The Perils of Petrol: Perspectives on Oil, Gasoline, and the Gulf

Though I haven’t shared the story widely up until this post, our 3rd Coast Connect adventure got off to a perilous start. It all had to do with the fossil fuels that propel the Boudreaux—along with so much else in today’s world—and that have taken a huge toll on Gulf environments.

Before we began our journey, the Boudreaux had been pulled from the water at a Pensacola marina to receive a new coat of bottom paint and for other repairs. In the process, the mechanic found problems with the gasoline generator that required more extensive work. So he removed the generator from the boat to work on it during the first leg of our journey, while we have used a portable generator secured in a corner of the stern deck.

We arrived at the marina on the day of our launch in time to watch the six-ton Boudreaux being moved to the water’s edge by a device that looked like the product of a giant’s Erector Set. The monstrous rig crept along the pavement on oversized wheels, carrying the boat on two slings attached to huge steel beams high overhead.  After the Boudreaux was gently lowered into the water, we loaded our gear, topped up the two 130-gallon gasoline fuel tanks, and made the 40-minute cruise with Dan Webking, the boat owner, to the canal behind his house in Gulf Breeze.

Shortly after docking at Dan’s place, we noticed a strong smell of gasoline. We opened the hatches and Tracy discovered that the fuel line to the generator had been left open and leaking into the bilge area. We shut off the gas line and began a process that took nearly a day, mostly through the efforts of the mechanic, who was called to the scene, of thoroughly cleaning out the bilge.

The experience left us deeply rattled—my initial reaction was to cancel the whole trip—and thankful that we avoided what could too easily have been a catastrophic gas explosion aboard the Boudreaux. Though we decided to continue the journey, dodging this bullet also has certainly has made us more safety-conscious than we might have been otherwise.

Moreover, our close call, along with the Boudreaux’s prodigious thirst for petrol, put the issue of our civilization’s oil dependance right up in our faces from the very start of our journey. It stimulated conversations among ourselves and with others, and couldn’t help but help frame our thinking about the BP oil spill and the larger issue of the human dependance on fossil fuels.

Oil spill cleanup images from Gulf Shores, AL:

Collecting tar balls along the surf line.

There are a world of topics to explore related to our society, oil, and the Gulf. For the moment I will share some of the impressions and discoveries that stand out most strongly from our experiences to date:

  • We saw multiple beach clean-up crews still at work in Alabama, where they are finding tar balls along the surf zone and filtering oil from beach sands using heavy machinery. Workers we talked to said they expect to be busy for at least another  year.
  • Lynn Rabren, a filmmaker who recently produced a documentary with Dan Rather called A Gulf in Understanding (available on iTunes), thinks that oil may be washing ashore for longer than that. His sources indicate that quantities of oil are collected in trenches near the coast, and that this oil will continue to be stirred up and washed ashore by storms and hurricanes in the years ahead.
  • On the other hand, many Gulf coast residents we’ve talked to have said that oil on the beach is nothing new. We have heard multiple stories from adults about their childhood visits to Gulf beaches that resulted in bare feet tarred with oil from walking in the sand. This likely has resulted from land-based pollution, natural seepage, as well as offshore extraction and shipping activities. Our research prior to the trip revealed that more oil enters America’s oceans from stormwater runoff carried by inland waterways than from all off-shore sources combined, including oil spills.  (See for details.)
  • Oil has been so common in Gulf waters, including natural seepage from reserves below the ocean floor, that micro-organisms have adapted to consume oil. George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said he believes that this partially accounts for the fact the impacts of the BP oil spill weren’t worse and that much of the oil is now gone. He also said it’s likely that most remaining oil from the spill is dispersed in tiny submarine droplets spread out over vast areas due to the controversial toxic dispersants that were applied deep underwater by BP—a previously untested strategy. At this point, Crozier is more concerned about the social and economic consequences of the spill than the ecological impacts (click here for an op-ed piece by Crozier on the topic).
  • Dave McLain of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, whose career includes decades of work directing oil spill cleanups in North America and one project in the former Soviet Union, described how the initial efforts to prevent oil from entering Apalachicola bay by relying solely on surface booms were completely inadequate. In his view, these efforts were intended to give the appearance of taking action rather than taking the extra steps (involving a more complex and expensive boom strategy with below-surface elements) that would have been effective. We heard similar stories elsewhere. Fortunately, winds kept oil on the surface from entering Apalachicola bay. Presently, Dave is most concerned about a movement in the Florida legislature to lift the ban on off-shore drilling—in his view a short-sighted strategy that poses real threats to Florida’s tourism industry and that will create many long-term environmental problems.

View from Dauphin Island beach.

We certainly have noticed that crossing the border from Florida to Alabama means a change in views: Florida beaches offer a horizon line without evidence of human activity, while those in Alabama have horizons that are punctuated with natural gas and, farther from shore, oil platforms as far as the eye can see.

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Posted in BP Oil Spill | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mardi Gras: Dauphin Island Style

Dauphin Island’s Mardi Gras parade is the first in the nation each year, and with a warm sun shining down upon us this morning we couldn’t resist staying on the island an extra day for a little bons temps as only a Mardi Gras celebration can deliver.

On the two Saturdays when Mardi Gras parades are held here (the first was last week), the quiet island’s population of 1,300 explodes to more than ten times that number. Cars are backed up for miles over the causeway and bridge as they stream onto the island from the western shore of Mobile Bay. Friday afternoon residents start staking out tail-gating spaces with yellow police tape up and down Bienville Avenue, the island’s main street, which runs west and east. The avenue is named after Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, who founded Mobile as the first capital of French Louisianna in 1702. Mardi Gras celebrations began there the next year, and remain a strong tradition in these parts.

Click here for a photo gallery of the Dauphin Island Mardi Gras

After the parade, we were invited to—of all things—an oyster bake hosted by some of the research staff from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab who we met yesterday (see last post for more info on the lab). It was a fun party, with oysters being shucked, eaten on the half-shell, baked, and steamed. Bellies full, we biked home just after dark to get ready for tomorrow morning’s early crossing of Mobile Bay on our return to Pensacola.

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Posted in Gulf Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Oysters and Us

Lela Schlenker, our guide to the oyster reef, gill net in hand.

Yet again yesterday, our explorations reinforced connections between the well-being of Gulf Coast natural and social environments and those of us who live far from the shore. Our lessons came from a field excursion to some fledgling oyster reefs and from interviews with Dr. George Crozier, Executive Director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL), and Dr. Sean Powers, who oversees research at the Lab related to oyster fisheries. Yes, and then there was also the oyster martini Nat and I enjoyed at the end of the day at the Oarhouse pub after witnessing another blazing Gulf sunset at the public beach on this lovely barrier island.

Lela Schlenker, a DISL lab technician, took us on a tour of the Lab’s experimental work to enhance oyster habitat in Mobile Bay and elsewhere in the Gulf. Like Apalachicola Bay, barrier islands that partially protect Mobile Bay from the open waters of the Gulf create an estuary, where salt water mixes with fresh water from the Mobile-Tensaw River delta (for more on the wonders of estuaries you can visit the earlier post, Cradle of Life: Introducing the Estuary). If you ever make it to Dauphin Island, don’t miss the Sea lab, which, in addition to carrying out extensive research on estuary environments, Gulf ecology, and fisheries management (when it’s not busy dealing with crises like the oil spill), also has a wonderful Estuarium as part of its many public educational efforts.

Part of DISL's oyster reef experiment: several oyster beds made from stacks of oyster shells in mesh bags.

Lela led us on a hike along a stretch of shoreline at low tide. Running parallel to us a dozen yards off shore a series of constructed oyster reefs were visible above the water. Laid out in grids roughly 30-feet long and 10-feet wide, the eight reefs formed a controlled experiment for determining which of three strategies create the best habitat for oysters while also improving conditions for multiple other species that thrive when the oysters thrive.

Sean Powers emphasized that oysters are an indicator species for estuaries, because they can’t pick up and find a new home when their habitats get degraded. Moreover, when they do well, their beds create habitat for other species and the oysters improve estuary conditions by filtering bacteria from the surrounding waters. Oysters also have been a mainstay for Gulf fishermen, because they are inexpensive to harvest using traditional methods and easy to find if stocks are good. For a glimpse into the family-oriented oyster fishing culture and traditional harvesting techniques in the Gulf, here is a video profile of Wayne Hicks, a third-generation oysterman from Apalachicola bay:

Traditionally, tiny oyster spat attach themselves to sub-surface piles of shells left by their ancestors where they grow to harvestable size within a year. But in many areas populations have declined due to several causes: pollution that can originate thousands of miles inland and is carried to the Gulf by inland waterways (the main problem in Mobile Bay), irregular flows of freshwater into estuaries from upstream dams (the biggest issue in Apalachicola Bay), and excess sediment from surface runoff that covers the shell reefs. When these things happen, oyster beds deteriorate and the little spat need help. DISL’s project is focused on determining which of three materials are best for rebuilding reefs. The experiment has proven that man-made oyster beds can enhance oyster populations, reduce shoreline erosion, and improve conditions for other species. Of course, reducing the sources of pollution and restoring freshwater flow levels into estuaries are also essential to the long-term sustainability of the oysters, the oyster fishery, and the estuaries that nurture oysters and fishermen.

Reef-building Materials (from left): ReefBlk (which get filled with oyster shells), Reef Ball (also filled with shells), and meshed bags filled with shells (the best, but most labor-intensive, solution).

As we discussed the overall health of Gulf coastal environments with George Crozier, the conversation had a way of returning to the impact of the BP oil spill. While oyster beds in Mobile and Apalachicola bays didn’t suffer a direct hit of oil from the spill, the precipitous drop in tourism and unfounded fears of tainted seafood, combined with the recession, have had what Crozier said are “catastrophic” impacts on the Gulf’s coastal communities.

Later, at the Oarhouse, Nat and I talked about the health of the Gulf’s oysters and oystermen while enjoying our oyster martini—a large martini glass filled with a half-dozen raw oysters on a bed of lettuce. Outside, the sky darkened after another amazing sunset display.

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Posted in Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Deer Hunt

This post is by Nat, who joined Adam Brack on a deer hunt last Sunday morning when we were staying with Jane Shepard in Panama City Beach. Adam is Jane’s son-in-law, married to her daughter Erin.

Here is Nat’s story:

Within twenty minutes of our arrival at Jane Shepard’s place in Panama City Beach, Adam told me he had errands to run before dinner. Would I like to come? I said why not. It was a good chance to get a lay of the land. We drove to Adam’s office, a golf instruction building on a short driving range adjoining an 18-hole course. Inside, he showed me tools that he uses to help golfers develop more sound, consistent swings. He moved from one instrument to the next in the way a salesman points out another product on a shelf. He grabbed some venison sausage and a half rack of Coors from his fridge to bring back to Jane’s.

Over dinner, Adam shared his love for hunting and the sausages that came from a doe he shot last month. He told us that sometimes he brings his daughter Emery with him to sit in the blind on his hunting lease some fifteen miles from town. Emery is four and Adam boasted that when she sees deer along the road now she says let’s shoot it and put it in the truck. After dinner Adam asked me to go hunting the next morning. I agreed to meet him outside of Jane’s house at 5:30. He said we would return by 11 at the latest, in time for him to bring his family to church. He gave me a few details about the land his lease is on, told me he had tags for the deer if we did shoot one, and emphasized that it would be cold. After finding out that I had never been hunting before, he asked if I had ever used a rifle. I told him I had, in target practice. Apparently that was good enough. He told me to think of hunting as a video game, just like Big Buck Hunter. I decided to bring a camera and the telephoto lens, and mentioned to my dad that I may just take photos if I happened to see a deer.

A racoon being cleaned on the Apalachicola dock.

Why did I choose to go? After seeing photos my Dad took in Apalachicola of a raccoon being skinned I grew more curious of the hunt. Two twelve year olds walking around with .22s in their hands along a bike trail in St. Marks also led me to wonder about hunting and its popularity in the south. I had an idea that learning to take down and clean a deer would be good survival skills. Mostly I was drawn to Adam’s passion for hunting. But did I truly want to kill a deer?

When I awoke the next day I felt more awake than usual. We passed two gas stations in darkness until we finally reached an open one. The attendant was standing outside. As we went in he joked that all the deer were gone, it was so cold they had fled south. I guessed he knew we were going hunting by Adam’s full camouflage, the four-wheeler on our trailer, and finally who else is awake at 5:45 on a Sunday. I had on all the layers I’ve got, a green raincoat, and work pants. Because of my outfit I was to hunt from the condo, where the deer wouldn’t see my colors. What Adam calls the condo is a raised blind with a five step slanted ladder leading to a weathered plywood door. A bent nail keeps the door closed.

Before we left the truck, I watched as Adam loaded a black powder rifle. Hunting with this rifle allows him to hunt a longer season. It also means he has to reload new powder and a bullet from the barrel end with a ramrod before every shot, like a musket from revolutionary times. He handed me a lever-action rifle akin to the only one I’ve ever fired and I pulled my camera and lens onto my lap while we seated ourselves on his ATV.

Without passing more than a few words, I climbed off of the machine and up into the blind. As he drove away I watched his silhouette vanish around a bend in the road. I gave myself something to do by removing the wide-angle lens from the camera. With the telephoto in place, I began to adjust my seat so that the lens could sit directly on the sill of the small window cut into the east-facing wall of the blind. Over the next hour I sat patiently as sunrays poured onto the needles of the roadside pines. Adam shares the hunting lease with eight other men, and each has their own tract. The St. Joseph paper company leases land to hunters in the region as another way to profit from pine plantation soil.

Sunrise from the blind.

A curtain of fog rose and fell and billowed like smoke as condensation parted from the trees and grass. I took deep breaths between the times I blew on my hands to keep them warm. I picked the gun up once to place a squirrel in the crosshairs, leaned my head over the top of it and squinted my left eye into the scope. The metal of the rifle was ice to the touch so I placed it back in the corner of the blind. I lifted the camera to my face and snapped photos of the changing light. I saw through the lens different patterns in neat pine rows. I drank small sips of water not because I was thirsty but for something to do.

When I first saw the doe out of the corner of my eye, I thought it was a fawn. I knew deer in Florida were smaller than those in Minnesota, but this one looked too small. I sent a text to Adam that said I see a fawn. Does it have spots? No, no it doesn’t. I waited. I don’t know how long.

I don’t recall reaching a decision, but set down the camera and reached for the rifle in the corner. Two more does eventually wandered onto the path blazed for an ATV. With the rifle in my hands I forgot about the cold. My heart rate felt normal but I could hear the beating louder than usual. The deer seemed to take turns looking up with long ears perked at where I sat. I picked out the largest doe of the three in the crosshairs. I waited for what felt like ages then slowly began to pull the trigger. Nothing. I placed my thumb on the hammer and pulled it back until it clicked once, twice.

After I pulled the trigger the second time I don’t know if I moved or put the rifle down. The echo from the shot hovered all around me. The doe was still moving, but she was down and I knew then that I had taken her life. I waited again. I told Adam by text what I had done before unlatching the door and stepping down the ladder. Adam wrote back that he would come in 15 minutes. I wrote one more text to him that said ok. I feel strange.

I paced uncomfortably around the doe for several minutes, then knelt down next to her and touched my open palm to her chest, where I thought her heart to be. I moved my hand slowly over her fur towards her hind legs. She was innocent in a way I had never seen an animal before. A lump formed in my throat as I bowed my head and considered what I had done.

The photographs I took of the doe’s lifeless body will be all that remain of the deer once the venison is gone. Somehow, the act of documenting my experience after the doe’s death has given me peace of mind. The last thing I wanted to do was take a photo standing over the deer. But capturing the image of the doe that I saw before I leaned over to pet her is important to me now.

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Posted in Wildlife | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Strange Symmetries at Seaside

Apalachicola’s unassuming, rough-edged historic charm comes from its relationship with the sea and the river that feeds it and its people, whose livelihoods are tightly bound to the waters surrounding them (for more on Apalachicola, see the earlier post, “Cradle of Life: Introducing the Estuary”). About 100 miles west, the resort “town” of Seaside offers something completely different. This intensively designed community has colorful cottages nested together in a maze of brick streets, geometric symmetries that are as addictive as candy, and a remote connection to the seashore—the thing that you’d think might draw a person to the sea-side.

Gulf waters seen through a Seaside pavilion (left), and the Apalachicola town dock.

If you’ve seen the movie The Truman Show (starring Jim Carrey as a character stuck in a dystopian reality-TV world that he tries to escape) you spent a couple of hours in Seaside, maybe without knowing it. I had seen the movie, though I’d forgotten that it was filmed there. Instead I convinced Jane Shepard to make the 40-minute drive from Panama City Beach to visit the place because I’d heard that Seaside was the first town designed on the principles of the New Urbanism—principles it seemed hard not to like: to quote the charter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, “the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.”

Laudable ideas, but they have been realized at Seaside in such a strange way. The uniform consistency of Seaside’s 1980s design makes it feel like anything but a “real community.” It is fun to explore—like wandering around a life-sized board game—though yesterday the streets were deserted, which was a little spooky. Granted, the place was created as a resort town, and so no one living there has a working relationship with the Gulf and its waters. But the town seems oriented to itself, with a central green offering no Gulf view that is surrounded by shops and the site of community events.

Click here for a Seaside photo gallery.

The snow-white beach and its pounding surf can only be seen from semi-private pavilions (each the property of the group of cottages nearest it) perched atop the dunes, and the occasional public-access walkway. This approach hasn’t completely trampled the delicate dunes, and it seems a better idea than the high-rise condos found along most Gulf beaches, each of which towers over its exclusive little stretch of sand.

But I wouldn’t like to live in a movie set, one where—no kidding—the speed limit is 17 miles an hour. Two hours seemed about right for a visit, then Jane and I were, like Jim Carrey, ready to escape outside, back into the real world.

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Posted in Coastal Development, Gulf Culture | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Turpentine and the Long-lost Longleaf Pine

Nat, John, and Jane Shepard

Like so many of the world’s natural resources that have proven useful for the human cause, the longleaf pines that once blanketed much of the southeastern U.S. are now nearly gone. Yesterday we visited a historic site that revealed what happened to them.

The Boudreaux is docked in Panama City Beach—the long barrier island across a protected bay from Panama City proper—in a small canal behind the house of Jane Shepard, the widow of my first cousin Mac Shepard. Here Nat and I have enjoyed great company, wonderful food (there’s a tale to be told about that venison), and two nights sleeping on real beds. Yesterday, the weather offered a break from the blustery cold wind and rain we’ve had for much of the last week. With sunshine and temps creeping into the upper-50s, we loaded our bikes onto the back of Jane’s car and made the short drive to St. Andrews State Park.

Here we found a spectacular classic Gulf  beach with sand like white sugar (a gift of the quartz bedrock from the Appalachian Mountains), miles of trails that wind through dunes, marshes, oaks, and pine forests, and lots of wildlife. With the towering hotels that line the beach to the west hidden by the dunes and trees, this little oasis provided a glimpse into habitats that once covered hundreds of miles of the Gulf coast’s barrier islands.

Click here for a photo gallery of St. Andrews Park and Panama City Beach.

The park also included a historic turpentine still, which focused a beam on the demise of the longleaf pine. By way of background on this species of highly resinous pine—whose needles grow up to 18-inches—and the logging history of the region, here’s a short video from our Waters to the Sea: Chattahoochee River program:

Tree tapped for resin

“Naval stores” is the term for the uses put to the longleaf pine—turpentine, timber, and resin consumed by the U.S. Navy and merchants for a variety of purposes. And turpentining was a major Florida industry from the late 1800s to the 1930s. The turpentine still in St. Andrews Park shows the process by which the resins from the longleaf pine were refined by heating, cooling, and filtering. The sill included a sawmill, which provided an additional revenue source for the owner. Early on, slaves provided labor and stoked the still’s fires until emancipation, when they continued working as low-paid laborers. By the 1950s, synthetics had come to replace the naval store products that used the resins of the longleaf pine.

Click here for a turpentine still photo gallery.

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The Alligator Hunters

In this episode, our two travelers set off by kayak into a setting sun in search of the King of the Swamps. Werner Herzog narrates.

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Posted in Wildlife | Tagged , , | 18 Comments