Most Pensacola surfers drove the 15 miles down to Navarre yesterday, because there’s a couple of good banks at the pier and the oil had yet to hit there. Pensacola was already covered. Apparently, in the past, Navarre wasn’t visited much. But the oil situation packed the lineup. The fact that black tar wasn’t visible, however, was hardly a consolation. The talk on the beach, the overall vibe of the crowd, was one of the strangest I’ve come across.
Tropical storm Alex whipped-up chest-to-head high waves. So, surfers were split between taking advantage of the rare swell and their fears of what may be in the water. Real questions about how and where the dispersant travels arose, because it can’t be seen the way oil can. Some said there was also benzene, a known carcinogen, in the water. The two feelings came in waves, one minute I was stoked to be in the clear, tropical surf, and the next minute, I really regretted the decision. Every other person spat out some new factoid about the oil, and the facts got increasingly dark. A couple of surfers braved the oiled line-ups of Pensacola and reported headaches and burning skin. I was told a baby dolphin washed up yesterday, and today the oil line was only six miles out from unaffected beaches.
One aspect that makes the disaster so profound for local surfers, is that they’re also fishermen. And those fishermen who worked on charter boats are now likely working for B.P. The crews head out six-to-ten miles and report their findings back to B.P. I talked to a surfer who’d worked the charter boats his entire adult life. His boat had also been hired by the oil giant. When I asked what it was like out there, he said, “It’s black, it’s brown, it’s red. And everything is dead.”
All of the affected beaches have workers and tractors “cleaning” the sand. Dozens of tractors and large vehicles fill parking lots that would have been packed with tourists this time of year. Many of the surfers I’ve talked to work in the service industry. Both the oil and the expansive media coverage have nearly put a halt to business. B.P. is cutting checks to make up the difference in pay. But the employees have to stick around to collect the checks. So surfers are basically stuck here.
I just got a report that Navarre, the beach we all surfed yesterday, is getting hit with tar balls today. The next spot down the coast is Panama City, which is two and a half hours from Pensacola. Once that gets oil, Pensacola surfers with have to drive six hours to the east coast of Florida.