My Gulf of Mexico

By: Peter B. Gallagher

When I heard about the oil, I drove straight to the Gulf. It was less than 24 hours after the explosion, and I was confused about the news. Detached, at first, as if this were a tsunami in the South Pacific. Then shocked, mistrustful, angry and scared. I did not understand. The Gulf of Mexico, […]


When I heard about the oil, I drove straight to the Gulf.

It was less than 24 hours after the explosion, and I was confused about the news. Detached, at first, as if this were a tsunami in the South Pacific. Then shocked, mistrustful, angry and scared. I did not understand. The Gulf of Mexico, news reports intimated, was a dead man walking. I drove to the Sloppy Pelican restaurant and bar and stood on the deck outside, staring at the Gulf waters through swirly Blind Pass, a tiny inlet separating St. Pete Beach from Treasure Island, off the Pinellas coast. Everything seemed fine. Still, a looping slide show kept flashing Gulf memories and characters through my mind—my first childhood visit, years of sunsets, Conquistadores, Johnny Cash and a boat builder I once knew named Shorty.

Net shack at sunset, Cedar Key.

In the name of heaven, respect your boat and respect your water!” Shorty proclaimed, staring first at me and then at the western sky. 

Halfway finished with hammering together the final shrimp trawler of his calling, Shorty the boat builder stopped and shook a knobby forefinger at the edge of the world, past the brackish bayous of Tarpon Springs, above and beyond the frothing Gulf of Mexico, where a deep blue-black storm was gathering force. The barometer dropped abruptly and a brisk electric shiver colded our spines, sending the old man’s trio of yelping mutts scurrying to shelter among the planes and lathes and ropes and rats and routers Shorty hoarded all over Sarris Boat Yard.

It was 1978, and John T. “Shorty” Hordeski was almost gone. Barnacled, weathered and bent, his fingers grabbed the handle of a saw even when no saw was in his hand. Shorty would cross the bar, as seamen say, a week after he combed his hair, brushed his beard, donned his white suit, had one last drunk and launched this final ship. The old man of the sea is long, long gone, but, oh, still very much around.

He stared out to the Gulf, unblinking, rock still. “If you sink out there, you ain’t gonna walk, you’re goin’ down to Davy Jones. That’s why my ghost walks every boat I build, keepin’ the planks down and the hinges tight. Respect your water.” Respect your water. Those words, that warning, reverberates in my mind today.

 

Perhaps Shorty’s deck-walking ghost could fill us in on exactly how the Gulf of Mexico began. All we know is something majorly geologic happened 250 million years ago.

It was the Permian age, last period of the Paleozoic, an era infamous for its final epochal outcome: the largest extinction in planet history and the forever rending asunder of the huge continent Pangea. Some scientists say a mammoth underground methane bubble exploded poison into the atmosphere; others say it was cosmic impact: a gigantic meteor whamming into earth where the Gulf is now. Whatever, something blew Africa across the Atlantic, made separate continents of North and South America, created the Gulf and global-warmed the hell out of earth, destroying more than 96 percent of all life on the planet. 

Impact crater or burst gas bubble, the Gulf of Mexico is the largest Gulf in the world, one of the 10 largest bodies of water on earth, one of the legendary Seven Seas, a broad, shallow-rimmed, kidney-shaped 615,000-square-mile Mediterranean-style basin filled with 643 quadrillion gallons of water, mostly saltwater from mother Atlantic Ocean blended with 280 trillion gallons of freshwater that annually drains from 23 major river systems covering 2.5 million square miles of the continental United States, Mexico, the Yucatan peninsula and Northwest Cuba. The Atlantic Ocean’s Caribbean Sea enters the Gulf through the Yucatan Strait, circulates as the Loop Current, and exits through the Straits of Florida, forming the warm, swift Gulf Stream, which follows the eastern coastlines of the U.S. and Newfoundland, crosses the Atlantic Ocean, then splits into two streams, one streaming to Northern Europe and the other to West Africa, influencing the climates of the entire hemisphere. Modern times have seen the addition of a 7,000-square-mile “Dead Zone” caused by Mississippi River fertilizer runoffs and regular outbreaks of red tide brought on by Lake Okeechobee freshwater Gulf releases via Florida’s Caloosahatchee River.

The first time I saw the Gulf of Mexico was July of 1966, when our family crammed into the old ’58 Ford station wagon and drove west from Cocoa until we hit the other side. We kids jumped from the
car and ran to the water, across the wide expanse of St. Pete Beach,
and
were stunned to find a flat, melancholy scene. No crashing waves and undertows and reefs like the mighty Atlantic. No surfers.
Not even any lifeguards. “This is a lake,” I told my father, in disgust, even though I had never really seen a lake bigger than the pond behind our house. “It’s dirt, no beach. You can’t even drive on it.”

Sometime in the 1540s, this body of water was named by either Spanish conquistadores or cartographers, whose maps referred to the area as Seno Mexicano or Golfo de Nueva España, or Golfo de México. Out on the Redneck Riviera, lately, they have taken to calling it the “Gulf of America.”

Each summer, the Gulf of Mexico pumps warm-watered muscle into plodding storms that can become hurricanes of raging destruction. Since 1900, Gulf hurricanes have killed more than 9,000 people and caused more than $30 billion in damages. Tidal waves from the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history (Sept. 8, 1900) destroyed Galveston, Texas, killing 6,000. Decades later the weathermen put names on the storms. Gulf history is marked by first names; you know them: Audrey (1950); Carla, Hilda, Betsy, Beulah, Camille (1960s); Celia, Eloise, Gladys and Frederic (1970s); Allen, Alicia, Elena and Gilbert (1980s); and, in the 2000s: Andrew, Charley, Jeanne, Dennis, Wilma, Ivan, Ike, Gustav and Katrina, the most costly natural disaster ever to strike the United States.

In childhood, beach air smelled of the suntan oil my mother splashed on our faces, backs and arms, mixed with the chemical tincture of tar ball we always put to our noses and sniffed after peeling one off our feet. Our beach was the 1950s brown shell-sand Fort Lauderdale Beach, somewhere near the old Elbo Room beach bar, where my dad would leap up in mid-sandcastle and run across two-lane A1A to grab a beer. Down the road was the Yankee Clipper, a giant hotel in the shape of a ship! This was all we ever knew of the beach: a 15-minute trip in a ’58 Ford Station wagon filled with kids and coolers to a wild and balmy bathing suit world where we avidly explored tidal debris, bug-eyed fish carcasses and sand-coated clumps of gooey red-black tar—from the cruise ships and tankers swarming nearby Port Everglades, my mother told us. At home, she kept a jar of brownish-yellow liquid on the front step of our house. We used an old rag to rub the tar stains off our fingers and feet and noses before we dared traipse onto the terrazzo floors inside, all giddy from turpentine and beach.

The edge of the Gulf of Mexico is Apalachicola oysters, Mardi Gras in the French Quarter, spring break in Panama City, Pensacola’s blindingly white sugary sand, mysterious mangrove bayous, immense Mother Nature fish nurseries, the muddy Mississippi, jazz and blues, Cajuns, desperadoes waiting for the go-fast boat, cheese grits, fresh grouper, lavish South Padre Island hotels, Galveston Island’s 10-mile seawall, Port Arthur, Matagorda, Beaumont and dozens of historic fishing villages down yonder the Texas Gulf Coast, oil derrick cities and their scummy water in the northwest Gulf, Ten Thousand Islands of pristine fishing grounds on the southeast Gulf shores, Dixie love-it-or-leave-it. It is also the garish splendor of Cancun, the deserted old beaches along the road through Veracruz, Tabasco and Campeche and the old tobacco plantations of Cuba’s mountainous Northwest Coast. It’s giant squid and sturgeon, manatees, sea turtles and whale sharks, legendary waterman Ray McMillan, with all his nets and rods and coolers, driving the Viking 65 miles offshore from Chokoloskee, burials at sea, ghost ships, starfish, crab traps, bleached white nets in the noonday sun.

Okee-Lahj-chee is what the Seminole Indians called the Gulf, which means “water—can’t see the other side.” Each year a hemispheric-scale phenomenon inspires millions of land birds—including nearly all the migratory species of the eastern United States—to migrate, sometimes in large, broad armadas of 2 million individuals, across the western Gulf coastal plains. Most of the world’s monarch butterflies leave their homelands in Maine and Canada for winter roosts in Mexico’s mountain fir trees, using the Gulf as a guide, finally honing in on the smells of the previous year’s corpses.

Beginning in 1962, country music legends Ezra J. “Pop” Carter and “Mother” Maybelle Carter maintained a clapboard house near the Pithlachascotee River in Port Richey. In 1968, Johnny Cash married their daughter, June, and began to hang out there.

In his Cash: An Autobiography, he eloquently described the scene: “Here you have the tide, the meeting of freshwater with salt, the seabirds and marsh birds and land birds. The weather cooks up its sudden subtropical tempests out over the horizon or, on the landward side, takes the whole afternoon to build one of those immense, imposing fortresses of thunderheads, and then, as afternoon begins its long transition to evening, turns the whole towering edifice purple-gray and brings it all tumbling and crashing down on you, transforming everything into wind and water. . . It always makes me marvel: at the sheer scale, power, beauty, and complexity of God’s creation, at the simplicity and strength of my human root in nature.”

 

From his personal barstool, Floyd Brown’s bony, freckled hand clutches a coffee cup of whiskey like a gavel and court comes to order at Leebo’s Rock Bottom Bar. It’s early evening in Everglades City, and the Milky Way is twinkling bright over the Gulf’s Ten Thousand Islands to the west. Time for a story. “Tell us about the monkey,” a voice implores, jonesing to hear about the old drug runner who took his pet monkey on smuggling trips through the Gulf mangroves. “’Hat monkey was see-mart. He watched ever’ thing ’hat ole boy did and learnt how to drive the boat!” says Floyd, whose Gulf Coast Cracker vernacular recalls his late uncle, Totch—smuggler, alligator hunter, country-Western singer, parade grand marshal—a frontier legend in these parts.

The old man’s words paint an enthralling picture. Hot-chased by federal agents, the old smuggler ditched his boat on the mangroves, jumped out and disappeared. When federal agents approached, “ hat monkey grabbed the wheel and took off with a boatload a pot,” says Floyd, describing a wild chase around and around the island that lasted “ a good ’our . . .till he damn run outa gas.” Coughing and laughter shake the rafters of the old bar. Floyd delivers the kicker: “You won’t fine that bust in t’ files!”

Slowly fading away, ancient Gulf mariners somehow still survive on the houseboats, johnboats, dinghies, barstools and tree-shaded folding chairs paradise hasn’t yet grabbed. Their windswept shacks, ravaged docks and drying laundry line the mangrove coasts, here and there, everywhere Gulf waters touch land.

These men and women, their ancestors and their stories, are the most colorful seamen in the world, connections to a way of life dating from colonial centuries when European flags began to shape our early America. They are the living character of the Gulf of Mexico, where the commercial/recreational fishing and smuggling (drugs, contraband, aliens, etc.) industries walk hand-in-hand, unmatched in quality, quantity and legend anywhere else.

In 1497, Spanish explorer Amerigo Vespucci was first to explore the Gulf, following the coast of Central America and returning to the Atlantic Ocean via the Straits of Florida. He was followed by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, whose discovery of the Yucatan in 1517 was marked by murderous fights with the local Mayans—the first European encounter with an advanced civilization in the Americas. DeSoto, Cortez, Narvaez—they all came through here; thus began centuries of exploration and exploitation searching for gold, fountains of youth and saving the souls of—or exterminating—the native Indians, particularly the Calusa of Florida, the Houma of Louisiana, the Arawak of Cuba and the Aztecs and Mayans of Mexico. It began the era of pirates and privateers and warfare with the governments in power. At various times, French, Spanish, British, Confederate and Union flags have all flown over the Gulf of Mexico.

The 400-year pirate era finally wore out when a frustrated Spain sold the Florida Territories to the U.S. in 1821 and pirate Jose Gaspar died. Retired, after capturing more than 400 ships, Gaspar, legend says, could not resist one last caper. The 1821 battle with a disguised USS Enterprise ended when Gaspar chose suicide, shouting, “Gasparilla dies by his own hand, not the enemy’s.”

Today, the Coast Guard patrols a 42-million-square-mile regional “Transit Zone” that includes the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the eastern Pacific Ocean. This is where modern-day pirates—smugglers—pass through on their way from South America to the U.S. mainland. Cocaine, methamphetamines, pain pills, guns—you name it—are often welded expertly into boats that dock at the Port of New Orleans, fourth busiest port in the U.S., where each year up to 100,000 barges move in and out. It’s a modern smuggler’s dream.

From ancient Spanish galleons to Nazi U-boats to go-fast boats of today, the floor of the Gulf coast is littered with shipwrecks, many unexplored, the great majority sent to Davy Jones while doing something wrong. None of those lost were built by Shorty.

In the name of heaven, respect your water. Shorty’s plaintive cry resounds across the shining sea. From the first evening after the oil spill for years to come, Shorty’s ghosts will be chanting that mantra. Deep and warm like the trade winds beyond the laughing gulls, you’ll hear it in the staccato crashing of diving pelicans, in the seeping gurgles of fiddler crab’s holes, in the silent, hopeful leap of a silver dolphin. In the name of heaven, respect your water.

Tonight, here on the dock of the Sloppy Pelican, nothing seems to have changed. The same little kingfisher I’ve seen before is balancing on the dock rope and pecking killifish from the water with swift jabs of his telescoping neck. The tide is racing through the pass, swirling the bait fish, while a wild choreography of seabirds jet-bombs the water, ignoring the tourists and their chintzy handouts on the seawalls. The early evening breeze is whipping through the Pass and enhancing the energy of the sunset, its beams of inferno frozen over a now-faded turquoise and mauve-yellow sky. Ignoring the ever-present condos and sound of a Harley somewhere, I gaze out on what I believe is one of the most beautiful scenes in the world.

This is my Gulf of Mexico. Everyone who lives along the edge of the Gulf, from Cuba all the way around the kidney to the tip of the ’Glades, knows what I mean.

I cannot believe or imagine that this beauty will not endure for centuries of history and characters to come.

At the Sloppy Pelican—a former smuggler’s hangout—I strum my bass guitar every Thursday night and sing about Florida. On this night, less than 24 hours after the sea floor’s jugular first ruptured black blood into the Gulf, a few nervous souls are swearing chemical smells are already in the air. “Those lousy bastards,” they grieve, “have they ruined our Gulf of Mexico?” Then, suddenly, it’s time for me to come in on the chorus from Pat Barmore’s buoyant ode to the Gulf, Johnny After June:

And when the west wind blows

The Gulf of Mexico

Rises and falls like a sigh

And in the harbor lights’ glow

At the end of the road

I still find reason to believe.

 

Peter B. Gallagher was a 2010 recipient of Fellow Man and Mother Earth Award, presented by the Stetson Kennedy Foundation in recognition of his environmental and civil rights reporting.

An eighth-generation Floridian, Carlton Ward Jr. is a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers and founded the Legacy Institute for Nature & Culture in 2004 to promote Florida conservation through media and art. He produces stories for Smithsonian, Audubon, National Wildlife and other magazines and is the author of two books, The Edge of Africa and Florida Cowboys: Keepers of the Last Frontier. See more of his work and purchase his fine art photography at CarltonWard.com.
 

Oil Spill by the Numbers

1
rank of the spill among the world’s accidental marine oil spills

4.9
million barrels spilled

$23 billion
cost to tourism

1,000
gallons per day spilled, per BP’s initial estimate

53,000
gallons per day actually spilled

3,850
square miles covered by the spill

34.7 million
gallons of oil-water mixture recovered

1.84 million
gallons of dispersant applied

411
controlled burns

23,360
square miles of federal water in the Gulf closed to fishing as of Oct. 5

112
miles of shoreline with moderate to heavy oil impacts

493
miles of Gulf Coast shoreline with light to trace impacts

20.5
percent of potential visitors who believe Sarasota was affected by the oil spill

Less than 1
percent chance of spilled oil landing on Sarasota beaches

Sources: The London Independent, Unified Command for the Deepwater BP Oil Spill, Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, NOAA
 

Gulf Science

Ongoing research at our own Mote Marine Laboratory.

Coral Reefs

Mote’s coral research—supported by sales of Protect Our Reefs license plates—examines the microscopic plants and animals that make up Florida’s coral reefs, feeding and breeding grounds for many coastal animals. Much of this research focuses on antibiotic bacteria that may help save Florida corals from extinction. Mote.org/4reef

Fisheries Enhancement

Working with officials and anglers, Mote gathers DNA samples for tracking and analyzing local fish populations. At an aquaculture research farm 17 miles offshore, Mote grows marine and freshwater species for boosting wild populations and developing sustainable, cost-efficient fish farming. Mote.org/caviar, Mote.org/fisheries

Dolphin Research

The world’s longest-running study of a single dolphin population (Sarasota Bay’s, which numbers 160 right now), this 40-year partnership between Mote and the Chicago Zoological Society is led by Dr. Randall Wells and has uncovered a world of secrets about dolphins, from their social to sexual behavior. Mote.org/dolphin

An early morning surfer on Anna Maria Island heads for storm-whipped waters.

Sea Turtle Conservation

More than 200 volunteers walk 15,000 hours annually (the largest citizen conservation effort in the state) to help protect sea turtles during nesting season. Through 70-plus satellite tags, Mote is also learning more about the travel habits of endangered sea turtles and finding new ways to protect them. Mote.org/seaturtles

Shark Research

Mote’s 135,000-gallon shark habitat is the perfect setting for researching the feeding habits and learning capacities of sharks, as well as sharks’ heightened immunity to cancer—research that may lead to new cancer therapies. Scientists also study large coastal sharks and ways to rebuild populations depleted by over-fishing. Mote.org/sharks

Manatee Research

With only 5,000 remaining in the wild, manatees are one of Florida’s most threatened species. Mote uses genetic research and surveys to learn more about manatees’ senses of hearing, vision and touch, and to protect known manatee habitats from human-related threats. Mote.org/manatees

Center for Ecotoxicology

Since 1962, Mote has been studying red tide, using underwater robots to document the populations of organisms that cause the Florida phenomenon. In 2006 Mote started a twice-daily Beach Condition Report about red tide and other beach conditions. Mote.org/redtide

A sailboat on Tampa Bay approaches the Gulf; casting a net in the shallows.

Newborn chicks, like these little skimmers, grow up all along our beaches. Inset: A least tern protects her young.

Maternity Ward By John McCarthy

Our Gulf beaches nurture both rare and thriving species.

Loggerhead turtles come from all over the Gulf (and the Caribbean, too) to lay their eggs on Sarasota’s beaches. Vigorous protection and monitoring attempt to up the formidable odds each egg faces: out of tens of thousands laid here, only a few will make it to adulthood. This was a good year, with 2,858 nests on local beaches. 

Green turtles vanished from local beaches decades ago, over-harvested by Key West and Cuban fisheries. The main ingredient in green turtle soup, this species is now listed as endangered. But in the 1990s, they began to reappear on Sarasota beaches; this summer a record 35 nests were documented.   

Because snowy plovers lay their eggs in a shallow scrape in the sand, their nests are exceptionally vulnerable. Beachgoers, pets and natural predators can all disturb the nests and birds. Volunteer “chick checkers” from the Sarasota Audubon Society reported seven fledged plovers this nesting season, several more than in recent years. 

Least terns’ graceful feathers were prized for decorating Victorian ladies’ hats, resulting in severe population decline. Lately, rather than competing with humans for open beaches, this threatened species has adapted to nesting on flat gravel rooftops. In 2010, a single nest was reported on Siesta Key, while the roof of the T. Mabry Carlton water treatment plant supported 100 nests. 

Ghost crabs are another species dependent on the Gulf shoreline to reproduce. This ever-present beach species lives in tunnels under the sandy beach but must lay its eggs in the water. Well known as a predator of hatchling sea turtles, the crabs themselves are food for beachfront wading birds.  

 

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