Awaiting the Spill – Jodi Cobb

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photo by Jodi Cobb

The beaches of the Gulf Coast are surprisingly among the most beautiful in the world, and my toes first touched their sugar sands when I was six months old. My mother dipped me in and out of the gentle waves, and judging from the photographs, it was gleeful for both of us.

Summers meant family trips to Gulf Shores, Alabama, and the memories and the photographs intertwine: my grandfather bobbing peacefully on his air mattress on the calm surf, pith helmet on his bald head, smoking a pipe. My mother fishing from the pier at night, sometimes still there as the sun came up. I would go out to watch her—it was the only reason I was allowed to stay out so late—but I mostly watched the boys who were also casting into the dark. Shirtless in the deep heat, tan, lean, muscled and laughing, their deep southern drawls charmed the flip flops off of everyone as they fished for sharks. Alarmingly, they often caught them. Still vivid to me now is how the pier lights would pierce the black water and illuminate all manner of terrifying sea creatures below. When I swam, I did my best to not touch bottom.

I went away for many years without missing the Gulf. As a National Geographic photographer I worked and played in the Caribbean Islands, French Polynesia and Hawaii, and the Gulf couldn’t quite measure up to its glamorous and spectacular competition. I became increasingly despairing of the mushrooming high-rise resorts, tacky souvenir shops and convenience stores that couldn’t even have the courtesy to be built on the other side of the road, but had to be built smack on the most beautiful dunes.

But my family continued to make the trip, and I started sporadically returning for reunions and holidays. I began to make peace with development and concentrate instead on what wildness still remained. When I switched from film to digital photography in 2007, I came back to teach myself its mysteries and shoot test pictures from our condominium’s eleventh floor balcony for practice.

To my complete surprise, a whole world passed by the balcony: I shot the unobstructed total eclipse of the moon; huge brown pelicans, back from near extinction, flying right at my level in perfect formation and peering in my windows; the dolphins rolling by twice a day; dozens of huge black sting rays sneaking up and scaring swimmers; the occasional shark in the shallows, unseen from shore.

But I mostly photographed the Gulf waters: the sunlight and the full moon playing on the whitecaps, the wildly changing surf that sometimes pounded, sometimes whispered. The varying colors: sometimes emerald, sometimes navy, transparent or thick as mud. I became increasingly attuned to the subtle beauty of the place, the rhythm of the tides, the direction of the winds, the feeding schedules of the marine life. I started to return more frequently.

I began a little book of photographs for my mother, whose favorite thing to do as she got older was to just sit on that balcony and look out at the water, and I was finally understanding why. By age 88 she was living in Dallas and couldn’t make the long trip anymore, and I wanted to give her something to hold, to remind her of the place she so loved. But she passed away suddenly before my project was finished. And now the photographs—far from works of art but just a labor of love for me and for her—might become documents of what will never be the same.

I’m on the balcony now, watching a parasail go by, and the dolphins and the pelicans, and it looks the same as ever. No one knows when the oil slick will arrive. The boys from the pier are now out laying booms to try to hold back the oil. But like peering into the night waters years ago, I’m filled with terror at what lies beneath. It will take far more than the glass-bottom boat cruising by to see the full size of this ecological disaster. But for now it’s the foreboding, and the waiting. . .waiting. . .

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photo by Jodi Cobb