Waiting for Oil in the Florida Keys

Tom Swick: On a visit to the islands, where some are now contemplating the unthinkable

05.11.10 | 10:56 AM ET

Sunrise in the Florida Keys (iStockPhoto)

“Are people worried about the oil spill?” I asked a boat captain at one of the marinas.

“Yeah,” he said. “As much as people here worry about anything.”

The morning drive to Duck Key had been the usual freefall in reverse. Land became scarce, empty expanses of water closed in, and the world as I knew it slipped away. Islands by definition lend a feeling of isolation, which is only deepened when islands lead to islands as they do in the Keys. Driving—or better, sailing—there lets you luxuriate in an illusion of separateness.

The illusion was much more apparent this time, as I kept looking at the water and thinking of oil. Already in Key Largo I felt (as always) as if I were a continent away from Miami, but tragically close to the spill in the Gulf. The Keys are much more about water than they are about land, and the idea of the region marred—its fish and crustaceans and everything they touch (coral reefs, mangroves, beaches, marinas) and all who depend on them (birds, fishermen, restaurateurs, tourists)—was too awful to contemplate. Over the weekend, the blob described as three times the size of Rhode Island moved slightly to the west, but a change of wind could send it in a southeastern direction toward the Keys. And it is predicted that the gallons of oil leaked, currently registered at over three and a half million, could top 11 million, the amount let loose by the Exxon Valdez. Whoever gets hit—and it could be a number of states—will have to deal with an ecological and economic disaster.

Of course the Keys, for all their remoteness, have always been at the mercy of outside forces, be they natural (a monument in Islamorada commemorates those who perished in the hurricane of 1935) or man-made (the popularity of the place has turned a few old fishing lodges into luxury resorts).

The beauty of the Keys, in addition to the liquidy topography, is that nothing has destroyed the renegade spirit. In many parts of the country people love the outdoors, but usually in their spare time. Jonathan Raban wrote that Seattle is the first city in history that people moved to in order to be close to nature. Many residents of the Keys chucked it all to make a living in nature. And they didn’t become sanctimonious or preachy in the process; their interconnectedness with the natural world makes any show of earnestness unnecessary. A lived reverence allows for irreverence.

On my way home I stopped for lunch at the Green Turtle Inn in Islamorada, a longtime establishment distinguished for having no view of water. It has been upgraded from an old roadhouse; bottles of wine now fill a back wall. But the conch chowder is still delicious, and served with a bottle of pepper sherry.

As I sipped my soup, I read the Coconut Telegraph. The editorial on page 2 told of an upcoming benefit at the American Legion for a woman who “has worked hard for the community over the years” and recently underwent a double mastectomy. Turning the pages I found an article about the Bartender of the Month and a picture of the Drinker of the Month (“with his beautiful first mate”). Then I came to a full-page ad for the benefit at the American Legion, with a picture of the honoree, two balloons in the shape of breasts, and the words: “It’s a Booby Shower!”

I felt a small glimmer of hope about the possible onslaught.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

6 Comments for Waiting for Oil in the Florida Keys

J Ryan 05.11.10 | 12:50 PM ET

I find it incredibly frustrating that this article is about the Florida Keys.  Seems like lazy travel writing; if you really wanted to capture the unease and sense of foreboding that coastal residents feel because of the oil spill then you would drive up here were the oil is already hitting. 

For someone in the Florida Keys to write about the impact of the oil spill is like someone watching a friend’s house burn down the street and only worrying that the wind might blow the embers toward you.

People here aren’t just passively worried about the oil spill; we’re laying booms across waterways and digging earthen barriers to stop the oil.  The spill isn’t a potential disaster here like it is in the Flordia Keys; up here it is a reality and people are pouring everything they have into stopping it.

Jim Benning 05.11.10 | 1:16 PM ET


What’s happening there is terrible. A disaster. A nightmare. And there are countless news articles about it—as there should be.

I understand you’re angry about this disaster. We all are. But this piece doesn’t negate the suffering or damage taking place elsewhere. It’s just an honest account of what it was like being in the Keys recently, where people were talking about it. That’s all it was intended to be.

J Ryan 05.11.10 | 1:43 PM ET


I didn’t want to make it seem that I thought this piece negated the suffering taking place elsewhere, but I did want to point out what I see as a missed opportunity.

Yes, there have been countless news articles, but I think that there is a real need of good writing of the travel narrative variety.  There has been so much coverage of containment domes and chemical dispersants, but not very much of the sensory descriptions and ground level view that you find in good travel writing.

I split my time between New Orleans and Pensacola and I think that a good travel piece would pick up on the smell in the air on the day they tried a controlled burn - it smelled like there was a diesel truck idling in front of your house - or on the scene at the beach this weekend when the weather was sunny and people placed their blankets and umbrellas on the sand on either side of the length of orange boom that was ready to deploy.

I didn’t think this piece was bad, just a missed opportunity if you really wanted to capture how the feel of a place has changed because of the oil spill.

Jim Benning 05.11.10 | 1:47 PM ET

Fair enough, J.

That sounds like an incredibly sad scene you describe at the beach. And the scent? Horrible. I had no idea.

At the very least, you’ve been able to share some of that here.

Thanks much.

Grizzly Bear Mom 05.12.10 | 11:35 AM ET

I liked the story.  It depicted the area as atuned with nature and its local citizens.  Sounds like a community, or nice place to live to me.  Life goes on there even if there is a horrible oil spill.

Larry J. Clark 05.14.10 | 8:11 AM ET

I don’t see this piece as “the” story.  It is just “a” story.  And a small sample of a story at that.  Something that exists in the margins.  And that’s fine.

The spill is a bunch of big stories with long legs.  These smaller perspectives will also be part of the record.  But the smaller stories risk being the ant where the elephant sits, so you have to look for them—sometimes in out of the way places.  The elephant is shape and mass.  The ant is texture.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.