Like most Americans, I was mortified by the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this summer. My stomach turned when I viewed the underwater photos of oil gushing from the breached well and I felt helpless, wishing I could help in some way but knowing there probably wasn’t anything I could do. Then, a few weeks ago, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism invited me to visit the area as part of their first ever press tour. Since I had long wanted to check out this part of the country I jumped at the chance, but I was anxious about what I would find, given the devastating images of destroyed marshes and glops of oil floating atop beds of sea grass that had been continuously flashed across the TV screen. To my great delight, I found stunning white sand beaches and crystal clear water. I also found a community that, from the very first day oil showed up on the beaches, made a commitment to tell the truth, believing it would be far better for visitors to be aware of the situation before arriving.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are dependent upon tourism and fishing, thus their economies have taken a double whammy during this disaster, since large portions of the Gulf were closed until recently and local fishermen missed the first part of the shrimping season this year. Fortunately, the fishing grounds have now been opened up and the shrimp are being caught in abundance, with no sign of oil contamination. I can attest to the quality of the shrimp, since I did a Forrest Gump during my stay, sampling every variety of shrimp known to man.
Further evidence that the cleanup is working comes from Share the Beach, a local volunteer organization who works with sea turtles. All summer the organization has been moving sea turtle nests from Alabama beaches to Cape Canaveral on the east coast of Florida. After hatching, baby sea turtles immediately head for giant offshore patches of seagrass, where they find shelter and food. Until very recently these seagrass beds were thought to be too contaminated for the young turtles, however the Fish and Wildlife service has now opined that it is now safe for new hatchlings to be released into the Gulf.
The ongoing cleanup will employ special machines that excavate and sift through beach sand up to two feet deep, removing any remaining tarballs or oil residue, with the U.S. Government’s Deepwater Horizon Response effort monitoring and assisting with every step of the process. I left Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, delighted by the fact that I could help in some small way after all. I could spread the message out that it is safe to go in the water, to play on the beach, and to eat the shrimp along Alabama’s Gulf Coast.