Not long after the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers and sent as much as 2.5 million gallons of crude oil a day gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, I spent a weekend paddling and fishing with my buddy Jimbo Meador, who lives on Alabama's Gulf Coast.
Jimbo met me at the airport in Pensacola, and we drove west along the Florida panhandle road toward his house on Mobile Bay. Along the way we stopped at a famous seafood market called Joe Patti's to pick up fresh triggerfish for dinner. Inside, a wall-to-wall crowd was surging toward the counter anxiously. There was a sense of urgency in the air, bordering on panic.
I retreated to a spot near the hot sauce aisle, and that's where I realized what was going on: the oil spill. Worried that the gushing wellhead nearly a mile underwater could mean the end of fresh seafood as we know it, locals and tourists alike were buying up all they could. After 15 minutes we were still in the back of a very long line, so we drove to another market down the road. The parking lot was empty—but so was the fish case. "Don't even ask," the woman behind the counter said. "This is all we've got. If things keep going the way they're headed, we'll be out of business in a couple weeks."
I'd seen plenty of news about the spill and the fishing closures, but this was the first time the scope of the tragedy hit home. It hit me again later that day when Jimbo and I stopped, hoping to go for a bodysurf. The beach was almost empty, vacationers already having cancelled their hotel rooms en masse. And we were greeted by bright orange oil booms washing ashore. Neither of us felt much like swimming.
The following days of paddling and fishing with Jimbo were fun, but all the while, it felt like I was visiting with a good friend who'd just been given a grim prognosis by his doctors.
As I write this, some 59 days since the Deepwater Horizon wellhead began belching oil, the gusher is still out of control. Engineers now say a relief well should be able to stop the leak in August, by which time the stricken well will have pumped 150 million gallons of oil into the Gulf—more than 13 times the size of the '89 Exxon Valdez spill. And that's according to the low end of the most recent government estimate. At the high end, the spill could eventually be 23 times larger than Valdez—assuming the intercept well finds its mark on August 1.
"It's hard to prepare for something that's still coming," Jimbo says. A well-known Gulf kayak angler, Meador works as a sales manager for Dragonfly Boatworks, who in a joint effort with Gulf native son Jimmy Buffet, is donating boats to environmental groups rescuing wildlife affected by the disaster. "With a hurricane, you prepare, it comes and it goes, and then you recover. But this thing just keeps coming. And it isn't over 'til they stop the leak."
Oil is washing ashore along 125 miles of Louisiana coast, on Mississippi's Horn Island, down past Gulf Shores, Alabama, and all the way to Pensacola, Florida. Long stretches of coastline have been closed to recreational and commercial fishing. Crews are laying barriers, raking up oil-laden sand and working to rescue wildlife, but everyone down here knows these efforts can only slow the inevitable. You can't stop the tide.
"That's a huge area that people used to kayak fish in and can't go in anymore," says John Williams, owner of Pack & Paddle in Lafayette, La. He adds that the federal moratorium on offshore drilling imposed in response to the spill may hurt small businesses like his paddling shop. "I think we need to see what happened and make sure we had our rules right," he says, "but that moratorium is going to be a little mini-disaster down here as far as the economy."
But Williams, like many others, is more worried about the environment than the loss of business, which will be measured in the tens of billions when all is said and done. "I'm pissed because it's an undiscovered paradise down here, an estuary that's just phenomenal, and it's fouled up with oil and nobody knows what the long-term effect of that's going to be."
There is some hope. Harold Schoeffler, a longtime Louisiana environmental activist and president of the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club, thinks the Gulf coastline is naturally resilient, and that it'll fare much better than Alaska did during the Valdez spill.
"The weathering of oil is driven by several things: wave action, wind and temperature. The higher the wind, the higher the temperature, the more weathering is done," says Schoeffler. "This isn't Alaska, where you've got a 35-foot tide pushing the rivers backwards into every little wetland where the moose are feeding and then when it recedes that oil is there. We only have a 2-foot tidal range and we're in a high temperature period now which helps the evaporation rate."
In fact, Schoeffler says he's still much more concerned about the Gulf's so-called Dead Zone, an 8,500-square-mile area of low-oxygen water caused by sewage and agribusiness runoff flowing into the Gulf, which has significantly impacted prime shrimping grounds over the past 20 years. Meador echoes those concerns as he grasps for a silver lining amidst the globs of oil.
"The biggest thing to come out of this thing is that people are finally realizing what a wonderful ecosystem the Gulf of Mexico is," he says. "People have taken it for granted for too long and they're realizing what they have now that they think they're going to lose it. It's raised awareness. To me that's a plus. I'd rather do it another way, but now maybe everybody will realize we need to take better care of what we have." — Mark Anders
This article is featured in the current issue of Canoe and Kayak magazine.