A lifetime had passed since I’d last been to the places where I first began surfing. St. George Island. Cape San Blas. They get waves? I kind of remember…just barely. I moved to St. Augustine 6 years ago for school and a slightly more active side of the sea (many consider the East Coast pretty flat mostly, but with respect to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s magic).
I would make trips occasionally to my hometown, but the extra two hours to the beach just didn’t seem worth it when I knew the Atlantic would likely have much better offerings when I returned. Something about having the option to surf the Gulf possibly taken away snapped me out of that apathy.
The Deepwater Horizon Oil disaster began while I was on a surfing holiday in Australia. BP tapped on the Gulf of Texaco’s gag reflex and she spewed her contents for most of the summer. I don’t think anyone could have imagined it going on for as long as it did. When my mom asked me if I’d like to go to the beach and possibly surf, I was hesitant. Was I going to get this toxic dispersant, corexit, all over me and get sick? Were the beaches even going to be open? I couldn’t find any solid information on the spots we usually went to. There didn’t seem to be any reports of oil having gotten as far east as our usual beaches. So, we loaded up some surfboards, Harpo the dog, food and water and set off to find out.
The drive was as much a part the adventure as was the time at the beach. Sopchoppy, Panacea, Lanark, names that probably mean nothing to those who haven’t taken this ride before. For me, the little town signs and landmarks are seared into memory, mantra-like, repeated in order and then reversed. Sheltered flats and barrier islands are visible for much of the stretch of 98, Carrabelle, pine trees, Tate’s Hell, old dock posts and pelicans, Eastpoint…turn left to St. George Island or keep on going through…Appalachicola and on to Port St. Joe and Cape San Blas.
As we approached the turn to Cape San Blas, I caught sight of some orange boom through the trees. My heart sank as a spectrum of scenarios stampeded through my mind. Had the oil gotten this far without making the news? To this day, I’ve never found out why that boom was there.
We kept driving despite the orange warning, wondering if this long journey would simply lead to disappointment. When we arrived to one of the places where I had grown up surfing, the water seemed clear. There were no signs, no lines in the sand or workers in white suits, no strange sheen on the water or tar balls on the sand…just a few people on the shore and playing in the water and some teeny waves.
For novelty and nostalgia and a love of lefts, I couldn’t resist these miniature miracles. The Gulf’s similarities to a bathtub don’t end with its stillness. Jumping into the water here is not a refreshing, cool plunge on a hot summer’s day. It’s just diving into a different state of matter. It’s exactly like the air – but liquid. Suddenly, you are wet and weightless but still sweaty and suffocating.
I’d somehow never ridden a proper longboard at my home breaks. No wonder I probably only surfed a handful of times between the ages of 13 and 18. It takes an act of god to get these places over shin high. This was my first time logging in the Gulf. Yew!
There was this kid on a boogie board that started trying to stand up on it when he saw me getting waves. I grabbed the fantastic plastic fish and asked his parents if it would be ok if I pushed him into a few. They were from Alabama and the boy’s name was Hayden. He was five years old and stood up on his 2nd wave. After a while I let his dad take over and they played with the board until it was time to go. Hayden never said a word to me until he was leaving (in an adorably southern accent), “Thank you.”
When it was time for us to leave, I noticed some funny little black particles washing up. They didn’t look or smell too oil-like to me but I still took a sample and sent them off with some friends who had connections that could test the substance. The connection at the Florida DEP told me that it didn’t look like oil but that he would pass it along for testing . He sent me a map where I could track different areas of interest related to the disaster and communication unsurprisingly dropped off after that.
As the summer moved along, news of the spill being capped and oil clearing up gave us hope. The story, like the oil itself, slowly sank from the surface, getting buried in the news cycle. It is still there, popping up in the form of the occasional follow up story, the most recent being about our contaminated food chains. While the oil never ran up the Eastern Seaboard as was predicted in the worst case scenario tales, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the ongoing impacts of this disaster.