Ocean of Uncertainty: How the Oil Spill Affects Our Lives

It’s a strange feeling to awake inland from the beaches and to hold them in my mind as the beautiful, bountiful places they were even just three weeks ago…to know the advancing black tides are out there washing into fragile places…it makes for a continual sense of uncertainty.

The economic impacts are felt in the general sense in the community of doom and gloom. The local mental health clinics have been active on radio and in the newspapers advising us on how to be resilient and keep our chin up. Their advice seems like a wafer held-out to the starving. We flash on a baby dolphin crying out to its pod out on Ft. Pickens, later dying on the way to a rescue center. Flash-backs of oil soaked turtles and birds.

Some of the staff at the university are avid fishermen, from families who depend on the weekly catch as part of their diet and for whom fishing was a meditation, a communion with the land and sea. They do not know what to do with their time and thoughts. Prayer is big here, with a very religious community. There is a lot of “miracles can happen” speak, and vacuous talking about “it will be okay.”

It’s not okay. The air fills with petroleum products that are lethal. No, it’s not above the EPA standards yet, that is true. But it will have its impacts. This is a community that has never really wailed against 100 years of corporate irresponsibility that left PCB and other damaging byproducts in our bays and bayous and ocean of air. We finally cleared away Mt. Dioxin, one of three super-fund sites in the Pensacola area. But we don’t talk much about that because, well we want those corporations to keep coming to infuse much needed dollars into the community.

Now, perhaps, we’ll rethink that and require, as the nation surely now must require, that a corporation have public safety as its first responsibility and profit as its second priority. Corporations are supported by stockholders, us, and we must now see that we have to read the monthly statements and keep vigil over them, or we ourselves will be just as culpable as the corporate leaders we criticize, even hold as villains.  Its time for all of us to grow up, and to realize that we have not, as a people, required ethics in our business practices – certainly in our offshore oil drilling safety standards.

But, we Pensacoleans, we are living the nightmare now for all of you. Our foolishness is in our faces, on our shoes and toes, and in our lungs. What that will mean for our futures is another uncertainty.

Once Upon a Time on the Gulf of Mexico

NOAA Photo
NOAA Photo

Turtle Island churns under the soles of my feet on this fair-weather day on the Gulf.  The ocean is green near the shoreline—pea green. I’ve never seen that before. I wonder if an algal bloom is forming in warmer seas. A battalion of brown pelicans coasts on dark arched wings over the waves.

Children build sand castles and bob in the surf while far out at sea large fishing vessels ply the waters for bigger catch. I can see one person atop a scaffold with a line trawling behind. I wonder about toppling into the cold, thick waves so far from shore.

There are few shorebirds but it is late in the day. They are probably on the bay side of the island resting in warm dunes. A moveable feast of beauty and abundance, we call this Santa Rosa Island named to honor a young woman from Lima, Peru who lived 500 years ago.

How arbitrary our histories.

Take the story of Caretta caretta. She doesn’t even know we’ve tagged her with a dichotomous term to set her species apart from others. Her only inclination is to find a darkened shoreline and lay her burden down.

Buoyed by the salty water she paddles with strong legs through the currents.

Through heavy lid, she looks toward shore and vaguely remembers its smell and warm, gritty touch. Suddenly she recalls the hovering gulls with their piercing eyes and angular beaks. She quickens her advance in hopes she might outpace the probabilities.

The moonlit shore is quiet as she takes purchase on the shifting sand below her. She looks from just under the water. Bright lights might turn her away to find a place where pale moonlight guides the way instead. It is instinctual.

And should she come ashore and dodge the beach chairs and plastic bottles, to lay a hatch of eggs, and later when they emerge, so tiny and vulnerable, will her young head toward the sea with its shimmering moonlight, or will they head for the Holiday Inn instead?

Countless volunteers tend turtle nests all along these Gulf shores to redirect hatchlings toward the ocean. Does it mean they are no longer self-sustaining?

Caretta caretta, loggerhead turtle mom, come back! Come back!

Will she find a place to lay her eggs? If she doesn’t, will she release them into the water and watch as a devouring host of predators gobbles them up as fast as they emerge?

And, what of it…what if all the Caretta caretta’s disappear? Will it change my walk on the beach?

To answer that question we would have to observe this beach over the long arc of time—not the brief period of a human lifetime.

If we could go back even a thousand years (a bleep on the screen of geologic, Earth time) we’d see an abundance of birds, perhaps many we’ve never seen here before. And the waters would team with crustaceans; you could just scoop up dinner with your hands.

We’d be looking at an ocean web of life that compares to today’s web like intricate lace to an old net. But if we do not know that, the old frayed net looks pretty good.

A Yale psychologist gave this phenomenon a name: intergenerational, environmental amnesia. Basically, we’ve failed to remember our origins; we’ve forgotten to tell the human story.

That story tells us how we evolved with a host of other species, interdependent on each other. In a far distant land, in a far different world, our kind began humbly dependent on the whole.

We were part of something that worked, found its rhythms in a sort of give and take that leveled the playing field for all. Some little guys had the gift of a poisonous bite that made the big guys shy away and so on.

Then we evolved an opposable thumb and a frontal cortex. We were powerful beings by virtue of our new intelligence. We learned to cooperate and bring down beasts that towered over us. We covered our bodies with their hides and set out to explore the world at large.

We got caught up in our own ingenuity; we forgot our origins, intent on harnessing nature to our collective dreams. This was our infant sensibility.

Today our task as a species is a difficult one: we need a dose of emotional honesty to accept that we aren’t as great as we’d thought. What’s superior about spoiling paradise, about circumscribing the futures of our children?

Well, we can chalk it all up to immaturity, for our species’ evolution is new and our learning curve is a sharp one. We’ve got to use our talent for the good of all. We can’t repair nature’s living webs, but we can give her a chance to do it herself.

For Caretta caretta we can turn down or turn off our lights, sit out on the decks of our homes and watch the waves glisten in the moonlight, listen to the oncoming waves. Is that so bad?

Native American wisdom recognizes the Earth as Turtle Island, the continents forming plates on her back. In this era of human pervasiveness, we are changing the body of the Earth in which every living thing finds a source of life.

For most of our species’ history we did not know that. But now we do recognize our impacts on the ecosystems that created the biosphere.

Caretta caretta’s plight to find a darkened beach points us toward a path we could take. If we turn off our lights, she might find a place to lay her eggs, her hatchlings a way back to the ocean, and for us a reduction in energy consumption and carbon emissions.

It is rare for us to make these connections. Small though they seem, it is myriad of these that need correcting.

Global warming threatens our very existence. Since we are the cause of it, we can stop it. Doing so will correct our species’ relationship with so many others and begin to set things right again.

Caretta caretta’s story is mirrored in the stories of countless species feeling our footprint.

We must take up the cause for each of them where we live with the firm conviction that enhancement of life anywhere enhances life’s chance of survival everywhere.

Identify a small area of land or a nearby river and defend its integrity with your life.

Caretta caretta…no, it’s not a song. It’s a symphony.

Risky Business: Oil and Water

I’d stayed away from Santa Rosa Island, Pensacola Beach because I couldn’t take it…seeing the destruction of a rare, beautiful place and all that inhabit it. Finally, curiosity got to me and I went out on the western end of the island to the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Fort Pickens. At its entrance I began walking with trepidation. It was about 8:45 and there were not many people out. As I walked along the glass green waves all I saw on the shoreline was a lot of kelp blown up by southerlies and the usual beach denizens: ghost crabs on the prowl, sanderling scurrying to snatch a welk from the draining sand and retreating waves; black skimmers trawling a long organge jaw to scoop minnows. A fleet of pelicans above and a squadron of spotted eagle rays below glided over their hunting grounds. A couple of small sharks had ventured into shore after fish and out on the horizon dolphins were feeding. I saw a dozen speicies of shorebirds including a dozen willets and one or two gulls. Least terns were solitary and dove straight down into the calm water then winged sharply upward.  I think I might have seen a large loggerhead pop its big head out of the water.

Talked to two rangers patrolling the beach with bags full of tarballs and other trash left by humans – flipflops, bottles, condoms, and food containers. We chatted. Apparently just a quarter mile away the tar balls were entering Pensacola Pass and washing up on the Escambia Bay shoreline. The beach I walked this morning would be next unless by some miracle the winds and currents keep the advancing oil beds and sheen offshore. But given the size of the oncoming black tide (two miles wide by 30 miles long) there probably isn’t much chance of that.

A pall hovers over our vibrant city, newly recovered from Hurricane Ivan. This city that so many corporations have left lethal legacies and then moved on…this city has seen enough of that.

See below some reminders that all is not well and a couple of last images of ocean system denizens in the path of destruction.

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Oil Spill Push Back to the Future: Hands Across the Sand

Hands Across the Sand will bring citizens across the U.S. together to literally hold hands across long distances of shoreline. The message is:

not about politics; it is about protection of our coastal economies, oceans, marine wildlife, fishing industry and coastal military missions. Let us share our knowledge, energies and passion for protecting all of the above from the devastating effects of oil drilling.

Here’s the information for our beach but go to the web link above for other locations.

Pensacola Beach
Pensacola, FL
Margaret Biggs
850-776-7119
Pensacola Beach Pier is located on the Gulf adjacent to the large parking lot where the Pensacola Beach-ball Water Tower stands. We will gather at 11:00AM next to the Pier on our beautiful Gulf Beach, gathering hands at noon for 15 minutes.

Reporting from friends who stayed out on Pensacola Beach last week for holiday stated that the group of swans that normally cruise around the docks at Peg Leg Pete’s were stained with oil. Also, notices on the island itself were about oil entering the bay side where people normally crab and fish. My friends’s family put back the crabs they caught – first time in decades of enjoying crabbing on a family vacation to our beaches.

My sister alerted me to another key person whose voice on behalf of oceans and people living near them – Jack Rudloe – who was resently on YouTube encouraging everyone with a cell phone camera, GPS, and/or camera to document what they see, hear, smell and any health impacts like headache, nausea, etc after being out on the beach or water.

As we watch the issues being swept into categories like “we’ll bounce back” and “we’ll restore it all” our intelligence is struck by people who clearly are minimizing what has happened and will continue to happen to our Gulf ecosystem. There are imminent threats from other oil wells that are just now surfacing in the public eye. So don’t be shy to be OUT THERE with voice and presence. Document document…

Pensacola Beach Buffeted by Jimmy, no less

The scene at Pensacola Beach today did not look like a coastline hit by oil blobs and globs. The beaches were packed and we learned that Annual Sand Sculpture event was on. But I don’t think anyone was building sand castles, or swimming in the surf. We learned later that apparently Jimmy Buffet gave the word to Pensacola residents that “we’ve been hit by hurricanes before and we always come back.”

That was enough to bring out thousands of bikini-clad locals to party along an ocean in its death throes. But, hey, you couldn’t see anything. It was only when you looked at your feet or your flip flops that the reality hit home.

We spotted only a handful of people cleaning oil off the beaches. But down near the entrance to Ft. Pickens on the west end of the island, people were leaving their oil gooed flip-flops behind. Even at a spot that appeared to be clear beach and clear surf, we got back to the car with oil streaks on our feet. There was a distinct smell of petroleum on the breeze.

Even though Jimmy Buffet was trying to encourage a town that has only recently come back from the devastation of Hurricane Ivan, it was probably the wrong message. Hurricanes and oil spills are not comparable, one being naturally caused and the other by human error and poor judgement. When the entire focus is on keeping people coming to a beach that  is unhealthy for human use (I saw many babies and toddlers sitting in the sand and playing at the edge of the ocean) one has to wonder. Jimmy recently bought a gorgeous four-star hotel on Pensacola Beach – Margaritaville – and that has to worry him, too.

I know my town is trying to postpone the inevitable but postponing it is keeping us from taking action to change the way we all do business. From the local to the federal, we are willing to risk everything we love for the economic bottom line. This will reach back and bite our children if we do not mitigate the damage aggressively, protect children and youth, and then set policies and stop processes that take us near that precipice again. For now, the beaches and the Gulf will be recovering for a long time…probably longer than we think.

Oil Globs on Santa Rosa Island: It’s Here

Late this afternoon I drove to Santa Rosa Island, to the entrance of a seven-mile stretch of undeveloped barrier island, protected by the Gulf Islands National Sea Shore, one of our priceless U.S. National Parks. While there was a long stretch of beautiful beach, as I walked west toward the end of the island, I began to see oil – firsts dime-sized, then bottle-cap, then hand-sized: thick crude oil, pooled and hardened among shells and sea grasses on the high tide line. Adjacent to this pollution, black skimmers sailed by with their long lower jaw skimming in the shallow edge of the surf and Least Terns dive-bombed for small fish not far off shore. Surely they must be tasting and smelling this invasion of foreign substances. We can only guess what is happening to fish, corals, jellies, dolphins, plankton…I am so profoundly sad about this awful time when we are facing our ourselves –  our ways and wants. It is NOT a pretty picture.

Only a few days ago this was the image of this treasured coast at sunrise:

And to think we are risking this and our families health for a culture addicted to speed and consumption and which cannot function without an enormous and uninterrupted supply of oil. Will it be worth it when all this plays out? And, it will continue to playout over months and years and there will be other catastrophes like it where we have taken enormous risks as the People of the Forward Stampede.

They will all be impacted by the oil catastrophe and eventually it will reach to our children and us through our air, food, and spirit.

Santa Rosa Island, Pensacola Oil Spill Update

Our local NPR station is covering our local conditions. Go to this link for WUWF.org for trajectory maps and fishing limitations. Also go to Skytruth for an interesting proposal to conduct ongoing satellite surveillance of all our oil rigs from now into the future.

After hiking on Santa Rosa Island on Saturday and Sunday I developed a migraine which I have never had in my life. I wonder…that is a symptom of air pollution where oil has evaporated and benzene, toluene, methylbenzene, and xylene compounds are in the air. Pensacola as terrible water and air quality due to an eddying effect, similar to those seen in the Gulf offshore our barrier islands.