A charter boat owner most everyone calls Capt. Bligh stood behind the wheel of his new fishing boat after a crack-of-dawn ride across Perdido Bay. The sun was still coming up, and his outboard motor was kicking out a white, V-shaped wake. Birds squawked from perches atop wooden pilings.
Despite all the worry and anger from the summer of oil, plus a pair of personal tragedies, life is pretty much back to the normal grind for Brent Shaver, who got his nickname for being tough on deckhands. Some days the fish are biting; some days it's a struggle just to get to sundown.
Things were particularly good one morning last week as Shaver cruised through oil-free waters while paying customers arrived at the dock for a four-hour inshore fishing trip. As Shaver steered his boat toward Zeke's Marina in Orange Beach and talked about the past year, a friend in another charter boat passed by with customers eager to catch fish.
"Arrrrrrgh!" Shaver sneered loudly across the water in his best pirate growl. Everybody laughed.
Shaver's bad-guy act is for fun these days, just like it has been for decades around here. But not many people were laughing last year as the oil started rolling in from BP's Macondo well more than 100 miles away off the coast of Louisiana.
Last summer, Shaver was near despair. He had to pull his boat out of the water and quit fishing after oil made it past barriers and into his beloved bay. No one knew how bad the damage would be. No one knew how long it would be before the tourists came back.
"I can't do anything else," Shaver said last year as the fishing season came to an early end in June. "I don't want to do anything else. So I gotta figure out a way to keep fishing and hunting and entertaining people. That's my job, entertaining people, making people have fun."
Shaver missed fishing and the repeat customers he's come to know through the years. Rather than entertaining kids with his antics and baiting hooks, Shaver enrolled in BP's Vessels of Opportunity program and began cruising coastal waters as part of the local response to the spill.
"I was on wildlife, chasing oiled birds and turtles, checking boom to see if birds were stuck in it," said Shaver, his white beard flapping in the wind as he headed across the bay last week. "Their beaks would get caught in the boom, and you'd have to get them out."
More than 200 million gallons of oil spewed from BP PLC's well before the company finally capped it, but soon after BP wasn't paying boats to look for oil-stained birds anymore. The oil money ran out.
Shaver said he didn't get rich off those payments, but he did do well enough to afford a newer boat. He received some claim money for lost wages, and he is considering taking a quick settlement to put the matter behind him.
And since August, Shaver has been back to fishing. It's been a good season, now that people have come back to the beach.
"They let the big boats have a snapper season on the weekends, so they had a good fall," he said. "Thanksgiving was good, we had good weather. Christmas holidays were good, January was normal — nothing. We always have some business in February, and we had the warmest February we've had. So overall the fishermen had a good fall."
Some old customers chartered trips, he said, along with some new ones. But there are still some regulars Shaver hasn't heard from, and he doesn't know if they'll ever come back.
Many coastal businesses are still suffering from lost tourist dollars, and officials say condominium and hotel reservations are still down about 20 percent for the summer compared with pre-spill years.
For Shaver, it would have been a tough year with or without the oil. One of his adult sons was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and his best friend died in an accidental fall. Still, Capt. Bligh is optimistic — he doesn't know how else to be after all that.
"A week or two ago I still wasn't sure. But the way it's fallen together ... I think we're going to have a good year, I really do. You gotta look at it that way."