PENSACOLA BEACH — At first view, nothing seems to have changed as a few tourists and locals enjoy the surf at one of Florida’s most famous beaches over the weekend.
People pick up shells, snap photos and set up beach umbrellas for what is expected to be a warm day on Florida’s northwest coast, a quintessential Florida experience.
Then a tractor pulling a sand skimmer plods its way along the shoreline and the idyllic scene is tainted. Welcome to the Florida Panhandle, where oil and water have begun to mix.
The beach looks clean, save for a few tar balls that started arriving over the weekend, the first to hit Florida shores. It hurts worse some say because they thought Florida had taken a safer course.
Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas bet their future on the black gold now gushing into the Gulf. Florida, however, has only dabbled in crude, choosing instead to rely on the coastline’s natural beauty to put money in the bank. That bet, which seemed so safe, is now being threatened.
Michael Penzone is not one to point fingers. A local business owner, Penzone’s enterprises include the Pensacola Beach public pier from which hopeful anglers pay $7.50 a day to fish. His reaction is surprisingly typical of those who make their living here.
“BP seems to be doing the best they can, but they’re working on a problem a mile down,” Penzone said after shaking hands with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist during one of the governor’s increasingly frequent trips to the coast on Saturday.
“This is about supply and demand. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have a car… That’s why they’re drilling a mile down.”
On Sunday, sea turtle volunteer D.J. Zemenick was returning from an inspection of a recent clutch of turtle eggs laid two days before in Fort Pickens State Park, a pristine stretch of beach also famous for its long abandoned fort that once held Apache Indian leader Geronimo in the late 1800s.
Last year, the group monitored more than 40 clutches of loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley turtles, the latter being an endangered species that sometimes nests on the sugar-white beach.
This year, only one clutch of Kemp’s Ridley’s has been found and loggerheads have yet to be seen. Historically, volunteers have strict regulations not to tamper with the nests other than to cordon them off and hold vigil when the eggs hatch 60 days later.
But this year, biologists are trying to determine if more intervention will be needed to save more of the clutch, which upon hatching will return to the same waters now covered in oil.
“We’re not supposed to mess with Mother Nature,” Zemenick said “But we’re messing with Mother Nature (with the oil spill) so I’m not sure what’s next.”
John Barrett says it’s not really the oil company’s fault. Barrett, who spent 25 years transporting crude oil from rigs to various refineries around the Gulf, said such a spill was inevitable given the world’s insatiable thirst for oil.
Now an employee at the Pensacola Beach Pier, Barrett sounded resigned.
“How did you get down here today?” Barrett asks a reporter. “By car? By plane? If you did, they you’re partly to blame. We’re all partly to blame.”
E-mail Michael Peltier at firstname.lastname@example.org.