Cape Coral and Southwest Florida Feature Stories

What if the BP Oil Spill Hits Sanibel Island, Florida?

BP Oil Spill hits Sanibel

Instructional Preface:  If you're going to read this, read the entire article - and remember, these descriptions of Sanibel are not actually occurring - this is a "what if" scenario. Sanibel's beaches are currently pristine and oil-free.

Today the first major evidence of the BP oil spill is washing up on the Sanibel Island shoreline. Thick, viscous, black, syrup coats the piles of shells at the high tide line. Sanibel's normal color pallet of summer-bleached white's, tans, and pastels remains hidden beneath slick obsidian sheen. The Gulf of Mexico waters are no longer shaded in tropical blues and greens. The water offshore is a murky stew, churning and seething; an ocean of ink excessively punctuated with bubbles of black mucous shining in rainbow iridescence each time the relentless Florida sun finds a break in the clouds.

Oil Spill Florida

Gaping-mouthed fish, by the hundreds, litter the beach and bob sideways in the surf. Their stainless steel scales are caked with charcoal residue as they bake and decompose on the wasteland shore. The smell in the air is horrific, a noxious miasma of melting plastic, burning crayons, industrial machinery, and decaying marine life. The scent stings my nostrils and tastes acrid in my mouth and throat. Something in the breeze causes my eyes to water. I wonder on the long-term health effects of breathing this poisonous air and ponder the absence of usual suspect flies at work on the bloated fish remains. Are the flies dead, or just smarter than we think?

No soaring pelicans raced my car as I drove over the causeway today. Crippled shorebirds lose their survival battle on the same stretches of beach they once called home. One in particular, a snowy egret, garners my attention. Its brilliant and billowy white plumage is weighed down and dyed black by the crude oil. Petroleum in the egret's eyes has rendered it blind. Huddled meekly in a sullied beach burrow, the formerly-glorious bird now quivers and gasps for air. The egret rests until it can summon enough of its fading energy reserves to clean itself the only way it knows how -- by eating the oil off its own feathers and poisoning itself in the process.

Oil Spill Pelican Florida

There are no tourists and children sunbathing and splashing on Sanibel today. There are only media crews in surgical masks and clean-up workers in full protective gear. The oil-containment booms float in biohazard-orange against the midnight-black of the water-horizon. The dominant sound is the ominous drone of gas-powered boat engines working around the clock to keep the defeated oil booms in place. The absence of familiar sights, scents, and sounds on the beach is disorienting. Sanibel Island has unwillingly traded seaside serenity for Stygian marsh. This is the scenery of hopelessness.

Boats Oil Spill Florida

The restaurants, hotels, and boutiques -- already hurt by the downturn in the economy -- are facing their final death blow. Soaring fish prices and lack of tourists have combined into the perfect storm, wreaking financial ruin, and causing many to close up shop. The few which do remain engage in brisk business with those who make their livings cleaning up and documenting environmental decimation. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

Oil Spill Crew Florida

Now the big question is: "How long?"

How long before the oil is wiped away? How long before the beaches are clean? How long before the fish and wildlife return? How long before the property values and jobs come back? How long before the tourists visit. How long before the smiles, music, romance, sweet ocean air, and environmental-equilibrium return to our Sanibel Island? How long can we wait? How long will we be forced to?

As we look back on this tragedy-of-a-lifetime and analyze it...inevitably, we will ask, "What more could we have done? How could we have saved our shores?"

Answers will surface. We could have gotten involved. We could have volunteered. We could have joined together. We could have gotten organized. We could have spoken up, thousands of voices with one clear message. We could have utilized the media and computer technology to focus attention and resources. We could have demanded swift action on a large scale. Demanded awareness of what we faced. Demanded the tools and manpower we needed to get the job done. Demanded responsiveness to this man-made threat. Demanded those accountable foot the bill. Demanded an end to drilling off our coasts. We could have saved Southwest Florida.

Let's not look for answers after the fact...let's become answers now!

This is the article I never want to write. This is the day I never want to wake to. These are the circumstances I never want to confront.

Let me be clear - There is no oil on Sanibel Beaches right now.  All the pictures I've displayed here were taken in Louisiana.  I write this article today, before the damage is done.  I write this article today to make you confront what's at stake for us.  I write this article today because we need to consider the value of our natural resources and take action to preserve them for future use and enjoyment.

BP has given Florida $25 million dollars so we can advertise that our beaches are clean and invite the tourists down for their fun in the sun.  Make no mistake about it, the tourists are our lifeblood in Florida.  The tourists who visit us are the oil that keeps our economy running -- and this other oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico has put the top kill on our well of tourists.

Should we be broadcasting to the world that Florida is OK and our beaches are clean, even as the oil flows a few hundred miles off our shores?  Personally, I worry that this type of advertising could lead to complacency at a time when there should be outrage.

As long as local governments are preparing for oil to come our way, and those preparations are reported on Google-indexed pages, all the advertising in the world will not bring educated tourists our way!

$25 Million in state advertising is never going to trump the 24 hour coverage of the continuing oil spill on television and the internet.  Travelers are a sophisticated lot these days, not easily fooled.

The other issue is loss of momentum...if we run some feel-good ads for Florida, and then run into trouble with the oil...we may regret the fact that we didn't raise the levels of concern and outrage at an earlier date...momentum on these things takes a while to build.

Should we be asking tourists to come to Florida right now?  Of course we should.  But that does not mean that we shouldn't be considering the possible damage our global addiction to oil could inflict on our beaches, wildlife, and economy here in Southwest Florida.

Our tourists love Florida's resources just as much as we do.  Many of them save their spare change all year long just to splurge on a single seven day vacation in our Sunshine State.    I think it's important to treat our tourists with the dignity and respect they deserve.  I think it's important to engage our tourists in frank and transparent conversations about what's at stake for Florida.  Tell them our beaches are clean.  Ask them to come down and renew their relationship with the delicate ecotone of our shorelines.  And make them angry that our fragile ecology could ever be threatened the way it is right now.

We need to find the good in this moment.  We need to press for positive action in the face of this disaster.  We need to sieze the opportunity in this difficulty.  We need to never let this happen again.

-- writing by Eric Taubert

-- photography by GreenPeace

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