I'm still skeptical. Discovering oil on shore doesn't seem possible. So I head for the water's edge, where it takes only seconds to discover the fisherman is right. Lumps of tar dot the sand. One is the size of a cantaloupe. Tar balls the size of quarters bob in the waves. I reach over to grab one. It smells unmistakably of crude, and leaves my fingers coated with a thick goo.
I leave the beach to clean it off, but end up just staining a bar of soap. Workers at the Fort say the beach is as bad as it was at the height of the spill. I leave to see if the oil remains at the Gulf Shores beaches, which have seen a deep cleaning that has not yet reached Fort Morgan. It's sunset when I arrive, and a pink sky silhouettes families grilling dinner. The sand looks clean. Hidden in the water, however, are more tar balls.
Are they from the BP spill? The gulf, after all, is filled with natural oil seeps. Only a scientist could tell what comes from where. I don't know for sure. I do know, thanks to tourism officials who later admit as much, that workers are still being paid to surreptitiously walk among bathers and clean the shore. I also know that I have oil on my hands. Even a beach patroller, who warns that it will take years to fully scrub the spill, has nothing to remove it. As night falls, I drive to a local home improvement store, and buy a chemical cleaner. It leaves my hands white, but it works.
What it can't do is erase the questions. If oil is still washing ashore, would I want to swim? Do I still want to eat the seafood? The water is too cold to be comfortable this time of year, so that's not an issue, at least not for now. Ultimately, on the seafood question, I trust those who say it's safe and vote with my taste buds.
And though it's hard to forget the sight of oil on the beach, it's also hard to forget those unending kilometres of inviting sand. I'm reminded of a couple I met earlier in the day, sitting on a sun-kissed bench and looking out over the very beach I returned to at sunset. They own property nearby, and are laying plans to come back with food and a cooler full of beer for a picnic on the sand. There is, for them at least, little doubt that they will be surrounded by visitors.
“There are fabulous hotels and great restaurants down here,” the man says. “People are not going to stay away from here. It's too nice. Where else are you going to find a beach like this?”
Travel South helped fund this trip.