GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE, Fla. (AP) - For Dan Brown, seeing the globs of orange and brown oil that washed up along the Florida Panhandle's 58 miles of protected national park beaches four years ago was like a punch in the stomach.
But now, those beaches are clean and Brown, the superintendent of Gulf Islands National Seashore, is celebrating the park's resiliency with a kayak trip from one end to the other. Community leaders and residents joined Brown for parts of his journey around the seashore that was marred after a BP oil platform exploded in April of 2010, causing millions of gallons of oil to flow into the Gulf.
From nesting least terns to loggerhead turtles and blue crabs to flounder, Brown says wildlife along this stretch of white-sand beach is doing well. Still, experts say the spill's full impact on the nation's most-visited national seashore might never be known.
"You go out there today and it looks just like it did before the oil spill. Occasionally we run across a tar ball or two, there may be some tar mats still out there but they are still looking and recovering those little bits that are left," said Brown, who is expected to complete his trip that also coincides with National Park Week on Saturday.
Because the park's boundaries extend beyond the low-tide lines into the water, more than 80 percent of Gulf Islands National Seashore is actually submerged, and Brown said researchers are continuing to assess long-term damage to marine animals and vegetation.
Among those who joined Brown on a recent leg of his journey around Santa Rosa Island and Pensacola Beach was Robert Turpin, manager of marine resources for Escambia County.
"The summer of 2010 was a very trying time, personally as well as professionally and emotionally," Turpin said as got off his paddle board. He rowed alongside Brown for about three miles.
But Turpin said that, four years later, the area looks good.
"Apparently we have seen a good recovery. Certainly the white sand beaches were relatively easy to clean. The water of course is a little bit more difficult to know but the marine life around our reefs and our sea grass beds, they seem to be healthy."
Turpin said the spill also provided lessons about protecting the region's fragile marine ecosystem.
"We do live in a place where we are blessed with these natural resources and, as long as we can take care of them or use them we wisely, we can enjoy them for generations to come."
Gulf Islands is the nation's most visited national park seashore with about 5 million visitors a year, said Susan Teel chief of resource education at Gulf Islands National Seashore.
The park stretches 160 miles from Mississippi to Florida and covers parts of seven protected barrier islands. Florida's section of the park, which Brown began kayaking on April 19, stretches from Perdido Key to Destin.
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