Thursday, February 2, 2012

What is a Tar Ball?

Copyright 2012, CABS for Reflections From the Fence

Man and I have been taking some of the nature walks here at Gulf State Park, the naturalists on staff take us on hikes, in the park, and at the beach and now and then out to the fishing pier.  The walks are relaxed and of course, informative.

This last week we took a walk on the shore.  They had us picking shells and the little girls that were along (5 little ones, one in a papoose, 4 on foot, yes one family) were finding all kinds of things, showing off their finds to all who would look. I mean, who can resist a little one, the awe, the innocence, the fact that they are closer to the ground and see things in a different way.

We learned a few new things, those shells with the small holes in one end, that could be hung from a string and worn as a necklace, the holes are drilled by another sea creature who then sucks the food out of the shell, usually a oyster.  Who knew??  Not I.  Fascinating.

Now, we all know that the BP oil spill hit particularly hard right here in Gulf Shores.  We were a bit worried, how would the beach really look??  Not bad, considering.

BP still has clean up crews riding up and down the beach daily.  They cover the tracks of their vehicles by "raking" the beach, so as to not leave deep tire tracks.  They are looking for washed up tar.  Small pieces don't get picked up for the most part, unless, they are in a deposit of many small pieces.

Above, several tar balls with sea shells and other shore debris.

The tar balls will not burn, all the volatile parts of oil have evaporated, and what is left is the tar ball.  As you can see they can be covered in small shells and sand, they pick up the shells and sand as they are rolled around in the waters of the Gulf.  They are not hard, as in rock hard, they will break with just a bit of effort.  Inside, they are rather sticky.

Above, tar ball and a small shell that has tar along the edge.  The line in the tar ball, left side, is where it has been broken apart.  We just stuck it back together.

If the BP crews find a larger deposit of tar balls they will scoop up the deposit with small nets.  Most of the tar balls that we have seen have been close to the water's edge, where they have been washed up by the surf. After a bad storm we have seen more.  

You don't want to walk on one, if possible, because they are quite pliable, they will squish into the soles of your shoes.

All this said, you can walk for hours on the beach and the tar balls are not a huge issue, so come on down.  The shores are constantly being cleaned up and are still a joy to walk.  Personally I am more concerned about the Portuguese Man of War, than I am about stepping on a tar ball or two.

* The naturalists told us that there have ALWAYS been tar balls washing up on the shores, well before the BP disaster.

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