The hottest commodity on Spain's northern beaches this summer isn't suntan lotion or ice cream. It's cotton balls and baby oil.
Rather than working on their tans, vacationers are cleaning black fuel off their bodies. The stains are personal reminders of the massive effort still under way to undo the damage wrought by the Prestige oil tanker spill last November.
"You're swimming in the water and all of sudden you find yourself in the middle of a fine film of oil, " says Perico Alonso, spokesman for the Spanish environmental group Ecologists in Action. "Or you're walking on what looks like clean sand, but there's melted balls of petroleum underneath, and before you know it, there are stains on your feet."
Nine months after the Prestige tanker sunk off the craggy coast of Galicia, black globs are still washing in with the tide and surfacing in the sands along the coast of Galicia, Asturia, Cantabria, and other provinces, prime summer destinations for vacationing Spaniards.
Every day an average of 20 beaches and coves greet the morning with blotches of chapapote, as the Spaniards call the viscous balls of petroleum residue, according to Tita Somoza, a spokeswoman for the government task force organizing the cleanup effort.
Many beaches are cleaned up the next day by the 4,000-strong summer cleanup team, she says. But in others, a whole layer of fuel, which has the consistency of an overripe banana, lingers a foot or two below the surface.
Last week 35 beaches lost their coveted "blue flag," an international designation awarded to beaches that meet strict water-quality criteria. Local governments in San Sebastián, an elegant resort town in the Basque region, and Santander, another holiday hot spot, have set up tents on their luxurious urban beaches. Lifeguards hand out the oil and cotton, and bathers wipe off the pollution in the shade.
"I go swimming every day and it doesn't bother me," says Miguel Gutiérrez of San Sebastián. "You see all the finicky people with oil and cotton. But I just try to be careful where I step and I haven't gotten stained."
But ecologists and local volunteers aren't as blasé. They are furious with the national government's handling of the crisis, and consider the beach cleanup frenzy an image-oriented distraction from the real issues.
"All the attention goes to the tourist areas, but the problem is in the spots you don't see, the rocky areas where nobody goes but where there was a lot of sea life," says volunteer Xan Romero of Muxia in the Costa de la Muerte, which sustained most of the early damage. "The first thing that hits you is it doesn't smell like sea air. It's not salty. It smells nasty. And we still don't know the long- term impact on the fish. People are eating the fish - there was a publicity campaign about that - but we really don't know if it's safe."
According to Ms. Somoza, of the government task force, the fishing ban was lifted for all areas of Spain's coastline on June 2, but a government study of the long-term impact of the country's worst environmental disaster will not be complete for six years.
The tanker, which held more than 20 million gallons of heavy fuel oil when it sank, is still leaking petroleum. Engineers are now testing a prototype of an underwater robot that may be capable of sealing cracks in the hull at a depth of 12,500 feet, Somoza adds.
But this summer's beach bummer is due to oil that leaked long ago, but somehow eluded capture.
"Tons of fuel - nobody knows how many - are still floating between one and six meters below the surface of the water in small spots, some not more than a square meter in diameter, in the Gulf of Vizcaya," says Gustavo Catalán Deus, a veteran environmental reporter and author of a recently released book, "Desprestigio," about the aftermath of the November disaster. (The title is a play on the Spanish word for "shame" and the ship's name, el Prestigio.) "You can't detect the underwater spots from a plane or see them from a boat, that's why they're still there. The wind coming from the north pushes them toward the beaches."
Francisco Casais watches them come in. He's a native of the fishing town Carnota, one of the hardest hit. He doesn't make his living off the local industry, but some of his friends have survived the year on government payments, a generous €45 a day in an election year, he says. Casais likes to fish as a hobby, , but it isn't easy. "Two weeks ago, I put my hand underneath a rock looking for crabs to use as bait," he says. "It came out covered in chapapote. I picked up the rock and there was a thick black puddle."