wants to “hang out” with Sterling. Santley’s next text pushes the date of Mraz’s arrival forward a day. It’s like a bad Beatles movie. Which inspires Sterling to send a text reading: “Just booked the convention center for Mraz’s big gig. Seats 20,000. Cool?” Santley responds immediately. They’d need more time to arrange security, logistics, etc.—no can do. Sterling replies that he’s already put a $10,000 deposit down, non-refundable, impossible to back out.
Mraz never shows. Sterling never hears from Santley again.
This does not mean the fun was over. June and July would have been high-tide for party
season had the disaster never occurred. And like spending money during the recession, there is a certain honor in pulling a good time out of this chaos. Bars and restaurants need to be patronized, the community must socialize. The result is something like a debouched wake. Mikey, Johnny and Sterling take me to an outdoor bar and grill on sunset. A live blues band plays at the shore of a back-bay. Fried pickles and beers circulate. Every table is filled.
Mikey comes from a family with deep roots in the community. His father is a legendary fisherman. I ask what his father has to say, but apparently the patriarch isn’t speaking much of the spill. When Mikey’s not surfing, he works the beach service. He sets up dozens of heavy wood lounge chairs on the beach, rents them to tourists and serves drinks and food. Lately he’s been dragging as many as 100 chairs down to the sand knowing 90% of their cushions won’t see a dent. B.P. is making up the difference in pay, but that means Mikey has to keep setting up empty chairs to collect it. The irony of it creates little eddies in the heart. For Johnny, this is a return from roaming, and well timed, because this tight little crew benefits from his enthusiasm at being home.
The three of them also have a blustery friend who’s been wheeling between tables. I hear him before I sort out where the ruckus is coming from. Collin, it turns out, is just off of his charter boat. In lieu of fishing, he’s been out working for B.P., and now he’s trying to drown the experience in Bud Light. I ask what he sees out there in the Gulf. “It’s black, it’s brown, and it’s red,” he hollers. “And everything is dead.”
Collin’s accent is thick, but next I catch a reference to “Rookie” Kruse, an Alabama charter boat captain who killed himself over the situation. “I’m not going out like that,” Collin says, “I’m gettin’ paid, and I’m getting’ laid.”
Collin spins off. Johnny says, “He acts like he doesn’t hate it, but he hates it.” Johnny doesn’t need to elaborate on what the “it” is. Oil is the topic of every conversation.
On the way to another spot, the four of us stop to check the surf at a sandbar the boys usually have to themselves. The light is quickly fading and this beach has already been hit with oil, but the curiosity remains. On approach, a white dune obstructs the view of the water but I watch Johnny run up the dune and back flip off. He disappears. I hear an “Aw, fuck.” Once on the ocean side of the dune, I see Johnny’s landed in oil.
Later we go to a club brimming with women. I’ve met Savannah before, and she and her friend Brigette pull me aside. “Our friends are tired of talking about the spill. They won’t hear another word, but I just can’t stop,” Brigette says.
“We need all the help we can get down here,” says Savannah, “Where’s the federal government? Why are they allowing B.P. to run things? Why are they allowing this to continue?” Both women have recently graduated college and have returned home to build lives. Now Savannah is volunteering for a citizen’s reporting group, and is traveling to various beaches documenting the degree of oil on each. Brigette planned to teach school in the fall but wonders if there will be students to teach. Conspiratorially, they nudge a friend of theirs into the huddle, a former fisherman now working for B.P. He asks me not mention his name before I’ve learned it. This morning, he watched three Sperm whales drowning in oil.
Disaster brings people close quickly. And even though I’m an interloper, I’m never made to feel that way. Sterling, Mikey, Johnny and I spend most of the next day at the beach. Sterling chats with friends and watches. Most of us surf in shifts. At one point Yancy asks Sterling if he’s going to surf or not. Yancy knows the answer, and waves his son off the subject before Sterling can finish the sentence. I’m so hung over from the night before, I can’t muster a go out until late. I paddle into the tropical green water, luck into a couple, and then wait out a lull. Swell travels differently in the Gulf and you have to get used to its rhythm. I smell an odd something, but put it out of my mind. A crumbly set of waves come in, when I duck dive the last wave, I realize the water color has changed. It’s dark. That smell is thick. I’m swimming in oil.
The following morning Sterling is driving the two of us back to his house after breakfast. Pensacola Beach and its dunes are to our left, there’s a back bay to the right. I see some ducks crossing a parking lot on foot, and I can only wonder if they’ve quit the bay for good. During my stay, between 2.6 and 8.9 million gallons of oil have bled into the Gulf. As we approach some hotel towers, I ask Sterling what his plans for the future are. “When I was growing up,” says Sterling nodding at the hotels, “All of this was just . . . whatever. Ha. Now I’m starting to sound like my Dad. What am I going to do? I guess I’ll just laugh it off. That’s all there is left to do.”
He pauses, then sighs, “Poor old Margaritaville.”
- It’s still out there.