Giant Ships Invade Mississippi Gulf Coast Island

The talk around Ocean Springs and Biloxi was that there were “big doings” at Horn Island, a peaceful stretch of sand and scrub about six to ten miles from the coast, depending on your launch point and destination.


NWF photographer Belinda Serata and I journeyed across Mississippi Sound aboard long-time Ocean Springs resident Bob Smith’s 21-foot Sea Pro to see what was going on. 

On a typical pre-oil-spill day, you might see a few small fishing boats like Smith’s drifting around the island in search of speckled trout, redfish (red drum), Spanish mackerel and flounder. On the horizon you’d make out the shape of shrimpers with their trawls out. Turning to the southeast, you’d see the massive storage tanks at the Chevron refinery in Pascagoula. 

Pelicans rest in front of ships and heavy equipment anchored at the east end of Horn Island. Photo: Belinda Serato/NWF

For some 50 years, Bob Smith has been camping, fishing and enjoying the Gulf Islands National Seashore, in particular East and West Ship Island (Ship Island was split in two by category 5 Hurricane Camille in 1969) and Horn Island. He’s pretty much seen it all – from alligator tracks in the sand to scores of brown pelicans bobbing in the shallows to island pine trees stripped of needles by storm winds. 

But nothing like this. There’s an industrial-strength landing site at the west end of Horn. Large crew boats, tugs and barges are anchored in the shallows next to channels between the islands that provide deep water access. Cranes rise above bulldozers and portable equipment pods. Tractor-pulled crew carriers roll along the beaches looking Disney-esque. Expensive-looking ATVs zip back and forth along the beach. 

One crew appears to be getting briefed for the day’s work. It’s 10:30 a.m. and the workers are huddled up behind one of the crew carriers. I don’t see a shovel or rake in anyone’s hands. The bulldozers don’t belch smoke and the cranes sit idle. I’m not an oil spill clean-up expert so all of this non-action could be part of the plan – the same government-approved oil company plan that called for protection of the area’s walruses, seals and sea lions. 

To their credit, though, the cleanup crews have put the island back in a lot better shape than it was in June, when oil washed up and over its beaches. From a distance, and except for a few very small areas, the sand looks clean. 

We circle the island, see another landing site at the eastern tip, watch a large crew tirelessly stand around (waiting for orders, maybe?), then anchor on the north (Mississippi Sound) side over bare sand in knee-deep water and wade ashore. 

Within minutes I find an elongated egg-shaped black tar ball but Smith tells me he’s seen these on Horn’s beaches his whole life. The tar reminds me of my pre-teen days on the beach in Atlantic City where my mom, and moms for miles in either direction, used nail polish remover to get tar off our feet (gasoline worked better but we weren’t allowed to bring cans of gas to the beach). 

Crossing to the south (Gulf) side of the island, we strike oil, though it’s not the visual horror you might have expected. 

To the east and west we see tiny brownish-red, shiny pebbles of oil. “Tar ball” doesn’t seem an apt description; maybe “tar marble” is more accurate. 

I pick up a pebble-sized tar marble and squeeze it. Feels like sculpting clay. There are about a gazillion (estimated, of course) of these marbles on the beach.

Flattened tar marble. It’ll turn black after some time baking in the sun. Photo: Belinda Serata/NWF
Throughout August and September, Biloxi and Pascagoula media reported on crews cleaning Horn Island’s beaches, picking up pieces of tar with long-handled sifters and removing bucketfuls of black tar pads.

But there wasn’t any video showing the marbles (admittedly, they are really hard to photograph). Did they arrive after the TV crews left and after the heavier black tar balls were removed? Are they “dispersed oil,” the result of spraying Corexit 9500 dispersant on the leaked crude (these marbles are too big to be called “droplets”)? 

More to the point: how do you pick up a gazillion marbles made of oil? BP and state officials have been quoted as saying there’s a lot more cleanup to be done. Looks that way to me, too.

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Published: December 14, 2010