Oil Spill: The YouTube Race to Film Endangered Beaches

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Todd Farrar with SCAT (Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Team), MST 3 Nicole Tainatongo with the U.S. Coast Guard and Tyler Hardy with MDEQ (Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality) walk at the beach looking for signs of oil in Pass Christian, Mississippi

REUTERS / Sean Gardner

It will be one month ago Thursday that the Deepwater Horizon first caught fire, spewing its first barrels of oil into the Gulf at a rate that would eventually produce underwater plumes more than 10 miles long, costing BP more than $600 million dollars.

In the four weeks since, oil workers have scrambled to cap and then siphon the underwater oil flow. Scientists and oceanographers have tried to project the flow of the plumes, originating 5,000 feet under the water’s surface. And in the last few days, as landfall has become more certain and as scientists have started talking about ocean currents whisking the oil to Florida and beyond, a growing number of Gulf Coast residents have picked up their video cameras, racing to the shore to capture one last glimpse of the pristine white beaches they believe are about to turn pitch-black.

In an array of online videos gathered by TIME, residents marvel at the beauty of their favorite swimming and sunbathing spots, all the while expressing concerns of the disaster biding its time just off shore. “Before the oil,” writes YouTube user funpilot 2, “I wanted to capture video of our beautiful beaches before the oil showed up.”

“Pre-oil,” writes RuneLune, in regards to Pensacola Beach. “Might not be like this again for awhile.”

While YouTube has emerged as new and popular forum for video diaries, first-hand news footage, and, in the case of such celebrity deaths as John Hughes and Michael Jackson, public mourning, these pre-emptive oil spill videos suggest an entirely new genre of YouTube material: The archival nature film, shot by those concerned about vanishing species and habitats, preoccupied with preserving images for future generations via computer file.

Sound a little extreme? Perhaps. Surely after the oil has come and gone, these beaches will be rehabilitated and restored. But it’s still a prospect that should give Americans pause: Come July 4th, will more people be enjoying the images of these white-sand beaches on computer screens than in person?