It was like watching a bunch of little people clean the world’s largest litter box, with older tarballs dry and easy to bag but recent arrivals messy and laborious.
Birds flushed out of our path as we walked. The six barrier islands of Gulf Islands National Seashore are the first pit stop for many birds, as well as monarch butterflies, flying north from South America and the Yucatán in the spring. Emaciated fowl rain down on the islands, rest, refuel, and then scatter across America. In fall the islands are often the last staging area before the big flight over the gulf. The lonesome islands have a poignant feel. "Prepare yourself for enchantment!" the Exploring Gulf Islands National Seashore guidebook says of Petit Bois. "The feeling is primeval, as if you have been deposited on an oasis."
Things had changed. Stippling the high tide line were tens of thousands of tar patties, and suddenly we weren't having a nice nature walk anymore. They looked like underbaked molasses ginger cookies and smelled like hot asphalt. Some were as big as Frisbees. A ghost crab was mining one, carrying clawfuls back home. On the beach, blue tents but nobody in sight. ATV tracks cut through the sand.
Our crewmates caught up to us as we trudged. A helicopter inspected us, and a flock of brown pelicans sailed past. "Hope you make it, boys," Jimbo called out. The temperature headed toward 100 degrees. The oil seemed to have an affinity for trash. Any piece of plastic was shellacked with it, as if it had some sort of molecular attraction to its own kind. But despite the horror on the beach, the water looked clear. Jimbo needed to marinate again. We swam. Jimbo bronzed.
I'm always struck by the energy of coasts; the friction of two worlds colliding draws so much life, like us, to hug the edges. We stood in the surf and watched clouds of mullet dart by. "Shit," said Jimbo, "one throw of my cast net and we'd have supper for a week." But all waters were closed to fishing. (We'd been eating tinned sardines from Portugal.) The dolphins had no such restrictions. They caught the breaks, surfed into 18 inches of water, and scraped the sand as they scarfed up fish.
Farther down the beach, the water turned the color of iced tea. Crabs with aprons full of eggs skittered through it sideways. Suddenly a pack of Gators—heavy-duty, four-wheel-drive ATVs made by John Deere—came skidding around the end of the island. The cleanup crews were awake. The Gators sped past us toward the shade of the tents, and the mostly obese crews suited up in Tyvek and gloves and grabbed their tools and plastic trash bags. It looked punishingly hot in those suits. The long scoops used by the crews are slotted, so sand filters out as they dig up tarballs. It was like watching a bunch of little people clean the world's largest litter box, with older tarballs dry and easy to bag but recent arrivals messy and laborious. One of the ATVs veered toward us and slammed to a stop. "How'd y'all get here?" asked the driver in a thick Mississippi accent.
"Boat," said Josh.
"Hell, I know that," said the driver. "But how'd you get here?"
"Walked." We'd come about a mile.