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Science Teacher Combines Classwork with Love of Diving

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On April 20, the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded, triggering the release of millions of gallons of crude oil and created the worst recorded spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then the airwaves, newspapers, and internet have been full of reports, images and descriptions of the conditions in the Gulf of Mexico, yet the true aftermath of the disaster remains hard to ascertain. Initial news reports included predictions that life along the Gulf coast was likely to be “forever changed” and that the impacts would “last for generations”. Extreme statements projected that the Gulf of Mexico might be irrevocably and permanently damaged. At the heart of the controversy were the businesses and people who make their livings along the Gulf coast. How would they be affected and what were they doing to cope with the disaster?

       Archer City High School science teacher and avid scuba diver Bill Crowley decided to try to find out. He and some of his diving friends made plans to journey to the panhandle of Florida to see for themselves the effects of the oil spill. They made their way to Destin, Florida, a popular resort area known for its snow-white sand beaches and excellent diving opportunities. Amid all the news reports, what they found was surprising.

    The Destin area is remarkably untouched by the oil spill,” Crowley observed. “The people we interviewed said that at the high point of the spill, they were threatened by oil on about two days, and even then it was a light-oil sheen and not thick crude.” 

    Indeed, in dives along the coast just off Destin, Crowley and his friends found the water to be devoid of any signs of oil. Instead, the marine life in the area seems to be thriving, and diving professionals with whom they dived reported that they had seen no decline in species or individual populations. In addition, the beaches appeared pristine and showed no signs of contamination.

    Crowley said the residents reported some tar balls on the beaches during the spill, but that wasn’t entirely unusual. The Gulf of Mexico routinely seeps amounts of oil naturally from the sea bottom, and they get tar balls on the beaches from time to time. They simply clean them up and keep the beaches open.

    “Every person we interviewed, said the same thing, though,” Crowley said. “Over and over again, they pointed to the same villain…it wasn’t BP, but the news media. Though the effects of the oil spill were minimal, the news reports seemed to play it up far out of proportion to the actual threat.”

    The effect of the constant stream of negative news reports was devastating to the local economy. Anna Schmitz, an owner of Emerald Coast Scuba in Destin, said, “The big media outlets just killed us. Our business fell sixty-nine percent this past summer. We were doing all we could just to stay alive.”

    The story was repeated to Crowley and his friends many times during their visit to the Gulf. A personable young man named Will, a waiter in a Destin restaurant, said, “It was just devastating. I’ve lived in Destin all my life, and I can’t remember a slower summer, even after the big hurricane. People just stayed away in huge numbers, cancelled their vacation plans and everything. A lot of people down here have been hurt very badly.”

    There’s even evidence right on the main streets of Destin in the form of “going out of business” signs and even some shops that have already closed. 

    “It’s really sad that the area is suffering the way it is,” Crowley remarked. “Overall, these folks aren’t asking for handouts, bailouts, or even payment from BP. They just want to earn a living doing what they’ve done all along, but without their usual clientele, it’s going to be tough.”

    Crowley said that was one reason he and his diving friends wanted to visit the area. They had planned a trip to Cozumel, Mexico, but the idea of staying within the States and giving their business to the struggling Gulf Coast was appealing. It was also a chance to do some practical science. Crowley is a trained volunteer with the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary based in Galveston, Texas, and he’s also a volunteer science diver with the Texas River Institute in San Marcos. The opportunity to visit the area near the oil spill was irresistible.

    “Our goal was to check out the local marine populations, document what we found with pictures and video, and even take some water samples,” Crowley said. “This is the first year for Archer City High School to offer Environmental Systems as an upper level science class, and this was a great opportunity for me to collect water samples for the class to analyze.”

    “My dive partner and I were also able to dive some of the freshwater springs in the area and take samples from them, too,” Crowley added. “That was really fascinating because most of the springs there are linked to cave systems that run very deep , and the water is exceptionally clear. I enjoy bringing those types of images back into the classroom.”

    Crowley said the trip was very insightful on a number of levels. “It was a real eye-opener for me. The science behind the oil spill and its effects is a lesson within itself, but it’s also very interesting to see how the Gulf  reacts in order to heal itself after a disaster like this one. Finally, it’s sobering to see what kind of effects reporters and media outlets can have on an area in the name of ‘journalism’ and the damage they can inadvertently create.”

    Crowley said he plans to put the lessons to good use in all the classes he teaches at ACHS.

                                                                            Article by Archer County News