Day 1: Baptism at Tarball Beach

categories: Cocktail Hour


    They don’t look like balls exactly.  The small ones look like dried out rabbit turds or kernels of a not particularly appetizing breakfast cereal.  The larger ones are maps of rust brown countries.  They could be jigsaw puzzle pieces—a rusty black red–and are sometimes the size of cow patties. 

Someone—me?—needs to write a natural history of tarballs.  I will say this, if I were walking down this beach without any sort of knowledge of the oil spill I might not notice them, or I might think they were a natural part of the ecosystem.  But I do know and I do notice.  And on this formerly pristine beach,(see before and after pictures below)  jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico, they are everywhere.  That and the fact that the tide has left a bath ring, an orangish coating that reminds me of the red color that the Cat and the Hat and Things One and Two spread all over the poor kids’ house.

            If the tarballs are the creepiest thing about this beach, the second creepiest are the dozens and dozens of workers who I watch through the mist and wind, a half mile down the beach.  They are a ghostly prison crew in flurescent vests, sweeping the sands, though sweeping seems a far too energetic word for the timid picking they do with their shovels.   At various stops along this island stretch of beach, I’ve seen a couple hundred of these men, many formerly unemployed and now paid 15 bucks an hour by BP to pick at the sand.  The second level of command, the sergeants, are muscular but overweight men who bark orders and drive around in 4-wheel drive ATVS and amped up golf carts. You might think that they would enjoy their little taste of authority, but they never smile.  No one seems to be having a good time.

“Don’t ask them any questions,” the girl at the beer store told me.  “BP won’t let them talk to civilians.”

 Her wording may sound strange at first but not when you see the workers spread over the beach: they in fact look like a sluggish corporate army.  It is an odd and truly startling fact: the same douchebags who caused this are now in charge of cleaning it up, which essentially puts them in charge of the beaches.  (An aside here for Bill: I like Obama, I really do, but why is it that I can’t imagine Teddy Roosevelt putting a corporation in charge of cleaning up a national park?)

            But despite the tar balls, and despite the ghostly clean up crews, this is still a beach, a beach like those I’ve known on Cape Cod and Carolina and California.  A tern flies upwind with a sliver of minnow in its mouth.  Directly upland from the tarballs is a sea turtle nest where a young Kemp’s Ridley incubates, soon to emerge and begin its crawl down to the oily sea.  An osprey sits in a hurricane-deadened tree, tearing apart a fish.  I didn’t really have much of a plan when I came down here, but now, on my first afternoon, I have at least the beginnings of a plan.  It isn’t very sexy or reporter-like, but I think one thing I’m going to do is camp out here in my tent for a few days.  Get to know this beach like I’ve gotten to know other beaches, and take field notes on both the terns and the tarballs.    

            It may sound odd to say, on a beach with hundreds of men with shovels, but as I walked back to the dunes, and cracked my first beer, I felt a little of that sense of solitude, and euphoria, that has always drawn me to beaches.  I thought I’d gotten to a place where I was relatively alone but then I noticed the woman who walked down to the water and then back to a single hummock and bowed her head as if in prayer.  I was going to say hello but then I saw she was placing flowers on the sand and realized that she had been spreading the ashes of a loved one.     

            I gave her another mile of space before setting up my own little camp.  I took out my journal, my binoculars, another beer.  This was my first look at the Gulf of Mexico, white-capped and wind-blown, and of course just looking at the water was not enough.  I dove in and swam out a ways, despite the oil.  Earlier, when I asked the Rangers—friendly, generous, though obviously in mourning for their beach—if I could swim, they repeated BP’s party line: “If it looks clean you can go in.”  As if anyone, even the diving tern, with vision so much better than my own, would truly be able to see the quality of the water it was diving into, would be able to see not just the oil but the chemical dispersants that may prove to be so much more deadly to the ecosystem than the oil itself.  As if the tern could see that the sliver of fish it held in its mouth carried BP’s gift of those chemicals, chemicals already doing their ugly work inside the fish and soon enough, the bird.  As if the bird could discern that once again human beings could somehow not comprehend the simplest of notions, one it knew deep in its hollow bones, that everything in the world is connected, and that when you soil one thing you soil us all.

Unlike the bird, I had some idea what I was getting into.  But I swam anyway.  What the fuck.  We are all part of it.  The water might have been poisoned, but for the moment it felt good.

(I will not be using specfic beach names–or people names, for now–to protect the innocent {and me}) 

The beach, before and after.

  1. Tommy writes:

    John, your Mom used turpentine to clean the tar off your feet in New Jersey in the 1960’s. I’d almost forgotten what that was like.

  2. Eric Taubert writes:

    Thanks for coming, David!

  3. Kay writes:

    Thanks for this! Keep going. Stay safe. (Listen to Nina. Don’t swim in the oil.)

  4. John Jack writes:

    Postcard well-wishes to our intinerant oil, sand, salt, and sun christianed seacomber stranded on Tarball Shingle Shoals.

    I’m wanting some back of the bus private skinny the news media isn’t publicly repeating every newshour. I can’t go there myself. They actually carried the first bioremediation story on the national public news this evening, like it was some late breaking globe shaking new discovery.

    Microbiologist Reveals Microbes Devour Oil
    Imminent Threat To Global Oil Supply
    Tarballs Safe From MIcroflora Plague
    Inventor Unveils Tarball Power Plant Prototype
    Nimby Protesters Barricade Tarball Shorelines

  5. Adam writes:

    Can’t wait to read more, David.

  6. john hanson mitchell writes:


    Re your natural history of tarballs: I grew up along a beach in New Jersey. There were still tarballs and tar cow patties all along the shore as a result of WWII. I always thought they were a natural part of the the beach world. I seem to remember coming home with tar stained feet as a matter of course— cleaned off (I think) with alcohol by my mother.

  7. nina writes:

    Um, hey. Don’t swim in the oil.

  8. Amber Morgan writes:

    As vivid a description of the clean up effort as I’ve read so far. And, sadly, captures so much of the futility of the efforts. It reminded me of an interview on NPR with one of the recently unemployed who was now so grateful for the job of cleaning up the beach that he called the spill “a blessing”. It also reminded me of a book I have called the “Natural History of a Vacant Lot”. Nature pushes through and I’m looking forward to your next dispatch or missive or love letter… as the case may be.

  9. An Alewife writes:

    That tarbaby sure doesn’t look like much fun for anyone.

    Pls let us know what kinds of tastes or smells you find down there.

    Almost ran into Rabrab while visiting the harbor over the weekend.

    Tell her hello from me.

    You might want to check out / collaborate with film maker and classmate Jon Goldman,

    Looking forward to reading more.

    take care.

    • Jon Goldman writes:

      Just curious who made the last post plugging the work on my film OIL IN THE FAMILY… a heartfelt THANKS– whoever you are….

  10. CJ writes:

    I find it hard to believe that BP is in charge of cleanup as well. When Obama stood so confident in front of the press, assuring us all that we would not pay a dime to clean this mess up and that BP would have to take care of it all, I found myself thinking, “I will pay to save the beach…” I would remind our president that while BP may be mining the goods, the oil sits off our shore and the waste is now our waste. BP may be losing face (and stock price), but they are still a foreign company all too unconcerned about the future of the gulf, and now it is all too apparent. How many days has it been since the oil started gushing?

    But on a brighter note, I appreciate the fact that you have made the trip, and I wish you the best of luck in swimming with the oil-slick. Great stuff as usual.

    PS- How does the water taste?

  11. Brock James writes:

    Godspeed, David….our beaches are lucky to have you….

    ….but I can’t let this go unchecked: Obama DID NOT PUT BP in charge of cleaning up. BP is not in charge of cleaning up. U.S. Coast Guard is in charge — per federal law. And having a hell of a time of it, trying to get BP’s “cooperation.”

    New York Times Q & A helps untangle oversight issues:

    • Dave writes:

      According to my source here, the head of a local enviro group, BP is in charge. The incident command for “shoreline protection and contingency planning” has BP on top, basically running the show, even in instances where that is not nominally the case. They pay the checks and make the decisions. The same source sings the Coastguard’s praises, and says they are doing a great job despite BP.

      My brief experience on the beaches (to be continued in about an hour) indicates that BP is making the rules.

      That said, I’m just starting to learn and could certainly be wrong about this.

      • Brock James writes:

        Yeah, i’m with you, David — your quote says it all, U.S. Coast Guard is doing a great job “despite BP.”

        No doubt BP seems to have way too much input. Maddening that we can’t just…nuke them. Whoever “they” are.

        My point was just that Obama didn’t put BP in charge — like Dick Cheney would happily do. He didn’t even make the decision to hold them financially responsible — that’s federal law: well owner is liable. I hope it turns out Cheney is the well owner, actually.