Sea turtles large and small are dealing with one of the most horrible substances I have ever touched: weathered oil tar balls from the BP oil spill. This stuff sticks like glue, and is all over the sargassum seaweed that I saw. This is especially alarming because juvenile sea turtles use the saragassum mats on the Gulf as a primary foraging habitat.
Since bad weather continues to delay the sea turtle rescue boats, I drove west from Destin to find the impacts of the BP oil spill on Florida’s beautiful white sand beaches. I have heard scattered reports that oil and tar balls had been spotted on Destin beaches, but a brief trip I took yesterday was fruitless. Driving west past Fort Walton beach I was reminded of the many sea turtles nesting along this stretch despite the offshore oil and massive ruts in the sand caused by trucks allowed to drive on the beach.
As I began my walk along Navarre beach, the striking white sands and blue-green waves were dominant, with only scattered bits of sargassum and other seaweed at the high tide line. I picked up some big and small pieces of plastic marine debris that washed ashore, some bits of trash, like I always do at the beach. Then I spotted something unusual – a dead fish on the high tide line, looking very fresh. As I grabbed my camera, I realized my hand had sticky, weathered oil on it. The plastic debris had bits of it all over, brown goo that looked like dirt.
As I walked past the final public boardwalk over the dunes, the high tide line was scattered with much more seaweed, and weathered oil tar balls. The sudden appearance of hundreds of tar balls on the beach must have been due to the limited range of the BP cleanup crews. The fact that the tar and oil is associated with the sargassum means hundreds of thousands of juvenile sea turtles will be eating and touching these tarballs.
I drove home extremely sad knowing that I had only witnessed the tip of a very big, brown iceberg of oil looming offshore of Florida’s sea turtle nesting beaches.