Dispatch from the Gulf

| posted on June 29, 2010

Monday morning I attended a conference on renewable energy in the Florida state capital building. The room normally filled with legislators was filled with interested citizens, academics, and lobbyists. The idea was to get Florida on a path toward running on renewable energy. It was an interesting scene because this conference could have happened any time in the last decade, but because it was occurring during the months-long BP oil spill, there was urgency to it.

I met a legislator from Cocoa Beach named Frank Sasso. He’s a surfer, member of Surfrider and a co-organizer of the national Hands Across the Sands demonstration held Sunday. He told me that he faced some obvious “surfer” stereotypes when he first came to the capital. And at first it seemed odd to be a surf journalist attending this event. The only other journalist attending was a business reporter from the local paper. Annie Lopez, mother of Shea and Cory, was the person who urged me to attend. When she stood up and introduced herself to the other attendees as a businesswoman and mother of two world-class surfers from the Gulf Coast, it became even more poignant, that among all of the possibilities of water-related activities, surfers are making themselves visible in this disaster.

It rained in a torrent as I left Tallahassee just after noon. Tropical storm Alex was already pushing swell into Pensacola. The swell was head-high, but Alex threatened to become a hurricane as it hit the Gulf. I spoke with Yancy Spencer III—East Coast hall-of-famer and local surf patriarch—and he told me that the swell would be even bigger the next day, but also that this may be the last swell Gulf Coasters can surf without oil on every beach. As it was, local surfers were avoiding the beaches soiled with the tar balls.


I was shocked when I actually found them on Casino Beach. They were like pancakes of under-baked brownies. You could roll them in the sand and they would form into something like horse turds. The water didn’t look too bad though. Local ripper Mikey Peyton told me that the real oil arrived last Wednesday; it looked like a black tar highway extending out to sea.

I ended up surfing Navarre Beach with Yancy III in the evening. The water was beautiful, and warm and tropical. The waves broke off of a classic pier sandbar setup. Yancy is surprisingly stylish and smooth, even compared too much younger surfers. I suddenly realized how much I liked this place. But learning this at what might be the eleventh hour for this surf zone, was uniquely unsettling.

I just spoke with Sterling Spencer. He has a friend working on the clean-up. The friend told him that us land lubbers have no idea how much oil is out there. Hurricane Alex might let us know.

  • Taylor K

    Those oil blobs are gnarly. This might be a stupid question, but do we know whether the oil’s going to come up the East Coast?

  • dude

    the legislator’s name is Tony Sasso

  • good stuff

    good reporting by Mr. Taylor, glad to see a Surfer staffer heading right to the center of the story… although Louisiana’s surely getting some solid swell from Alex now, right at Ground Zero for this oil spill

  • Tom

    Hi Taylor,
    Yes, the oil will come up the east coast of Florida. In fact, Miami to Palm Beach is much more apt to have oil arriving in the surf zone than the west coast of Florida (I.E., Tampa to Naples), since the oil will be picked up by the currents that are in deep water. Florida’s west coast is more than 100 miles from those deep water currents such as the Loop Current, which becomes first the Florida Current and then the Gulf Stream. Right now the Gulf Stream is only 3 miles offshore of Palm Beach County, and it is fed by water that first circulates through the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a two to three week trip from the northern Gulf to Palm Beach, once the oil is in the Loop Current. So it is not whether the oil will pass close by the east coast, but when. When it does pass by, and once it starts, it could continue for a span of years…our easterly trade winds can easily move it to our surf zones. How much we will see is still a big question, but it will arrive for sure.
    Right now the Gulf islands and marshes that already have been oiled are being pummeled by much more oil, being driven ashore by strong easterly winds associated with Alex. It’s really sad…

  • Mik

    I felt the same bitter remorse that Shea is feeling when Al Gore won the 1996 Presidential election, but due to election tampering, in Jeb Bush run Florida, and a susequent sleazy Supreme Court decision, Florida was instead ground zero for the GOP’s coup: the American people’s environmentally aware votes were ignored in favor of big oil’s puppet leader, GW Bush. So instead of a committed environmentalist, the United States suffered under a committed idiot, and is still suffering from 8 years of his rampant deregulation and cow-towing to big oil. What pisses me most is the UK’s involvement. They helped drag us into Iraq, illegally, and their oil kingpin BP ignored US oil rig safety mechanisms which would have prevented this debacle. So basically, fuck BP and fuck the UK. I am boycotting all things UK. This disaster is too horrific for words. And it has the entire country vulnerable in ways we haven’t even grasped. How can people even work near the gulf with the toxic water’s influence on the air? The water is flammable now, how dangerous is that? It will be 10 years before the region is even remotely normal. It may never be normal again. And even as I type this, BP is letting more oil flow into the Ocean. Smart Americans will buy puts on BP stock derivatives, betting that it will go down. People should put massive numbers into that. Drive them out of business entirely. The UK doesn’t respect Americans? Well respect that. Rant over… For now.

  • Big D


    For a guy who is wants “the man” to be accountable for his actions; past and present, you don’t seem to be very willing to see your part in all of this.

    Blaming everyone around us, is not the answer. Man, I live and surf in FL, don’t you think I am freaked out by this catastrophe? Several of my friends are cleaning up this spill right now! I am pissed, but I have got to be pissed at the right people. As far as I’m concerned, it isn’t one political parties fault…or some other countries fault. It is all our fault. We rely on oil to make our lives go…almost all of us! Few and far between is the bio-diesel using, bike riding, earth lover. The other 99.9% drive a car that runs on gas, we power our houses with electricity being generated from all sorts of sources, that more than not harm our enviroment. We use plastic products like they are going out of style, for crying out loud! (Like the little removeable lid from the inside of your orange juice container, would someone tell me why that is made of plastic and not a wax lined piece of paper, or evel foil?) I could go on and on here, man. The point is that we have to be accountable to ourselves and the ones we are close with. I could spend all day screaming about how all politicians should be abolished, and the people who caused this should be strung up! But, that is not going to clean up any oil. Instead, I choose to focus my energy on effecting the world around me, and inspiring those who are close to me to do the same.

    The People can make a change, but we do it one person at a time, and honey attracts alot more flies. You get what I am saying?

  • jml


    Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1996. Al Gore lost in 2000. Lots of blame to go around for oil spill.

  • Mike

    Mike Shellman says:
    July 1, 2010 at 5:21 am

    I appreciate how passionate people are about the BP blowout and the horrible harm it is causing so many people. Accidents happen in all facets of life and the good Lord knows that human beings have been on a mission to destroy themselves since the get go. We have been messing in our own kitty boxes since the beginning of us. You name the problem, in this case oil pollution, the answer is always the same: too many folks needing too much of mother earth.

    I care deeply about the worlds oceans, surf and fish and am a life member or the Surfrider Foundation and a life member of the Coastal Conservation Association that protects the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines. I give thousands of dollars each year to conservation efforts along our coasts. I am proud of that and equally proud that I am also in the oil and natural gas buisness and contribute to the energy needs of my country.

    It is hypocritical to stand on a beach to protest offshore oil and gas exploration then get in your SUVs and get stuck in traffic on the 101 for 2 hours; our surfboards and wetsuits, the IPods you listen to, the Reefs you wear on your feet and the cheeseburgers you eat after a session, the jet fuel you use to go on surf trips, it all comes from crude oil. I might ask all those folks standing on the beach what their plan is to quit crude oil but they don’t have a plan. And trust me everyone of those folks standing on the beach hands held together will whine when gasoline gets to 4 dollars a gallon again, big time. Pardon my candor but California will not allow development of billions of barrels of known crude oil reserves within 10 miles of their beaches, in very shallow water, to contribute to our country’s energy security and independence…the Exxon Valdez went aground carrying Alaskan oil to Long Beach. For over 50 years the offshore oil industry has had a terrific safety record and most environmental tragedies affecting our beaches came from tankers hauling oil to our country from other places. It is foolish to say no more drilling, lets end fossil fuel use tomorrow, by the way where is my cheap gasoline, I need a 400 dollar ticket to the North Shore in December?

    I am angry at BP too; its a mess, I have seen it first hand. They have stepped up though, lots would have bailed by now. We’ll figure it out down here along the Gulf, become more safe about the process of drilling and producing our nations resources and carry on because we must. You need for us to, especially out there in Cali, so you don’t have to. Eventually we’ll find reasonable alternatives to gasoline but until then America needs America’s oil and natural gas and that is the absolute truth. Can’t drive up to Rincon then back down to Lowers in your little car with the windmill on top, or using a long extension cord last I checked. Get a grip on that.

    And keep surfin’ !!

  • Steve Ulrich

    In response to Mr. Shellman,
    Your thoughts are indeed refreshing,concise, and probably true. I regret the Cali-centric spin on energy issues coming from Surfrider (yeah, I’m a member too) and now SURFER (yeah, I’m a subscriber). As surfers, we have a unique relationship with and perspective of our environs, and we all share that unequivocally, no matter where we live and surf. But, the party line coming from the West gets a little wierd sometimes. The latest issue of Making Waves was an editorial joke and the cover really did make me and my wife laugh. Their Iron Surfer campaign even states that we, as surfers, could rule the world ! Never have been an avid admirer of One-World-Order , even if was headed by Jay.

  • jaker

    man theres no other way to put then the simple factor that this is not how the ocean is supost to flow, its not only thrashin the environment but its killin the surf too. i dont know what anyone was thinkin drilling this deep but they had to assume sum sort of risk and ATLEAST have a plan as to sum way to fix it if it went badly, though they’v tried alot of things to fix it theres nothing set in stone as to how it can be handled. theres no going back now though, i guess the only thing to do is wait it out and see what they can come up with and hope for the best.

    its not only about money and if theres no earth to left to grow and no garden to work and no ocean to surf then theres not gonna be a need for money anyways, i wish the government would look at this world a little more as home and not as much a business plan

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