Friday, December 24, 2010

Welcome, 2011!

It's Christmas Eve and I realize it's time for me to write that year-end review I do and, overwhelmed, struggle to find where to start. 2010 has been a busy and interesting year for me, but as always I had such fun and am grateful for every experience.

I began the year in New York, helping out on the "Salt" reshoots over the holidays and through January. By February I was in Las Vegas, Nevada, with my sister and my dad, celebrating Kerry's 21st birthday and my quarter-century mark. I hit up Long Beach, California, for a superbowl party and watched the Saints WIN! I served my jury duty in my hometown, Santa Clarita, California, then returned to Gulf Shores, Alabama (via road trip, of course).

As spring washed up on our white sand beaches, I balanced 2 serving/bartending jobs while also writing freelance. During this time little sister and I still managed to find time to ride our bikes to the beach and go swimming, or do a little wakeboarding with the boys (thanks Todd and Craig!). We went to the annual Mullet Toss at the FloraBama, attended several concerts, and had some killer tans.

Then, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill reached our shores.

For all of those who live on the Gulf Coast and in the surrounding states, this was not simply a news story that came and went with new accusatory headlines. This meant utter, unstoppable disaster, the complete destruction of our economy, our environment...our home. As I have mentioned previously, I was quite involved in the prevention and recovery effort down here, first attending meetings with the mayor in preparation, then taking my hazmat course and exam so I could volunteer with the cleanup, then as a vigilante volunteer with my rebel family when volunteers were, after all, denied work due to liability, then as a wildlife observer aka turtle person, which finally allowed me to have a truly productive role that provided the fulfillment that comes with assisting the beach environment and its native and most fragile inhabitants. I was a ghost in these days, working from 9pm-7am, and still trying to juggle my other jobs, which, one by one, I eventually let go as the tourism trickled away. I'll give credit where credit is due, however, and I can honestly say I think BP did the best they could to help, given the circumstances (except for that issue with, you know, capping the leak). I did not file a claim, but other members of my family did and the financial compensation seemed fair. They granted the city a generous allowance for reparation efforts, which led to a tourism boost due to several concerts hosted by the city and some very generous musicians including Jimmy Buffett, Bon Jovi, and Brad Paisley. Cleanup efforts are ongoing in Gulf Shores even now, and I want to thank all my friends across the US and the world that showed and continue to show such great support of our very special situation here on the Gulf of Mexico.

As for me, as the sea turtle nesting season was winding down, I was offered a job with the special effects crew of the film "Battleship" to be released in 2012. I spent 10 weeks working very long hours in a small trailer as an office coordinator and assistant purchaser on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.
On my few off days I got to do a little exploration of this incredible island, from Waikiki beach where I resided, to Kualoa ranch, to Sunset Beach on the North shore where anyone reading this is welcome to buy me a house at any point in time. I somehow found time to get my advanced SCUBA certification (that's me flashing the peace sign at 110 feet below the surface of the Pacific!), do a little snorkeling, and learn how to paddle surf, for which I often sacrificed the skin on my knees, the wind in my lungs, and my pride. I stayed surrounded by turtles whether I was breathing through a regulator or paddling on the surface of the sea, which you can imagine made me endlessly happy. My mother and my sister also came out for a much-too-short visit, during which we drank painkillers on a catamaran, snorkeled with the turtles, attended a luau, and carefully worked on our tans by the pool(s). I really loved Hawaii, but my plans to stay there forever unfortunately did not work out. Still, I enjoyed searching for my Aloha and I think of that warm, clear water and its incredible secrets nearly every day, and I SCUBA dive through the lava tubes and wrecks, with the fish, the sharks, and the turtles, in my dreams.

Just after I arrived back in Gulf Shores, my mom left to attend to her mother, whose alzheimer's disease has reached the advanced stages, in Gravenhurst, her hometown in Canada. I quickly followed by car, and we got to enjoy a winter of the snowy and freezing variety. Justin, Jamie, and my nephew Landen (now walking all over the place!) flew in for an early Christmas celebration with my grandfather. I also got to meet all kinds of family I never knew I had: my great aunt and uncle and endless 2nd and 3rd cousins. I felt quite at home at their holiday party, and saw a lot of real evidence that I actually am related to these crazy canuks.

Now I am home for Christmas for the first time in 3 years, and couldn't be happier to spend time with my parents and my AWESOME siblings (though Alex wins the Sibling Of The Year award because he LIKES to play apples to apples with his sister). I've also gotten to reunite with some old friends, which has been a BLAST.

A few miscellaneous and exciting points from 2010:

I went skydiving. TWICE. Once with my mom and my BFF Britiney (who was on leave from Korea as she is now a combat medic in the army), and once with my mom, Kerry, Howard (who was on leave from Afghanistan), Alex, and Alex's girlfriend Bree. What an awesome feeling, the rapid free fall and then the graceful sinking. I think I might be a little addicted to that adrenaline rush.

The Hangout and the city of Gulf Shores hosted its first annual and largely successful Hangout Music Festival, which was held despite the oil on the beaches. It was really fun!

Mom, Kerry, and I attended the Sweet Potato Queens convention in Jackson, Mississippi, in March. Along with my Auntie Moonpie, we chose our swords and corsets over our tiaras and ball gowns. We took that city by storm. Keep an eye out for more pictures around March of 2011, as we have already made reservations to make a repeat performance of rum-sloshing and sword-fighting. You can't deny we're the cutest girl-pirates ever.

Kerry and I attended our first NFL game with our dad. WHO DAT! Our Saints won, of course, against the Seahawks. Watching an indoor game is pretty awesome, especially with the vibrant and ecstatic crowd that is the Saints fan collective. That same day, NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson won his FIFTH consecutive cup. Atta Boy!

On a serious note, throughout the year I have had been working on an important and very quiet project. In January, I began my application for the Peace Corps. I will elaborate on the application process later but for now I will sum it up to this: after a year, I have received my invitation. This is VERY BIG NEWS for me. I have been selected to work in the field of education in Malawi, Africa, from June 2011-September 2013.

Malawi is a teeny tiny country in the southeastern region of Africa, and the Peace Corps assists there in 3 main areas: education, health, and environmental conservation. I am rapidly learning about the country and the roles of volunteers; there are only a few things I can say with any certainty, however: No, I would not have electricity. No, I would not have running water. Yes, the spiders are huge and yes, I remember that I am dangerously arachnophobic. Yes, the full contract is 27 months long. YES, you'd definitely be able to come visit (because I know you were wondering about that). Yes, I would be learning a Malawian language and using it to immerse myself into a community. No, I would certainly not have a toilet. Yes, I am excited and very happy with the location and position Peace Corps has chosen for me, and I feel so fortunate to have been honored with an invitation. If and when I officially accept the invitation, I will post more information.

So, goodbye to 2010 and hello to 2011. One brilliant year out, another potentially amazing one in. Please know even as I wander around and go in and out of contact with my friends and family, I feel infinitely grateful for your support, your love, and the important role you play in my life. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Our Little Beach Cleanup

I hear a lot of feedback about the process of cleaning the beach (working at a bar opens me up to a lot of whining, complaining, and education), and most of the comments are far off from the truth. I don't know much about dealing with this oil spill...I'm just a math and science ignorant writer, bartending during the day and searching for turtles at night. But I'm out there working, so here is what I do and what I have learned:

First off, the oil on the beach is bad. It's really bad. And worst of all, most of it is hidden. The sun melts the oil during the day, sinking it below the sand. The sand is also caught by the wind and constantly buries new oil washing up. Want proof? Head down to any beach, 5, 10, 15, 25 feet from the wrack line, and start digging. You WILL find oil. 6, 8 inches below the beautiful white fluffy surface of our beach lie all of BP's lies in thick, orangey black streaks and patties. The sand will stick to your hands when you try to brush it off, and the waxy feeling will remain until you get to some good soap and water. I found this while digging for turtle eggs, and Mama T did too, as she did not lay in that spot after all.

I was working on the beach the night before last and the oil washing up was the worst I have seen. I say this for several reasons. 1. It was extremely plentiful, filling viscous pools and washing over our just-cleaned sand. 2. There were a variety of textures: chocolate mousse oil, thick mud oil, diluted rust colored oil, and thick brown foam. 3. For the first time, I witnessed oil and water seeping up from the ground. In a newly cleaned patch of sand, when an atv would cross over or I would make a footprint, the tainted water would fill the impression almost immediately. This is near the water line, where the sand below the surface is damp. 4. It seems the diluted oil is obviously so due to dispersants. The machines only pick up tar balls, aka weathered oil, and this oil cannot weather due to the chemicals breaking it down. This cannot be properly cleaned by hand either, and the sand is eventually discarded (if not simply buried by the wind and water).

We don't deal with this freshly washed up oil. Our machines sift tar balls out of dry or damp sand, and do so at a fair success level. The tar balls might be large...fist size, golf ball size, all the way down to nickel size, dime size, smaller. The tar balls are there even though they aren't always seen from a distance. Once they collect a full load of tar balls and trash, the hazardous material is collected and dumped in specially outfitted dumpsters.

For me, this system is a positive effort: our operators are local and care as ferociously about the beach as we do; the contract is through a local company, which helps our economy and is extremely important to me as a resident of this city and this state.

We work at night, from 9 PM-7 AM because it's cool enough that the tar is solidified rather than its softer daytime form. We run with 6 or 7 large sifting machines normally, which means 6 or 7 turtle team armed ATVs accompanying. We flank the machines, searching as we move for turtle tracks, turtle nests, or the mama turtles themselves. We have been finding each of these on a fairly regular basis. In the case that we find something, we shut down the entire operation, mark the tracks with wooden stakes and florescent tape, or, in the case of a turtle mother, watch excitedly and wait until she is finished nesting.

It is the most fulfilling job I have ever had.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Gulf-Atlantic Loggerhead Nest Relocation

The Laguna Key Team of Share the Beach made history this afternoon--or, rather, our baby turtles did. B-1, our first Laguna Key nest of the season and the first turtle nest discovered on the Alabama coast this year, is in transport as I write.

This nest has had a rough start. Mama T nested a bit too close to the oiled water, and our careful and devoted team moved the 127 eggs against the dune for protection from weather, predators, and oil. After much political and scientific debate, the decision was made to begin transporting the Gulf loggerhead turtle nests to the Atlantic side of Florida, where they may have a fighting chance of survival. Today amidst a media circus (which including Jeff Corwin broadcasting with both MSNBC and Animal Planet) our team gently dug down into the nest, packed up the original sand, moved the sand from each egg, marked the shells, and carefully placed them one at a time in styrofoam coolers. Anytime we touch turtle eggs they are handled with extreme caution, as if we are holding nitroglycerin. We moved the coolers to a specially formatted FedEx truck and said our prayers and sang them a song and sent them on their way with tears in our eyes. It is very scary: will they survive the move? How will they hatch in a monitored lab? Will they be carefully and delicately handled? Will it hurt them to have a marker hole bored into their shells? And mostly, how will they handle a cold Atlantic jolt when Gulf loggerheads generally hatch into nearly 80 degree water? The life of a turtle hatchling is full of uncertainty and only a tiny fraction ever survive; these turtles at least will have a fighting chance.

Here is the educational and sentimental letter that was sent along with the nests, in addition to disposable cameras, chocolate turtles for the handlers, and a number of other goodies. It was written by Debbie Willis, or, as you'll see, the turtle hatchlings. It made me cry. A lot. You have to understand that it is very emotional for us. We find these nests, we care for them, we monitor their progress, watch and help them hatch and emerge from the nest, and bid them goodbye only as they hit the water and swim away with their furiously flipping tiny flippers. When we look at these eggs now, they are just one tiny aspect of the affected environment. All we can do is help on a small scale as the oil continues to pour into our Gulf. It is overwhelming to think on the large scale and when you do, it makes for an emotional and mental mini breakdown. But if we can save even one of those babies from our little nest, that's something.

Dear Mama T,

Hey Mama, so much has happened since you crawled ashore and left us alone on this Alabama beach. This real nice group of people found us. I think they call themselves the Laguna Key Team with Share the Beach. It was your tracks which led them to us. They said your crawl was 39 inches wide and 30 feet from the water. What they did next was look for "fluffed" sand in hopes of finding us. Digging can be real dangerous to us if they use a sharp object so they use the sides of their hands. Being careful is their goal.

You wouldn't believe how excited they were when they located your clutch! Did you know we were the first nest found on Alabama beaches this year? They all seemed so saddened because they needed to relocate us to even higher ground above the wrack line. It seems that something called the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has them very worried about us. We heard them say that we could die if oily water was allowed to enter our nest. Oh Mama, we don't want to perish after you labored so hard to put us here. We know you did everything you could to keep us from harm.

We were wondering about your health out there in the Gulf of Mexico, Mama. How are you surviving in that oil? What are you eating? Can you find clean water anywhere? We guess your instincts made you come here despite the oil, just to do what you were born to do. We love you.

We almost forgot to tell you this one and it is something big. These really nice kind people measured your nest including depth and circumference, and then dug one identical to yours. Then each one of us was picked up, one by one, never rolled, and placed into a bucket with the same sand you so lovingly laid us in. Wow, they put us in the new nest just like we were in the original nest! This group of "new parents" placed a grate over us and marked the center of the nest. The grate is supposed to keep out predators. We never did care for crabs, coyotes, or foxes. They think we taste good. Next they put up stakes with green ribbon to mark us so we look really special on the beach. We have an identification placard that lets visitors know we are protected and they can't mess with us or they will get in big trouble.

Mama, have you ever heard of the news media? They are everywhere--always asking questions. Your nest has been all over the news. We were on all the local channels, WKRG, WPMI, WALA, and some of the nationals. I think I heard NBC, CNBC, and ABC. Who would have ever thought when you left us here in the dark of the night that we would cause such a commotion?

Well Mom, the big day is today. We are being relocated to a place called Florida, Cape Canaveral, or something like that. Another group of people with Fish and Wildlife are going to work with our turtle tenders here in Gulf Shores to relocate all of your eggs to a place without that oil in the water. It's really sad for us; these turtle people have loved us so and guarded our nest with nothing but true love in their souls. I hear they have a great time nest sitting waiting for us to hatch and run to the water. They are saying the Gulf is not safe for us and we do not stand any chance for survival. Mom, that's true love. Well a FedEx truck, whatever that may be, is going to take us in our styrofoam crates to a place in Florida to hatch. We are scared -- everything from now on is unknown. We hope to see you in the Gulf Stream one day.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Thanks to Debbie and Mike Willis, who are doing an inspiring job documenting turtle and oil related activity. Please check out their website and take a peak at the great videos and photos they have posted:

While I will (obviously) continue to share my personal experience with the oil and its effects, here is the site for official daily updates:

Go Lucy Go! Lucy Buffett, owner of Lulu's at Homeport Marina (my wonderful place of employment) and local celebrity in her own right, spent the afternoon with a crew from CBS on Sunday (they were GREAT, HAPPY customers and I loved serving them). She is working hard to keep a positive vibe around town, and it's doing a lot of good:

I finally found some resources for those of you looking to donate. Please research carefully and make sure you're donating to a program that will do good NOW! I also saw a flyer from the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo calling for dish soap, bleach, towels, etc, to aide the wildlife recovery process. If that floats your boat, give them a call and ask how you can help. FYI they are also asking for volunteers and donors to help make handmade hair boom!

For those looking to volunteer, I know it has been more or less impossible so far. Check out these links and see if any developments have come about...I feel like we're getting closer as we find our stride in this clean up process.

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Day 71

All we can do is continue working, and so we do. We are keeping an optimistic outlook here on Pleasure Island, but every day is riddled with uncertainty, high-running emotions, and a lot of work. I am struggling to record everything that is going on...heartbreaking is not a strong enough word to describe the feeling of loss and helplessness as your home is slowly consumed.

Things are chaotic down here. Those of us in the service industry are scrambling to prepare for the free Jimmy Buffett and Friends concert meant to boost our flailing economy. We are struggling to keep our guests happy while people fight over the limited tickets and as the tropical storm and the oil change the details. We are keeping our fingers crossed for the 4th of July celebrations down here, hoping for at least one last money-making hoo-rah before things get worse. We are trying, so hard, to keep an upbeat attitude, for our guests, for our families, for our own sanity, but it is very difficult as we know that even now, on Day 71, oil is still flowing into the Gulf at an alarming rate, and that there is no indication the leak will be capped any time soon.

Our dwindling tourists, excited about the impending concert and Independence Day activities, seek out alternate entertainment as they cannot swim, fish, boat, or float in the Gulf of Mexico. They walk the beach and clean tar off their kids' feet and hands at the end of the day, accidentally walk oil into the swimming pools, and go go-cart racing or miniature golfing at night. Thank goodness for our live music community. It really helps to have that here. Thank goodness for Jimmy Buffett, as condo rentals have skyrocketed and the restaurants are feeling a happy buzz, if only for a week or so.

The fishing industry has come to a screeching halt. Our seafood is not safe to consume, our waters are not safe to boat in. Fishermen, shrimpers, seafood distributors, charter captains, anyone with any experience in boating whatsoever is fighting for jobs to skim, to pull boom, to patrol for oil. BP is hiring and thankfully our governor finally mandated that Alabama workers must be Alabama residents, so SOME lucky people are finding jobs. They are also finding these jobs to be unforgiving; it is hot, hard work and employees are quickly dehydrated, overheated, and exhausted. The turn over for BP employees is big.

I myself am working nights on the beach, monitoring heavy sifting machines as they move down the beaches at one-two mph, shaking tar balls out of our once white, now reddish orange sand. My job is to make sure that the machines do not destroy turtles or any sign of turtle activity. I fell into this position thanks to my 8 years volunteer experience with the Share the Beach sea turtle conservation program. One light in this darkness: we are finding nests. Momma turtles are still laying their eggs. Last week we actually found two mothers in the midst of laying in two nights (one discovered by Matt Reynolds, one by my own Momma Sherry). Sadly, we will have to wait out the majority of the gestation period, then excavate the nests and relocate the eggs to the eastern shores of Florida, where the babies will have a fighting chance at avoiding our hatchlings imprint the beach they hatch at and return to that same place to nest when they reach maturity, we will be missing a generation down the road here in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

I am quite pleased with the clean up efforts, finally, here at home. Now that we have locals working, motivation and passion are evident in the crews. The only problems? We don't have enough people to cover the beach, and the oil keeps coming. Every day we clean the work is undone. However, we are all working round the clock to keep our beaches oil free.

Wildlife is changing behavior. Marine life has moved in close to shore as the oxygen has been depleted from the water. Sand crabs are chocolate-colored, no longer white. I've noted many unfamiliar birds, some of which cannot fly when threatened. The death toll for sea turtles, marine mammals, birds, and fish continues to climb.

It is very emotionally draining. We're tired and we're hurting, and we appreciate the well-wishes from the rest of the country and the world. As we continue to note, our communities down here can handle hurricanes, we can handle tornadoes and we can recover, together, from anything that nature throws at us. This oil is an entirely different animal. Although we are the blind leading the blind in this case, we continue to support each other, to seek solutions, to keep our chins up, to work hard to protect our beaches, our waters, our animals, our economy, our very way of life. We continue to believe that BP and the brilliant people of this world will find a solution to the leak and that, eventually, we will see a light at the end of the tunnel, and an end to this treacherous disaster.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Sharks frenzying on bait fish at the water's edge in Gulf Shores, Alabama. I assume the sudden abundance of sharks in shallow water has to do with the dropped oxygen levels in the water due to the presence of oil, but I am not an expert and haven't found out yet for sure.