BP Oil Spill: Sanctuary at Mexico Beach Florida

This is a story about my vacation to Florida’s beautiful Mexico Beach and what I did and didn’t see of the oil spill there. Plenty of pictures below the fold, including my close encounter with 200 feet of rampaging “loose boom” – and a can’t-miss restaurant recommendation.

Last summer my wife and I took our daughters (now ages 3 and 5) to the beach in the Destin (Miramar Beach) area on the Florida panhandle for our first family vacation. We had a big time and looked forward to going back this summer, booking reservations in the same area. But then came the oil spill, with tar balls washing up in the Destin area weeks before we were scheduled to arrive.

Having closely tracked the oil’s spread using some of the links I’ve shared here, we determined to relocate our vacation further east along the panhandle, hoping to out-distance the oil. That’s how I found Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” – an area I was not familiar with because there had never been a need to drive that far to reach warm, emerald green Gulf waters and white sand. Mexico Beach was a community about 35 miles east of Panama City, a total of 70 miles east of the Destin area. We booked there.

Though the wisdom of this change appeared in doubt in late June, when the oil was hitting even at Panama City, the black mass shifted back far to the west in the first week of July. Not a single tar ball ever washed up at Mexico Beach, nor had the oil come within 20 miles of the beach. I was happy my kids wouldn’t be swimming in microscopic droplets or Corexit dispersant.

Driving from Mississippi, the trip took an hour or two longer than going to Destin, but it was well worth it and something we’d consider repeating even if nearer locations were “all clear” (more on some pit-stop highlights in Mobile, Alabama, below). Mexico Beach turned out to be charming. I’d thought there’d be more people on the beach, driven east by the oil just as we had been. But it was not the case. The man from whom we rented said they were “a little down” from last year, but attributed it to the recession, rather than the threat of oil.

So it was that the clean white sand beaches were only lightly populated, with a family group perhaps every ten to twenty yards. In addition to the warm, clear water, there was a multitude of sea shells of every description washed up in the tide line – something altogether absent in the Destin area. The kids loved this, and over the days we collected a bushel of shells to decorate our sand castle and carry home to deposit in our flower garden.

sand castle
Castle of the Sea Shells

The family-oriented nature of the beach allowed our sandcastle to stand for days without fear of being tromped on at night, and we added to it throughout the week. It marked our “spot” on the beach that we returned to each day. I didn’t have to compete with early-rising commercial beach chair/umbrella operators for the prime surf-side real estate as I had done in Destin.

Tide-side Real Estate

Late on our final day, I had a close encounter with the BP Oil Spill Cleanup Effort. I was down on the beach by myself, “breaking camp” for the last time, as we had to drive out in the morning. I had a last bob in the waves, put a few more shells on the castle, took some pictures, and tried to save up the memories against the potential long-term damage lurking in wait for this region and the rest of the Gulf Coast. The water was sparkling riotously in the reflected afternoon sun, and the wind was brisk, whipping the waves into a relative furry – when I saw something unnatural approaching in the distance.

loose boom
A Yellow Sea Serpent?

It was loose boom! Riding the waves like a coiling yellow sea serpent. That week we’d seen (from the vantage of our fourth-floor balcony) boats trying to boom off the entirety of St. Joe Bay from the northern point of Cape San Blas to the coast between Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe ten or so miles to the south. The choppy seas had busted loose some anchors and away swam the boom, right past our little camp.

loose boom
Loose Boom, Ahoy!

loose boom
Riotously Sparkling Water Adorned With Loose Boom

loose boom
Washing Ashore

The boom washed ashore just a bit passed my camp and I walked into the surf to haul it in, joined by a couple of others. I found a nylon rope as thick as your thumb trailing the boom in the sand with a chain at the end, and this I hauled out onto the beach. The coiled wreck was heavy, and it took two of us hauling on attached straps to get it securely up on the sand. Two guys appeared from Tucan’s – the local beach-side restaurant – with a knife and hacked off a name and phone number from the yellow material covering the buoyant foam. I don’t think calling the manufacturer was going to accomplish much, but they may’ve just wanted it to hang up inside Tucan’s. The morning helicopter patrol that skimmed the shoreline daily (I presume looking for oil) was sure to see and report it to the proper people. I felt kind of good about my small participation in, if not the actual clean-up, then at least the clean-up effort.

boom beached
Take A Number

On the way back we passed through Mobile, Alabama. We’ve discovered a gem of a seafood restaurant there: R & R Seafood, on the Florida side of the Bay Tunnel, exit I-10 for the Battleship Park on Hwy-98. You can’t miss it, it’s a few miles east of the Battleship across from Felix’s Fish Camp Restaurant, and it blows Felix’s out of the water in every category that matters (price, quantity and sheer deliciousness – service is good too) by orders of magnitude. After we ate at both Felix’s and R & R’s last year, we swore to always stop at R & R’s both on the way down and the way back from the beach in the future. We made good on that pledge this time around. I enthusiastically recommend the triple platter with fried fish (delectable grouper), shrimp and oysters and double out-of-this-world onion rings for your two sides. A divine pile of unforgettable food for about $16. Prices had only increased slightly due to the spill, and they reported business being down a bit, but they were surviving. Oyster supply might become an issue soon. If you are passing through, do yourself a favor and support R & R Seafood.

R&R Seafood
If I Lived Down the Street, I’d Be in Trouble

R&R Seafood
Big Steel Things on the Horizon

We stopped at the always fun Battleship USS Alabama and climbed around the massive old edifice for three hours (where did the time go!?). It’s a great mid-way point to break up the always long-seeming return trip. Saw lots of boom (none loose) in the area, and in the regions of both Pensacola and Mobile Bay. I know they’ve both got a lot of oil, but we weren’t sure if we saw any in the water.

Looking Out Over the Stern

Boom in the Distance

So it was a great, memorable trip. I hope not the last one to the beautiful Gulf. I’ll leave you with a view of the only stormy weather we had at Mexico Beach. A pretty good one passed through one evening, complete with a massive waterspout way out at sea.



Update: Bill Fauth got a pic of what I think must be the same waterspout.

Bill Fauth waterspout pic

The article his pic appears in says it was taken at 745 AM, mine was taken closer to 745 PM. I wrote Bill to see if the AM was a mistake and we saw the same spout. Must be the same one. Reply pending…

And Bill Fauth has confirmed by email that his picture was indeed taken in the evening. Very neat.