News 5 walked 40 miles of Alabama's beaches in an exclusive series titled, "Beach Week."
Five reporters, and multiple photojournalists packed up, put on their flip flops, and took a journey to see what is still left, if anything, of the BP oil disaster that happened three years ago. This is something no other news outlet has done before.
Debbie Williams and photojournalist Brad Gunter were the first team to hit the sand.
They began an eight mile walk at the Alabama-Florida line and headed west. Ten minutes into their journey, they're first tar ball.
A lot of folks walk the beach unaware of what still rolls around in the surf or finds it's way onshore. "I don't think a tar ball with sand and shells in it is going to affect my health or me enjoying the beach at all," says Jean Stohldrier vacationing with her family from Ohio. Instead they become a teaching tool, a history lesson for her little boy.
Through most of the first part of their walk tar balls became to be harder to find; an encouraging sign.
Debbie and Brad caught up with Orange Beach Marine Resource Manager Phillip West. For him, things have changed in the last three years. "Our daily routine has added one more element and that is looking for remnant tar or tar that washes up periodically." He believes oil is still in the water, buried. "It just stands to reason when the same places over and over again that is probably coming from some sort of offshore mat that is being uncovered."
Here's the bottom line for the eight miles of beach Debbie and Brad walked from the state line to State Park Road 2: This 8 mile stretch looked excellent overall. They found relatively few tar balls and as for a grade, they gave it an A+ considering what happened three years ago.
News 5 meteorologist John Nodar and photojournalist Tim Jones took over the second part of our beach week.
They began their journey on the Gulf State Park boardwalk, headed west, and had a hard time finding any tar balls.
John and Tim found a total of five tar balls the first part of their walk. But, John says one thing that has changed in these three years, is the smell of the Gulf air. Three years ago, there was a horrible stench in the air due to the spill. Now, the air smells clean and clear.
News 5's Pat Peterson took the third leg of the trip with Chief Photographer Gary Arnold focusing on the western end of the Ft. Morgan Peninsula.
Pat used several forms of transportation to check the beaches for tar balls and the Gulf for oil sheen three years after the oil spill, including a helicopter, a boat and his feet.
Pat found less than five tar balls on his eight-mile assignment and did not find visible sheen on the surface of the water or any anomalies beneath the surface.
Of course, tar ball sightings vary from day-to-day and from location to location and involve factors like weather and surf conditions. Tar balls will continue to wash up on area beaches for years to come- but overall, Pat says the beaches near Ft. Morgan are in good shape three years later.
A Coast Guard spokesperson says 4,172 out of 4,376 miles surveyed along the Central Gulf Coast have either been deemed clean or meet clean-up standards.
News 5's Chad Petri and photojournalist Arnell Hamilton continued on our fourth part of the journey.
They covered the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, and were on the hunt for tar balls.
"Nothing but white sands, no tar balls, nothing to make me not want to come back," says vacationer Joan Kellean. The tar balls were hard to find, but, not for long.
Chad went from just finding 10 tar balls in the first four miles to finding 40 more in less than a mile stretch. Things slowed down as they reached the end of the refuge.
At the end of our eight mile journey they found the most tar balls out of all of News 5's beach walks. Chad and Arnell found more than 50 tar balls. The highest concentration of tar balls can be seen in the most isolated spot on the shore in the wildlife refuge. Keep in mind that you wouldn't notice the tar balls unless you were looking for them.
News 5's Tiffany McCall and photojournalist Brad Gunter picked up the last leg of News 5's beach walk on Dauphin Island, started on the east end and walking west.
They spotted a crab boat, and fishermen on the hunt for their next big catch, but even better, they found not one tar ball. What they did see was the vibrant wildlife - like osprey nests and brown pelicans. Shoreline birds were the most affected during the oil spill, today they are thriving. Along with the native birds, the barrier island is also an important sanctuary for migrating birds from South America.
The sand was cleanest, blown smooth by the wind on the west end of the island
Here's the bottom line: Tiffany and Brad found no tar balls on the beach, tourism is up again, and the island is seeing one of the best season's for bird migration. They give Dauphin Island an a A+.