ABOARD THE PATROL VESSEL ORION
Lt. Rama Shuster pulled the boat's throttle back to idle speed as his two crewmen peered at the mess in the water.
Ten miles off Pensacola Beach on Sunday afternoon floated what looked like the biggest swirl of peanut butter in the world. It was 7 feet in diameter and several inches thick. Fish flitted in and out of its shadow, even though its edges oozed a silvery sheen that coated the waves. Small pieces had broken off, so it appeared to be surrounded by an armada of pencil erasers.
"That's really wild to see that," said Shuster, 33, shaking his head. He said he was amazed that oil from 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico had somehow wended its way 200 miles to Florida's coast and now floated near the shore, threatening to wreck the state's economy and environment.
The 50-foot vessel under Shuster's command, the Orion, was built in 1977 to catch illegal shrimpers and drug smugglers in the Keys. It belongs to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, so its normal mission is enforcing fishing regulations, rescuing stranded boaters and helping security at events.
But this is the new normal. This is one small part of how the Deepwater Horizon disaster has changed life along the Gulf Coast. Now the Orion goes out every day searching for signs of where the oil may show up next.
Officer Faris Livesay, 48, took photos of the huge tar mat, tossed a 2-foot-by-2-foot, oil-absorbent wipe on it to make it easier for the skimmer boats to spot, then took another photo.
Later he and Officer John Bell, 29, were joshing around with Shuster about how to properly report what they had found. Shuster said BP wanted everyone to call it "product" because that sounded more benign than "toxic contaminant."
Livesay pretended to read from a BP press release: "The bird cannot take off because he's got product all over his wings."
The Orion found a few northern gannets, but when the boat pulled up near them they flew away, apparently unhurt.
The Orion has been going out into the gulf every day since Tuesday looking for, as Livesay put it, "rainbow sheen, metallic sheen or Charlie Sheen" floating on the waves. Sunday marked the first day that Shuster, a Yankeetown native whose normal patrol post ranges from Crystal River to St. Petersburg, captained the vessel.
Spotting the sheen is easier from the air, Shuster said, but a trained eye can see how the floating crude alters the surface tension of the waves, smoothing them out. One patch of shiny sheen the Orion found Sunday appeared to cover several miles.
Most of the tar mats looked like someone had dumped a couple of jars of spaghetti sauce into the water, except they had a skin on top like two-day-old pudding.
With dime- to quarter-sized tar balls found Sunday in widely scattered areas from the Alabama state line east to the Panama City area, figuring out where the oil might go next has become increasingly important.
So for each tar mat or patch of sheen the Orion found, Shuster radioed in the location and notified skimmer boats. But when the ship got several miles offshore, rolling in waves 2 to 3 feet high, the skimmers radioed back that they would wait until the oil got closer to the beach.
Normally on a Sunday afternoon in June, recreational anglers and charter fishing boats would dot the gulf by the score. But with one exception, every boat the Orion encountered was on a mission related to the oil spill. They were pulling booms or scouting for oil or on skimmer duty.
The one exception was a charter boat out of Orange Beach, Ala. Bell and Livesay boarded the boat to check whether its captain had complied with Florida safety regulations. Then they told him that state officials were warning everyone that they ate fish caught in this area at their own risk. They were careful to do that in the captain's cabin, not out on deck where about a dozen sunburned anglers sat.
"I didn't want to tell him that in front of his customers," Livesay, a 20-year Navy veteran, told Shuster afterward. "Let him decide what to tell them."
Another ship they boarded was a big shrimp boat out of Biloxi with an all-Vietnamese crew. The captain told Bell and Livesay he was making $3,000 a day working for BP, plus $300 a day for each of his three crew members. They had the latest oil-skimming equipment on board — but no place to put any oil if they collected it. So they weren't skimming. Instead they were just patrolling for oil like the Orion.
The uniformed officers chatted about how people react on seeing them in public. Shuster said one man cursed him for not being out cleaning up the oil. Livesay said when he stops for gas, he's immediately bombarded with questions about where the oil is and when it might hit the beach.
"I stopped off at Publix this morning," Bell said, frowning at the memory. "That was a mistake."
Heading back into the Pensacola Pass at the end of the day, amid spotty showers, the crew spotted a short section of red boom snaking through the water about 100 feet off the beach, unconnected to any other booms and yet blocking part of the channel.
They stopped a small boat piled with yellow boom, but learned its Texas-based contractors were working for Escambia County protecting inland waterways and had nothing to do with the stray boom. So Shuster called it in as a hazard to navigation, then shook his head sadly.
"You see something like that and it makes you realize how insignificant our part of dealing with this problem is," he said.