End of Perdido Key, FL
We camped on a thin piece of Perdido Key, far beyond any road, and surrounded by sand dunes and ocean. Sunset flared orange then burned the sky pink. The night felt too beautiful for a tent, so we stretched out on a tarp and drew constellations in the stars, watched the moon race across the sky, and listened to the breaking waves.
I rose with the sun and left Giulia sleeping while I walked along the beach reveling in the beauty of an untouched stretch of land. The white sand, the dunes, the endless ocean on the horizon, they felt like home, like the Florida beaches I grew up on as a kid, the ones my parents drove to with cars stuffed with coolers, towels, and excited children. I picked up a shell, a spiral broken open on the side with a hole big enough to string a piece of yarn through. It looked like the shell Mike handed his granddaughter on Christmas. He told her it was perfect for a mermaid necklace. I slipped it in my pocket and looked for more.
Spirals, scoops with checkered backs, whole sand dollars. I stooped and walked and stooped. I poked through piles of shells. I ran away from waves. I felt like a kid every time I found a shell nice enough to keep.
The whole beach was mine, just a long, empty curve of white sand with no footprints but my own. My hands filled with shells, my heart with joy, then I saw an odd brown oval and picked it up. I didn’t know what it was so I stared at it, unsure, and broke it between my fingers. It looked like bits of shell stuck together on a flattened piece of mud and smelled like gasoline on a hot, windless day.
“No, no, no,” I thought.
I looked down and saw another brown glob then another and another. They seemed to spring up everywhere I looked, mixed and strewn in with the shells, hidden in plain sight until I noticed them. I raced to pick them up like I could make the beach whole again if I just got them all, like I could make it right, like I could forget I ever saw them.
“They should drill as much as they can,” a man told me once at a lock above St. Louis. “Damn gas costs too much.”
I looked at him and shook my head.
“What about the oil spill,” I said. “You remember that, right?”
He snorted out a laugh.
“What about it?” he said. “Didn’t do anything. It’s a big ocean and it’s all gone now anyway.”
“No it’s not,” I said. “You can ask people who live there. It’s not gone, not even close.”
“You believe that bullshit?” he said.
I picked up the globs of tar, piling them in my hands, dropping shells to make room until my mermaid necklace lay strewn across the beach, replaced with stacks of brown tar. I picked them up until I couldn’t fit any more, until they fell out of my hands and I couldn’t do anything but walk and stare through tears at the stained white sand of a once untouched stretch of land.
“It’s not over,” Lori told me on Christmas day. “They say it is, but it’s not.”
It was late, close to midnight. The kids and grandkids had all gone home. Lori, Mike, Giulia and I sat in the kitchen among the wreckage of half-eaten pies and honey-baked ham. The house felt full of joy, of celebration, of life, and we basked in the warm glow, not wanting it to end, not quite ready to go to sleep.
One of us asked about the spill and the room shifted dark like someone threw a light switch, felt like lungs with the wind knocked out of them. Words came painfully, pried out with will from a place deep inside, a place covered in scars that will never heal.
“But you should know,” Mike said. “You should know.”
They told us about the oil spill, about how it felt to hear the first rumors of a rig blowing up, about listening to experts say everything was fine until it became so clear they were lying, about watching that open wound bleed black oil into the Gulf day after day after day.
Lori became the Dolphin Queen because they saved her life. She watched them from her balcony and found joy again, found happiness. Mike saw how she lit up around them, bought her a little boat with a small motor, and warned her that it might be tough down at the boat ramp because the guys there would think she didn’t know what she was doing. Lori went anyway.
The pull-start motor was too much for her arms, she couldn’t pull hard enough, her hand slipped and she smashed her nose. Blood poured down her face. The next time she tried to start it, she ripped off a toe nail. More blood poured out of her, but she got out on the water, got close to those dolphins and felt so much joy that when she came back to the house, caked in dried blood, she still smiled.
The next day, she went back to the ramp and she’s never left since.
I could listen to her talk about dolphins until her voice ran out because you hear love and you just hope that one day you are so lucky to speak of anything like she speaks of those dolphins. She knows them all, has pictures of them, recognizes dorsal fins, mamas with babies, little ones grown up. She knows them like her own family because that’s what they are to her.
Then she watched them die.
She watched them wash up on beaches in record numbers while people sitting next to locks in Iowa pretend like everything is OK and just want the price of gasoline to go down. The yelled and screamed on the phone for anyone to help while people shouted “drill, baby, drill” and officials too scared of losing a single tourist got on TV to lie and say it’s over.
I walked back toward camp and hoped that Giulia would still be asleep, but I saw her sitting up in the distance, her arms stretched out overhead, her hair golden in the morning light. I had hoped I could slip the tar into a bag of trash and hide it in my boat, make it disappear. I wanted to protect her from it, wanted her to wake up to snow-white dunes and ocean, wake up to endless beauty, wake up to a lie. I hesitated, stopped, then walked toward her, my hands still full of tar.
“We should know,” I thought. “We should all know it’s not over.”
Gulf Restoration Network continues working to hold BP accountable for the oil spill and to prevent future spills that will damage the Gulf for generations. The oil is still here and the threat of future disasters hangs over the entire Gulf. Please take time to learn about the issues and support Gulf Restoration Networks efforts to clean up the gulf. These are our beaches, our water, our problems to deal with. Get involved, get informed, support the organizations like Gulf Restoration Network that protect our environment. We cannot wait until tomorrow. Tomorrow it will be gone.
The last thing Lori would ever want is for me to plug her business here, but it is important to support businesses that care about the environment. I know Lori because she works so hard to help the dolphins around Orange Beach, Alabama. They really are her family. No one knows more than her and no one cares more than her. If you want to see dolphins along the Alabama coast, take a tour with Captain Lori, the Dolphin Queen herself.