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Key West Fearing Worst From Monstrous Oil Spill

keywest1The impact of the British Petroleum “Deepwater Horizon” oil spill on Key West and environs remains to be seen. In the worst case, it could destroy the fragile living coral reef off the island. That would have catastrophic consequences for all the world’s oceans. But no one knows how bad it will be, and everyone’s hoping for the best. But still.

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ABOARD THE glass-bottom boat exploring the living coral reef off the south coast of Key West, visitors are informed by guide Kevin Brister (rear left, standing). (Photo: News-Press)

The impact of the British Petroleum “Deepwater Horizon” oil spill on Key West and environs remains to be seen. In the worst case, it could destroy the fragile living coral reef off the island. That would have catastrophic consequences for all the world’s oceans. But no one knows how bad it will be, and everyone’s hoping for the best. But still.

On a hot, sunny Saturday afternoon last weekend, looking down Duval Street to Mallory Square from atop the six-story LaConcha Hotel in downtown Key West, the little city’s highest point, the idyllic scene issued forth a strikingly sad remembrance of Nevil Shute’s 1957 Cold War era novel, “On the Beach.”

In that novel, an Australian city is all that has survived a total thermonuclear war, and its residents are helplessly awaiting the arrival of the radioactive fallout that will wipe them out, as well. In the 1959 movie version, Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins try to go about their lives as usual, except that, of course, they’re not. Impending doom overshadows the frequent reprises of “Waltzing Matilta,” turning it into a very sad song.

At Key West, everyone from the marine biology expert at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, to the waitress at the local Waffle House, to the peddler of custom   engraved sea shells from a cart on Duval Street, to the young narrator of the glass-bottom boat tours of the nearby coral reef is keenly aware of the potential doomsday that awaits the island and its surrounding ecology as the British Petroleum “Deepwater Horizon” oil spill continues relentlessly to belch its poison into the Gulf of Mexico.

Two days before, CBS National News reported the first computer simulation models of how the oil spill will move once it begins to catch prevailing currents. Almost all the modeling showed the spill moving down the west coast of Florida, hitting Key West head on as it turns the corner to go up the east coast of Florida and eventually contaminates shorelines in North Carolina. It is fair to say, however, that some dispute the likelihood that scenario will fully play out.

As with many of the beach resort areas in that path, tourism is already taking a huge hit as planned vacations there are being cancelled. Most who chose to eke out their livings in Key West, the famous happy time island, home to the likes of Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and Jimmy Buffet and the summer White House for Harry Truman, are keenly aware of cancellations pouring in for cruise line stops, hotels and resorts.

“This could be the end of Key West,” one said, reporting that in the small community, tourism industry employees are always talking and sharing information. The general tone, he said, in routinely very mellow Key West is now “very freaked out.”

But while pristine beaches and human livlihoods, by way of tourism, fishing or working in the oil industry, are being devastated by the oil spill throughout the region, there is one very special component to the waters off Key West that, if destroyed by the oil spill, would have the most far-reaching consequences for the contamination of all the world’s oceans.

It has to do with the special role that the living barrier coral reef 6.2 miles south off the coast of Key West plays in maintaining the conditions for life in all the world’s oceans.

The Key West coral reef, which can the accessed by glass bottomed boat tours out of Key West, is the third largest in the world behind the Great Barrier Reef off Australia and another off the coast of Belize. Key West’s is 238 miles long, running parallel to the Florida Keys, themselves, from the Biscayne south of Miami to the Dry Tortuga cluster of seven tiny islands 70 miles west of Key West. In shallow water, anyone in a flight over the Keys can see the reef paralleling the Keys below the water’s surface.

These living coral reefs play an incredibly important role of filtering out carbon from the oceans. Scientific studies have been done measuring the amount of carbon trapped in the world’s three biggest hard coral barrier reefs, and what would be the consequences if that were amount returned to the water by dissolving the coral.

It would take awhile, the study showed, but eventually the globe’s oceans would become like carbonic acid, like battery fluid, and would kill off all sea life and severely contaminate the oxygen-generating respiratory cycle of the entire planet.

“Am I worried?,” Linda, a middle-aged Key West Waffle House waitress exclaimed when asked. “It’s not about being worried. This is catastrophic for the entire planetary water table,” she explained, suddenly transforming an exchange about hash browns into an unsettling global doomsday scenario.”Oil is a carcinogenic. It is toxic and is irreversibly killing life everywhere.”

She almost lost her cool completely right there, but recovered to complete my coffee refill without spilling a drop.

Local newspaper headlines blared the latest news of the imminent disaster. The Key West Keynoter’s banner on Saturday was, “BP Claims Are Rolling In: Fishing Captains, Restaurants and Others Say Business is Being Lost Due to the Spill.”

It was reported the day before that British Petroleum had hastily opened a small storefront in Marathon, further noth on the Keys, to receive claims. The office opened Wednesday, and by Friday 90 claims for financial reparations had been filed claiming harm from the cancellation of vacation plans.

In classic Key West style, a leaflet was taped to storefronts along Duval Avenue and elsewhere Sunday morning, declaring Monday “Key West Sea to Shining Sea Day,” calling for “a demonstration of love for our oceans and our Keys” with an arm-linking along Duval Street at high noon.

Meanwhile, it was reported that fishing had been banned as tar balls were being discovered on the Dry Tortugas to the west, impacting the western tip of the coral reef.

On board the glass-bottom boat, 22-year-old shaggy-haired trip’s guide and narrator Kevin Brister, a New Orleans native who went to James Madison University in Virginia, described the “extremely fragile” nature of the coral reef to a boat full of over two dozen visitors.

The reefs are made up of the hard exoskeletons of tiny coral polyps, about the size of a match head, he explained. As they attach to each other, a reef grows about a quarter-inch a year, providing an idea how long it would take to restore the current reef if it was now destroyed. New little polyps are born annually about three weeks after the full moon in October.

Looking down through the glass, the incredible beauty of the reef, including its hard and soft coral and the 500 species of smaller fish that live there (for protection from larger fish) is clear.

Fliers such as one entitled “Get Your Bottom Off the Bottom” explain how easily humans can disrupt and destroy the reef, and therefore the very stiff fines that attend to violations of the laws on the subject. Even a bacteria carried by a human can be devastating there, Brister said.

The fragility of the ecosystem that makes it possible for the reef to have the vital role in cleansing the world’s oceans that it does is reflected in the part that the parrot fish plays, he explained.

Parrot fish have very strong jaws and they feed on algae that grows up on the hard coral. In the process, they intake and grind up a sufficient amount of the coral, and then excrete it as fine sand that serves like cement to mend and bind the reef. Much of the sand on the beaches of Florida comes entirely from the work of the parrot fish.

Many yellow-tailed snappers followed the boat looking up at close range through the glass bottom. Also commonly known as the “fish of the day,” Brister joked, the snapper looked like they sensed the oil was on its way and were silently pleading, “Save us!”

But Brister, who has a laid back personality and is very hard to get agitated, said he’s not sure it is doomsday for Key West. He predicted there will be some tar balls, but that the island will see it through OK. His girlfriend, he said, is more agitated.

“Everyone is freaked out. But there are such different views of what will happen,” said Jeanne, selling personalized sea shells. “For some, it’s doomsday. For others, it won’t be that bad.”

But everyone is thinking about contingency plans, even as the daily sunset festivals at Mallory Square and the sing-alongs at Sloppy Joe’s and dozens of other colorful dives rock on, and plans are being finalized for Gay Pride weekend coming up.

That includes Brister, who, ironically enough, had just been offered a job on Saturday running a boat from the south Louisiana coast to carry clean up workers out to the spill.

For the rest of us, we can keep our fingers crossed that the overall damage from the oil spill will be minimized, and hope against hope. If it takes a miracle, so be it. But it will also take a careful monitoring of the developments, and a concerted effort to take vacation dollars to the impacted areas, to divert some funds to the clean up efforts, and even to some personal volunteer time to help.