Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On The Beach

The last night of the trip, we spent a couple of hours on the beach at Pensacola. The beachfront was decimated in 2007 by Hurricane Ivan, and almost every human-built structure was completely destroyed. NOAA records indicate that the storm surge was 12.5 feet on Pensacola Beach, but the locals claim that it was much higher at times. However, the entire beach area has been completely rebuilt, and there are restaurants, stores, a pavilion for special events, and plenty of tourist attractions. This was the fourth trip I’ve made to the beach, and the third since the hurricane, and the progress of reconstruction has been exciting.

We arrived on the beach near sunset, expecting to find the regular raucous crowd of tourists and kids, but found it as empty as the year after Ivan. A sign in front of a condo rental agency explained, “There is no oil on our beaches except Coppertone.” Pensacola is in the crosshairs of the BP oil spill, and even though there is no oil on the beach yet, hundreds of vacationers have cancelled their trips. Radio stations throughout the Gulf Coast exhort their listeners to spread the word that the beaches are still clean and beautiful, but apparently to little effect. The cheap hotels (the type frequented by college students on field trips) are full around Mobile and Pensacola, but not with the usual contingent of families and college kids. Instead, there are people funneling in to deal with the oil.

I walked out onto the fishing pier with a couple of students to watch the Least Terns hunting in the shallow waters there. The birds are tiny compared to other terns and gulls. They sail over the waves, using their excellent vision to find little fishes near the surface, then fold their wings and dive into the water, much like a pelican. They crash-land into the sea and emerge about one time in ten with a silver prize. The successful terns take off for the shore with their fish, cackling a victory cry past the morsel in their bill, while those who haven’t been as lucky immediately bounce twenty or thirty feet into the air to try again. The crashing and bouncing happen quickly and make the terns appear mounted on strings. The number of Least Terns at Pensacola was the greatest I’ve seen there, but the birds are one of the success stories of the Endangered Species Act, and the populations are starting to flourish all along the Gulf. Wildlife managers identified important nesting areas for the birds—almost always on pristine stretches of beach—and posted fences and signs warning beach users to stay clear. Amazingly, this worked. People in the Gulf care about wildlife, or at least about the tourist dollars that the wildlife brings in, and do what they need to do to protect it.

The next morning in the hotel room, I watched an interview on one of the morning news shows. The subject of the interview was a fishing charter captain who was also the father of two other fishing boat captains. He choked back tears as he described his conversations with his sons—what would they do for customers this year? What would they do for a living? The waitress at the fish house the night before had chuckled nervously when she told one of the students that the dressing on his salad would be made of the “good kind of oil.” We noticed several times this graffito: “FUBP.” Sometimes it wasn’t written on a BP store or billboard. For the most part, though, the people in Pensacola were like those we had encountered throughout Florida—cheerful and positive, and very, very nervous.

Many years ago, I read the Nevil Shute novel On the Beach. The plot was that a nuclear war had destroyed all life in the Northern Hemisphere, and that weather currents were slowly moving the fallout south to Australia. The people in Australia were waiting for the end with a fantastic feeling of foreboding and resignation—knowing that the end was coming and that there was nothing to be done about it.

That’s what it feels like in Pensacola.


Cindy said...

Beautifully written. And you have a remarkable sense of the feeling of people all over Florida.

There are some blowhards (and most of them are running for office) but the people who live in, and love, Florida are quite nervous.

Willing to do whatever it takes to protect and clean up.

Most of the people who live here, and who have lived here, depend on clean water and abundant wildlife ... fish, fowl and human varieties.

And in this part - Pensacola to Tarpon Springs - you're talking about some of the least wealthy, longest-lived, traditionally employed Floridians.

Last of an era.

Archaeopteryx said...

Thanks Cindy. I thought of you when I drove through, and of my old friend Hipparchia. The ocean and the beach--it's what makes Florida what it is. I would imagine a lot of Floridians are remembering that right now.

Keifus said...

The only time I've been to Pensacola was in 2005, which (I had to look this up) was only a year after Ivan. Things were still looking pretty ravaged at that time.

Heh, I also went to Cancun on my honeymoon, and one of the things I remember is how the locals would bend over backwards to help an American tourist, but they shooed our ass right off the beach when we wandered near some sea turtle spawning sites. Good for them. (Saw some rather large shadows on the beach too, which was cool.)

I'd go, I think, if I had a vacation planned, if I thought they'd let us stick around when it got gooey. I'm sure my wife would disagree. But thinking few people, trying to make the most of the last party....and more than that, it strikes me as something a person shouldn't avoid witnessing. (I've never read teh book or seen the movie--scares teh crap out of me.)

Here in New England, they've done a bang-up job of fishing a handful of species clean out of the ocean. The fishing way of life calls up some mixed feelings.

Archaeopteryx said...

That fishing deal is classic wildlife "management." When wildlife becomes a commodity, there's no saving it. On the other hand, when people are convinced to use wildlife to attract tourists, they start acting like those Mexicans in Cancun.

It's why I've been opposed to commercial "harvesting" of geese, even though snow geese are overpopulated pretty much throughout their range. Once people's jobs are dependent on killing them, they'll be gone in no time. I'm sure you've seen film of the baby seal "harvest," justified because clubbing baby seals to make fur coats is a "way of life." Blech.

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