ESPN Columnist/Author
Oil in Gulf of Mexico

It's still out there.

The Inertia

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 about what it felt like to be a surfer on the Gulf at the time. One of my hosts on the Gulf, Yancy Spencer III, recently passed on. In re-reading this piece, I’m reminded of what a great advocate Yancy was for 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.

Ribbons of tar along high-tide line in Orange Beach, Alabama.

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.

Read more from Kimball Taylor on his personal website and be on the lookout for a new collection of surf-themed essays to be published soon.

1 2


Only the best. We promise.


Join our community of contributors.