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Date of Issue: July 21, 2010

Gulf oil well capped, watch begins

Tour-goers on an Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch adventure July 14 stop to look at a loggerhead crawl in Bradenton Beach. AMITW conducts the tours at least once a week. A number of people on the tour said they had selected Anna Maria Island as an alternative to a Panhandle vacation destination. Islander Photos: Lisa Neff

Sidney Witt and Lauren and Michael Scott of Clarksville, Tenn., join an Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch tour July 14. The Island has seen an influx of vacationers from surrounding states this summer, in part because of the oil pollution along beaches in northern Gulf states.

Audrey Andrews, 8, of St. Cloud, shows off a plastic model of a loggerhead hatchling during an Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch tour July 14.

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For the first time in 86 days, oil was not gushing from the ruptured BP Deepwater Horizon underwater well off the coast of Louisiana.

And, on Anna Maria Island, which has not been directly impacted by the spill and is not forecast to see oil, there was guarded joy July 15.

“I’m overjoyed, but I hope it works,” said Bradenton resident Samantha Eager as she joined friends for margaritas on the deck at the Sandbar restaurant in Anna Maria.

Hours earlier the news was printed, e-mailed, televised, tweeted, facebooked and posted that the sealed cap on the ruptured well had stopped the flow of oil. An estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil had been leaking per day since April 22.

“It felt very good not to see any oil going into the Gulf of Mexico,” BP senior vice president Kent Wells said in a statement to the press July 15.

The reaction — from the press to the White House to the Gulf beaches — was consistent: Great news — for now.

The cap on the well was to be tested for several days to make sure it could remain until a permanent fix — involving the drilling of relief wells — was in place.

“I know we’ve been watching it all from afar, but I don’t have a lot of faith and trust in BP,” said Longboat Key resident David Hawkins after tying up his boat near Rotten Ralph’s on the Pier in Bradenton Beach July 15. “And I don’t want anybody to think, ‘Oh, the leak is plugged. It’s over.’ It’s not over.”

With the earliest reports of the spill, which began following an explosion on the Deepwater Oil Rig that killed 11 workers, Anna Maria Island businesses and residents feared oil reaching local beaches and polluting local preserves.

That did not happen, and the spill — the largest in U.S. history — is not forecast to reach the Island or any nearby shore.

And, while local businesses have seen some vacationers cancel reservations — 422 room nights as of mid-July — there has been an upswing in tourism from surrounding states. Families that traditionally vacation in the northern Gulf looked elsewhere and some headed to Anna Maria Island.

“We’re getting a lot of people who normally go to the Panhandle,” said Bradenton Beach Police Lt. John Cosby, who has been monitoring the spill, local readiness and contingency plans. “We have had a lot.”

Island vacationer Nicole Ross of Nashville, Tenn., said her extended family usually meets mid-summer in Pensacola, where  a sister lives.

“That seemed iffy,” Ross said. “So we decided to go somewhere else and give my sister and her family a vacation from everything, too.”

Last week, the extended Ross family spent days at Coquina Beach, at the city piers and dining out on Island cuisine.

They also joined a number of other vacationers July 14 for an early morning Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch tour. Educators Claudia and Glenn Wiseman led three dozen people, most of them tourists, to see three turtle crawls in Bradenton Beach.

As she listened to the Wisemans talk about nesting sea turtles and their relationship to the Gulf of Mexico, Ross said, “With what’s been going on, you really appreciate this all the more.”