DESTIN — Pie-sized tar patties washed up on Okaloosa County shores Thursday, beaching Panhandle swimmers as cleanup workers turned to nighttime hours to pluck splotches of weathered oil off some of the state's most pristine coast.
Federal forecast models, meanwhile, showed the mass of light oil increasingly edging eastward, away from Louisiana and along the Panhandle shoreline in an ominous omen for the weekend.
"Coastal regions near and west of Panama City may experience shoreline impacts by Friday," according to a situation report from Gov. Charlie Crist's office.
BP crews were instructed to turn to cleanup efforts at night, according to an update from Tallahassee, and in Escambia County night-time sweeps were scheduled for Thursday on Pensacola Beach and Peridido.
The sweltering summer sun melts tar balls, making them harder to collect. And daytime labor is taking its toll on workers in plastic jumpsuits and gloves.
Another complication loomed on the horizon as well. The National Hurricane Center said a depression in the Pacific, has become Tropical Storm Blas. Hurricane winds could whip up the gulf and shift the sheens and oil in various directions.
In the event of a hurricane, workers would have to stop spill recovery efforts days before — letting the crude spill freely into the gulf — and it would take days to resume the cleanup once hurricane winds dissipated.
Dead sperm whale found floating in gulf
Over the last weeks, the carcasses of oily pelicans, turtles and other animals have washed to shore in the Gulf of Mexico. Now the first dead whale has been found — a juvenile sperm whale floating 77 miles from the leaking oil well.
On Tuesday, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship spotted the 25-foot animal due south of the Deepwater Horizon site. The water the whale was floating in was not oiled.
Blair Mase, the Southeast marine mammal stranding coordinator for the oceanic agency, said that scientists were "very concerned" that oil was the cause of the whale's death, but that the whale's body was so decomposed that it would be impossible to say for certain.
"It is a relatively rare occurrence," said Mase, who added that there have been only five or six whale deaths in the gulf in five years, "so we are studying this very carefully."
There are an estimated 1,700 sperm whales that live in gulf waters and they are known to congregate particularly at the mouth of the Mississippi River, a rich feeding ground.
Sperm whales live anywhere from 60 to 100 years, scientists estimate. But they reproduce on average only every five years, which is why even a few whale deaths can be significant.
The whales are classified as endangered and the crude oil is toxic to them.
BP says it has paid $12.6M to Floridians
A day after President Barack Obama and BP announced the creation of a $20 billion fund and a facility to pay out claims arising from the gulf oil spill, many of the details of how it would work were being finalized. BP said it has already sent out 3,786 checks to Floridians affected by the disaster.
The creation of an Independent Claim Facility means that there will now be three ways to get compensation from BP: the current claims process, the independent claim facility and the courts.
The facility will be just for people and businesses. So far, Floridians have received $12.6 million in compensation, BP said Thursday.
By week's end, BP said it will have paid out $85 million, or some 25,000 checks, in four states as recompense for claims including wage loss, personal injury or damages.
BP spokesman Brad Etlin said no claims have been denied so far. For now, he said individuals in Florida or elsewhere should file their claims online or by visiting one of its 11 offices it has set up throughout Florida to provide in-person assistance.
Information from the Miami Herald and New York Times was used in this report.