Spoiled Summer

Feature Story - 2010-07-29
Arthur JD surveys the beach scene, finding oil, frustrated swimmers, unfair entrance fees, and dead fish.

Mr. Liu and his son are vainly seeking a clean spot for swimming. He says that this is the first time he has seen such dirty ocean water.

Hands up. Stretch to the left, then to the right. Bend backwards, then forwards. Touch the ground. Now, jumping jacks...to the north 2, 3, 4... south 2, 3, 4...now facing the sun 2, 3, 4. Breathe....

Breathing in heavily between gurgles of spit and phlegm, Mr. White-Soggy-Baggy-Underpants walks towards the shoreline of Jinshitan Golden Beach in Dalian. It's still 6.30am, so it looks like a ritual swim, like the people who swim in wintry icy waters on TV. But he's taken aback, seeing black lines along the shoreline. It's oil slick. He's puzzled. He looks around. There are already three people swimming in the sea. But the oil sheen becomes more visible as the morning sun lights up the sky. He turns away, puts on his trousers and is in his car in a few seconds.

It's a summer weekend, and if you're in northern China, chances are you've gone to Dalian for a salt-water dip. And people did come, because not many have heard about the oil spill - or if they did, they heard that it had already been successfully cleaned-up and the beaches were in glorious state once again.

But once they arrived, they discovered that there was still a lot of oil floating around. And not just near the coast. Those who paid entrance fees (yes, they continue to charge entrance fees in finer, more famous locations) angrily castigated beach administrators and sought refunds. People only knew of the oil spill when they saw Greenpeace activists put up warning signs on the coast (which the guards tore down later).

I was part of the Greenpeace team that rented a boat. We followed the current towards islands off the Dalian coast. Along the way, blobs of oil and expanses of oil sheen reflected the handful of fishing boats that are continuing the cleanup.

The first island we visited was surrounded by fish pens, mostly lined about 500 meters offshore. The oil had flowed directly into the fish farms, which provided livelihood for about 70 families living on the island. On this particular day, the villagers could muster only two boats for the local cleanup, the rest having been called up to join the larger operation near the city.

The second island was apparently a conservation area for birds. Flocks of seagulls perched on steep craggy slopes. Oil had washed onshore, coating the rocks with sticky crude. The officer in charge of monitoring the island felt quite helpless. During low tide, the oil slick flows directly to the island.

When we went back to the shores of the mainland, people were trying their best to have a decent seaside weekend. A family having chicken barbecue, a football team sharing beer and loud laughs, and some elders walking their Shih Tzu dogs.

But there's just too few of them to get the seaside businesses really excited. This was supposed to be Dalian's summer tourism bonanza. But it wasn't to be so. The oil spill ruined everyone's weekend beach bash.