Paradise lost, for now

North America | | September 3, 2010 at 12:05 am


I remember the sand at my feet being as white as the finest pearls I have ever seen, shimmering as brightly as any diamond at Tiffany’s (but not more than the sparkle in the eye of the woman I gifted it to) and so to see it ravaged this way pains me on so many levels. The Florida Panhandle is an oft forgotten national treasure, make no mistake about it, and the Gulf oil spill has jeopardized not just that but also a way of life in these parts. When the BP oil spill disaster really started to hit its peak, the beaches at Perdido Key were the first hit by this. A perfect set of beaches very near Pensacola, the Deepwater catastrophe has harmed an ecosystem that was so pristine and so beautiful, but now remains only as a memory.

Perdido Key beach oil spill

No more will kids be learning how to swim here, splashing in the water while their larger siblings tease them about sharks. No more will sand castles stand tall and proud, mini monuments to the imagination. In their place all you will get is messy tar goop that can be as big as a large floor tile or as small as a quarter which, if pressed, will pop almost soundlessly and reveal a sticky black core. Loosely translated as ‘Lost key’, Perdido Key has been the subject of much reporting but I was among the first on the scene, a quiet witness to the savagery of it all. I can say this with a lot of surety because when I talked to the ranger at the Gulf Islands National Seashore how much coverage there had been, his answer was precise, but scathing.

“Well, there’s been a few, including my wife, and I’d say about six so far.”

I never got his name, but his eyes will remain with me forever. They said more than his words ever did as they blazed a fury as if to ask why or who was responsible for the unabated destruction of what was his home. The tar balls that washed up on Perdido Key was just the beginning; of far greater ecological impact was the oil that washed ashore at Louisiana, decimating wildlife and aquatic life, not to mention the local economy. If Hurricane Katrina’s destruction was visible, Deepwater’s destruction will be far more if measured over decades. Think of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska; its after-effects still remain noticeable even though it occurred back in 1989.

Perdido Key might be hit just as badly, for these beaches are central to Florida’s tourism driven economy. Just last year alone tourism contributed $66 billion to the states’ coffers). Much of the oil that has swamped the Louisiana coastline has now snaked along and settled on Florida’s beaches. The Florida Panhandle itself is a 200 mile stretch of what was once described as the “greatest strand of pure white sand on earth” and Perdido Key is at its westernmost tip. The beach is now slicked with oil and hopefully not a sign of things to come.

Perdido Key beach Florida

The first signs of this were to be seen in ebony colored remnants on the beach that smelt like a gas station and left a dirty brown stain where they once were. It was odiferous and a bellwether with immediate economic ramifications. Condominium rentals fell by 30 to 40% over the first few days alone and some say this is a conservative figure while real estimates are closer to 50%. The real cost of this, as guesstimated by economists, will be about $10.9 to the state and 195,000 in terms of jobs lost and generations might feel the whiplash of this. The first tar balls were cleaned up faster than you can say “You messed up, BP!” by a set of BP hired crew and the sands were once again like sugar set against the emerald waters. The beach umbrellas and holiday makers returned and all was forgotten.

That honeymoon period lasted three weeks. Fickle currents washed 5 tons of tar balls ashore every single day at that point. Pensacola was reduced to a gooey sludge as the sung converted the tar balls to just tar. It was a blanket of smelly blackness as far as the eye could see and it drove the masses away, obviously. In time, Florida’s beaches should be cured since the fine grain sand at the Panhandle is easier to clean, but even if you dismiss the economic damage what of the ecological damage it causes? My mind goes back to the Gulf War and the deliberate spill by the Iraqis and they have bounced back from it now, but at what cost?

Perdido Key is badly hit, but the residents are resilient and dogged. Hurricane Ivan back in 2004 did not knock them over and they don’t believe that this will either. It is almost as they share a collective belief that this too shall pass. That in mind, I set off for the beach aware of the black balls that awaited me, but hoping only to find opiate-like sand instead.

Perdido Key beach closed

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  1. Nathan says:

    I ‘m an outdoor enthusiast and an environment lover and I enjoy Perdido Key because it is one of the few remaining unblemished stretches of wilderness in the Florida Panhandle.
    Miles of preserves offer a wealth of opportunities for hiking, kayaking, and bird watching.
    Dolphin watch excursions and sailing tours are popular with tourists, as are moonlight cruises on the bay.
    Perdido Key’s two state parks and an expanse of National Seashore are ripe for spotting gray foxes and blue herons in the wild. Local outfitters offer guided tours, but self-guided nature trails at Big Lagoon and Johnson Beach are perfect chances for solitude.

  2. Rubin says:

    Perdido Key is a beautiful beach..!

    But, hurricanes and loss of habitat have also taken their toll on the endangered mouse.Species like piping plover and the sea turtle find white sands attractive as seasonal homes or for nesting before returning to sea.
    Monarch butterflies migrating to and from South America stop-over, finding refuge on the swaying stalks of sea oats growing within the dune habitat of Perdido Key.

  3. Sunshine says:

    The white beaches Perdido Key are framed by the azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico . These beaches and their dune habitat play host to a variety of visitors and residents throughout the year.

    The beach dune habitat of Perdido Key is characterized by several rows of wind built sand dunes. “Frontal” or “primary” dunes are vegetated with grasses including sea oats, bunch grass, and beach grass. Among other plant species growing in primary dunes are Florida rosemary, railroad vine and beach morning glories. “Secondary” dunes, further inland, support saw palmetto, slash and sand pines, and scrubby shrubs and oaks. Growing among the dunes are cordgrass, salt-grass, pine trees, purslane and, among others, pennywort.

  4. Sunshine says:

    I ‘ve been to Perdido Key just north of Old River at the private Alabama island of Ono Island. North of Ono and separated by the Intercoastal Waterway is a small area called Innerarity Point and Innerarity Island, a small private gated island community of mostly single family homes with a few townhomes at the entrance.

    To the south of Perdido Key is the Gulf of Mexico with its white sand beaches and clear blue waters. North of Perdido Key is Old River and the Intercoastal Waterway.
    Its a beautiful place with rich scenic beauty and flora and fauna.

  5. Kathy says:

    We’ve been to the Rosamond Johnson Beach near Perdido Key which is accessible by boat or foot only.Sound side Nature Trail is a self guided nature trail that winds past a salt marsh and through a maritime forest. The nature trail is wheelchair accessible. The Johnson Beach Road is an enjoyable place to walk, jog, bike and view beautiful sunsets.

  6. Andrew says:

    The sand along the Gulf of Mexico side of Johnson beach is loose and difficult to walk in. Winds can reach high speeds at night and can blow over tents and scatter items left unsecured. At night the temperature can drop to an uncomfortable level even during midsummer. In the event of inclement weather you should also be aware that it can take up to an hour to reach the parking area or other shelter due to walking in loose sand.

    Thanks for the cool post!

  7. Drake says:

    If you plan to visit this area please be aware that the environment can quickly become extremely dangerous and inhospitable. Intense sunlight can temporarily blind visitors who elect not to wear good quality sunglasses. Insects such as midges and other biting flies inhabit the areas around Langley Point and Redfish Point during certain times of the year especially at or near dusk. Wear sunscreen, bring insect repellent bring drinking water.

    Thanks for posting :-)

  8. Juliett says:

    While we were here the visitors asked to observe surf warnings posted in the park. Two red flags means the water is closed to the public. A purple flag means dangerous sealife such as sharks or jellyfish are present. Rip currents are common due to shifting sands especially after tropical storms. Visitors with small children should remain in the main pavilion area under the supervision of the lifeguard.

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