FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. - Oil, diesel, and sometimes paint is dropped into our waterways. It's not from the oil giant BP, but from average people boating and enjoying our coastline and it happens dozens of times every year.
Even though the Deepwater Horizon explosion made many people more vigilant about reporting oil on our waterways, the Coast Guard has been responding to smaller reports of pollution in our waterways for years.
The clear waters and white beaches are a source of pride for Lieutenant Junior Grade, Michael Novak.
"My family goes to these beaches as well and so it's a passion of mine to keep them clean," he tells WINK.
Novak and and Marine Science Technician First Class, Peter Zazzali are part of the Marine Safety Detachment at Fort Myers Beach. They're charged with responding to pollution reported on our waterways.
"Anytime there's any diesel or oil that discharges into the waterway we respond and try to find the source to keep it from happening again," Zazzali explains.
LTJG Novak tells us that, "any oil in the water we respond to as far as when people overfill their boats things like that; gasoline, diesel, things like that."
A WINK News Investigation found that small spills happen dozens of times every year. The Coast Guard's National Response Center takes reports of pollution and dispatches crews to investigate. Since 2008, it's received 178 reports of pollution on waterways in Lee County, 66 reports in Collier and 51 in Charlotte County. Most of those reports were about unknown oil on the waterways, usually leaking from boats.
"We have a 100% response posture so we respond to everything. And if we find oil in the water, we make sure we find where it's coming from and keep it from happening again," Novak explains of the process.
Lately, people have been more vigilant about reporting pollution. On the peninsula of Florida, the National Response Center has received more than 200 reports of oil and tarballs; but not a single one has been linked to the Deepwater Horizon spill. Here in Fort Myers, the Coast Guard has responded to six reports of tarballs, all false reports.
Here are some of the examples of mistaken reports:
Objects called "tunicates" sort of look like tar balls, but they're really a spongy sea creature that sometimes wash up on our shore.
Also reported to the Coast Guard, black stuff coating shells. It's actually algae.
Novak says, "[Tar] would be gooey and this is obviously a hard substance. Looks like dirt."
Someone else filled a water bottle full of what they thought was oil. The Coast Guard says don't ever try to collect pollution by hand. If it turned out to be real, it's dangerous to you and ruins their investigation.
According to our WINK Skytracker Meteorologists and NOAA, the loop current in the Gulf prevents oil from reaching our coast. There is less than a one-percent chance of any of the Deep Water Horizon oil showing up on our shores. You're more likely to see pollution from leaky boats. But the Coast Guard says when in doubt, report it so they can make sure our waterways stay clear for years to come.
If you think you see pollution, call the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802.
Click here to view pictures from NOAA of oil, tarballs, and false identifications of pollution.
Click here to search the National Response Center's database of spills.