PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. — Ruby sunrises over turquoise water and swarms of migrating monarch butterflies made for memorable scenery along the beaches of Florida’s western Panhandle this month.
But the most arresting image here was that of the mechanical leviathan feasting on tar balls in the sand.
A thunderous assembly of corkscrews, conveyor belts and vibrating screens is devouring the coastline inch by inch, spitting out fluffed and nearly flawlessly clean sand in its wake.
The rolling machine can actually be a little too effective, which alarms ecologists, who treasure the Panhandle’s beaches as something more than outdoor sets for sunbathing. But the truck-sized “Sand Shark” is widely considered to be the best way of digging up and removing the crude oil deposited here this summer during the nation’s worst offshore-drilling disaster.
In a region still in shock from the financial and psychological damage inflicted by BP PLC’s months-long oil spill, the act of watching and listening to the Sand Shark at work is for many a mesmerizing form of therapy.
“It’s amazing,” said Terry Morris, an oil-spill-response coordinator for Gulf Shores National Seashore, which abuts both ends of Pensacola Beach’s commercial strip of hotels and restaurants. “It leaves the sand as clean as a golf-course sand trap.”
Businesses on or near Pensacola Beach and its neighbor Perdido Key depend on a surge of tourism each year from May to September.
But this summer, as the “world’s whitest beaches” were paved black with BP crude, the number of visitors plunged.
In July 2009, for example, about 470,000 vehicles came through the toll booths of Bob Sikes Bridge on their way to Pensacola Beach. This year’s July count dropped to about 425,000 — and a large share of those weren’t tourists but part of an army of oil-spill responders.
W.A. “Buck” Lee, the highly visible and vocal executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority — a sort of city hall for unincorporated Pensacola Beach — is determined to push next year’s July toll-bridge count to a half-million.
To make that happen, the beaches need to be clean beyond doubt, and that will require a fleet of Sand Sharks, Lee said.
“This is the only machine I’ve seen that truly works,” he said.
A BP technical team designed the first $300,000 Sand Shark, and VT LeeBoy Inc. of North Carolina is fabricating the machines.
The first arrived in Florida in August and is now working the national seashore. Another went to work a couple weeks ago on Perdido Key, near the Florida-Alabama state line. Three more are expected to start sifting through beaches in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi by the end of the month.
Lee wishes they were all in Pensacola Beach — and dialed up to their most-aggressive mode of operation. For now, though, authorities are restricting the Sand Sharks’ operators from digging deeper than 6 inches, citing federal rules that protect historic and archaeological features.
But the machines can chew through sand 18 inches deep, and Lee points out to anybody who will listen that, whenever the beach’s sand is replenished — as it was in 2005 — federal authorities require that the rebuilt beach be plowed to a depth of 24 inches once a year for three years, to ensure the sand is soft enough for turtle nesting.
Jason Bragg, who is directing BP’s mechanical removal of tar balls from Panhandle beaches, said the Sand Shark isn’t a “rocket ship.” But it’s thorough, removing all objects larger than 3 millimeters — about the width of three pinheads, he said.
The 11-foot-tall machine weighs 35,000 pounds, moves at up to two miles an hour, requires a crew of six to 10 people, and in a pair of 10-hour shifts can clean a strip of sand 8 feet wide and 1.5 miles long, Bragg said.