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Florida beach visitors soak up sun, ignore occasional tar ball

By Rich Phillips, CNN
Matt Minardi and his family came from Athens, Georgia, to enjoy the Florida coast. They've been lucky -- few tar balls to report.
Matt Minardi and his family came from Athens, Georgia, to enjoy the Florida coast. They've been lucky -- few tar balls to report.
  • Florida's Emerald Coast on a Sunday is picture perfect -- blue skies, green water
  • The Minardi family of Georgia finds only a few tar balls on the beach
  • Tourism in Florida Panhandle is down 30 to 40 percent since Gulf oil disaster
  • Says Coast Guard official involved in cleanup: "It's an ongoing fight"

Okaloosa Island, Florida (CNN) -- If you could have painted the day, it would have been a Monet. A white sandy beach, blue sky and a green ocean that you may have only seen in dreams.

Florida's Emerald Coast, on a Sunday.

The only thing out of place were the BP contractors in green shirts and yellow rubber boots, with shovels, rakes and of course, the oil.

"I think it's fantastic that they have a community of people out here trying to clean up," said Matt Minardi of Athens, Georgia.

"If I see anything out there that concerns us, we may rethink that, but so far it looks good," he told CNN.

Full coverage of oil disaster

Matt Minardi and his family came from Athens for the beach, not the tar balls. They're getting a lot of the beach, and fortunately, only a few tar balls.

Video: Tourists and tar balls

Just feet from their umbrella, beach cleanup workers were busy scooping up the pea-sized oil fragments that seem to come in and out with the tide on a semi-regular basis, all along Florida's Panhandle from Pensacola in the west to Panama City in the east.

"We're going to keep an eye on the weather. Where the oil is, where it came in from," said Okaloosa County Commissioner John Jannazo.

"And we're cleaning up. We had some oil ... and we picked it up, just like that," he said.

Most of the oil is in very small amounts of weathered oil. It's small and scattered. Florida has not seen or felt the pain that comes with the arrival of thick, black crude on the shoreline.

Is there oil on the beach near you?

"It definitely takes a little away from it, but we're here and we're going to try and enjoy ourselves," said Mike Werkmeister of St. Louis.

"We didn't feel like trying to arrange something else, and we also felt like we should come down and support this community, too, cause they definitely are feeling the effects of this," he said.

Those effects are hitting the Panhandle right smack in the wallet. Tourism is down about 30 to 40 percent, according to state tourism officials. More and more cancellations are coming in each day, throughout the state, where 80 million visitors brought in $60 billion dollars in 2009.

Florida county to feds: Stay out of the way

"If you say oil or tar ball to a tourist, they mentally see Louisiana," said Carol Dover of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, referring to the thick molasses-like oil that has soaked Louisiana's wetlands.

That's why local officials are quick to get the cleanup crews to those limited places where the weathered crude has come ashore.

"It's an ongoing fight. We're anticipating continuing to find and fight oil in places it rises to the surface, for the foreseeable future," said Lt. Matthew Anderson of the U.S. Coast Guard.

"Our operations are deployed to support this on a wartime footing," he told CNN.

But on Crab Island, the only thing on people's minds was enjoying a day on the water, while they still can.

Boaters flock to this sandbar in the Destin Pass, to hang out and listen to the floating band. And, while they weren't overly distracted by oil, the thought of BP CEO Tony Hayward on his yacht this past weekend raised the blood pressure of some and was a bit of a head scratcher for others.

Tony Hayward goes yachting

"He's probably in some really clean water. No oil. So, he's not trying to stop the oil leak," said one man.

Johnny Springfield has lived here for 20 years. He says his boating business is down 60 to 70 percent, but his anger is a little on the high side.

"You kind of have to look at that two ways," he explained. "One. He was relaxing and he was out on his boat, and we hate that. But on the good side of things, he wasn't down here runnin' his mouth."

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