Geography protects Mississippi from worst of the oil spill, but tourism still hobbled

LONG BEACH, Miss. (AP) — Tracey Winspeare said her Canadian uncle warned her before she traveled to Mississippi: Oil is washing up on the beaches from a ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico. He was wrong.

Winspeare, who lives near Cambridge, England, sunbathed Monday on a clean stretch of white sand in Long Beach. Geography and water currents have spared the area — like all beaches in Mississippi — from the worst of the two-month-old spill.

"It's beautiful here. I love it," Winspeare, a 23-year-old genealogist, said on a day with blue skies, a light breeze and a temperature approaching 95 degrees.

Millions of gallons of oil have gushed into the Gulf since an oil rig exploded on April 20 and later sank about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.

Gooey gobs of it have soiled Louisiana's delicate marshlands. In Alabama, rust-colored tar balls have washed ashore and officials have warned people not to swim some days on some beaches, even as tourist season should be gaining momentum.

So far, Mississippi hasn't dealt with such messes, largely because of the underwater DeSoto Canyon in the Gulf, which is south of the Florida Panhandle, said Don Johnson, an oceanographer at the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

The ruptured BP oil well is along the upper slope of the continental shelf, and the DeSoto Canyon helps direct water currents from there eastward toward Alabama and Florida, Johnson said. During July, winds usually blow from the south-southwest and that means oil in the Gulf will continue to move toward parts of the Florida Panhandle near Apalachicola, he said.

During normal times — pretty much anytime there's not a hurricane or other strong storm — Mississippi coastal waters remain relatively calm.

"It's like if you have a strong wind blowing and you stand in the corner," Johnson said. "It's just kind of forced away from the corner."

Mississippi has seen some signs of trouble. Strands of caramel-colored oil were discovered two weeks ago south of one of the barrier islands, Petit Bois island, which is near the Alabama line and which locals pronounce "Petty Boy."

About 140 dead turtles have been found since the spill, and Harrison County Emergency Management director Rupert Lacy said crews have collected a few gallons of tar balls or "tar pancakes" on the main beaches.

Johnson said a common misperception is that Mississippi's string of barrier islands are primarily what's keeping oil off the state's mainland coastline but really it's the currents.

Bruce Comyns, a fisheries biologist with the Gulf Coast Research Lab, said he has been swimming in the past several days off two of Mississippi's other barrier islands, including the one most frequently visited by tourists, Ship Island.

He said he wouldn't hesitate to take a dip off Mississippi's main coastline.

"Is it safe to swim? Yeah, sure," Comyns said Monday. "That's now. I don't what's going to happen five days from now."

Gov. Haley Barbour complains frequently that his state's tourism industry is suffering because he believes some national media coverage does not distinguish between oil-soaked pelicans in Louisiana and the unspoiled beaches in his state.

"And the people of the United States have the impression the whole Gulf of Mexico is ankle-deep in oil, which is simply not the case," Barbour said Sunday on CBS television's "Face the Nation."

While some praise Barbour, others — including Democratic state Sen. Deborah Dawkins of coastal Pass Christian — say he's an apologist for the oil industry.

Roger Buenzow, a charter boat captain who runs North Star Sailing in Biloxi, said customers booked 26 trips with him in May 2008 and 26 in May 2009, but only 11 this May. He said his numbers for June were similar. He said he accepted a $5,000 from BP to make up for part of his lost income.

Like Barbour, Buenzow blames some media coverage for the drop in business.

"They're showing a lot about Louisiana and the birds and the oil spill," Buenzow said. "I think they just get the perception that it's the whole Gulf Coast."

Winspeare, enjoying her final day in Mississippi before flying back to England, said she worried about the possibility of unseen chemical dangers from oil. She said she was reluctant to set foot in the water, even as she watched a friend and his 3-year-old daughter frolic in it.

The friend, 24-year-old Scott Berry of Gulfport, wasn't worried that he or his daughter, Cecelia Burleson, would fall ill.

"If I saw some reason to worry, she would absolutely not be in that water," Berry said as his little girl splashed in the water, her upper arms encased in inflatable floaties.