BRADENTON — Andrew Whitaker is following news of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill with particular interest, as some of his clients are asking what might happen to loved ones whose remains are buried at sea in the Gulf of Mexico.
Whitaker is vice president at Great Burial Reef Inc., a Bradenton-area company that specializes in "burial reefs," containers that hold cremated remains. Over time, they attract a wealth of life on the sea floor.
The company sells hand-cast, natural concrete burial containers that house the sealed remains. They are taken by boat 1.8 miles west of Lido Key, near Sarasota, and lowered to the ocean floor to become part of the natural ecosystem.
"Sure, we've had a number of former client families call us and ask the status of the reef," said Whitaker, 45, of Bradenton. "We've also had calls from pending client families — people who have engaged us to perform the service, but the service has not been performed yet.”
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He said he has received a couple dozen calls, but so far, has had no cancellations.
Whitaker tells clients the oil spill is unlikely to affect the area, which is 30 feet below the surface, part of a federally-protected marine sanctuary called the Lynn Silvertooth Memorial Reef.
However, Whitaker added as a caveat, “We have alternate burial locations for those really concerned about it.”
In addition to the area off Sarasota, another is near Miami, and a new site is being planned at Boston Harbor, he said.
Private burial costs about $3,995, including the boat trip, Whitaker said.
“To date, no family we have served and no family we may serve in the future has expressed anything but mild concern,” he said.
Another company that sells similar memorial reefs that are placed underwater near Sarasota is Eternal Reefs Inc., based in Atlanta.
The company probably does 40 or 45 ceremonies with its “eternal reef balls” each year here, according to Chief Executive Officer George Frankel.
He, too, has been getting calls from clients concerned about the oil spill, but he said he tries to reassure them.
“Right now, we are pretty hopeful and reasonably optimistic that the Sarasota area will have a minimal impact from the oil,” Frankel said. “Most of the oil will be carried past Sarasota, and we don’t think it will have an impact.”
Tar patties and tar balls were confirmed in widely scattered areas east of Pensacola on Friday, according to a state report.
However, the edge of the massive Deepwater Horizon spill still lay well west of Bradenton.
If oil does pollute local waters, “absolutely nothing” would happen to the burial structures, Whitaker said.
“The remains inside the reefs are safely sealed under many inches of concrete. They’re protected for many generations,” Whitaker said. “However, I’m not a marine biologist, but I can tell you the reefs are covered with marine plants and animals. In theory, if oil does reach this area, it could harm plant and fish life.”
Michael Solum, an environmental specialist who manages Sarasota County’s reef program, agreed that oil, should it appear, would have no effect on the burial reefs themselves.
Even if oil from the spill does eventually come ashore here, it is expected to be in the form of weathered oil, in tar balls and mats, which would be floating on the surface, far above the reefs.
Reef expert Richard E. Dodge said that “oil and coral reefs are not good for each other,” but that what happens to the reef’s living flora and fauna would depend on its exposure.
“Short-term exposure, and if the oil is floating, it’s not going to be too detrimental, but the longer the oil floats over them, or stays near and toxic products dissolve in the water, the more detrimental it is to marine life on the bottom,” said Dodge, dean and professor at the Oceanographic Center at NOVA Southeastern University, and executive director at the National Coral Reef Institute in Dania Beach.
Reefs support fish and shellfish, algae, marine plants, sponges, soft corals and perhaps even hard corals, he said.
The massive oil spill began in April after a fire and explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast.