At six-fifteen in the morning on June 23, the only alert creatures on Mustang Island are the sandpipers skittering along the edges of the sudsy waves and the sea gulls swooping and keening overhead. The light reflecting off the Gulf of Mexico is thin but steadily brightening, the temperature is above 80 degrees, and a moist breeze coats skin, hair, and eyeglasses with sand and salt. A minute after I arrive, Tony Amos pulls up in a silver pickup with a dolphin painted on the side. Today the gray-haired, luxuriantly bearded oceanographer at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute is making his 2,497th trip to study this particular 7.3-mile stretch of coast, and I am going along to see it through his eyes.
The beach we are standing on is public, but in a sense it is Amos’ beach, because almost every other day for eighteen years he has driven it, watched it, fretted over it, and meticulously inventoried its contents and habitués: birds, people, dead fish, beer cans, messages in bottles, fishing line, foam cups, empty fifty-pound salt sacks, six-pack rings, disposable lighters, plastic gloves, and more. In the process he has built an immense database documenting not only the changing face of this beach but also the larger picture of marine pollution worldwide. Because he knows more about this area than anyone else, he has attained the dual roles of scientific expert and village elder. Whenever anything unusual (oil spill, fish kill, turtle nesting, dolphin stranding) happens along the Texas coast, one of the people to whom the media and the public reflexively turn for insight is Tony Amos.
“I probably have one of the earliest plastic milk jug counts in the world—from 1978, a few years after I came to Texas,” he says as he switches on a small, ancient handheld computer programmed to process the data he will enter. He balances the computer on one knee, types with his left hand, and steers the truck with his right, all the while delivering a running commentary. “Ah, what do we have here? A light bulb. And there—one, two, three, four willets. I started this as a bird count because that personally interested me. Then I realized that this part of Mustang Island was on the verge of being condominium-ized. So I began to count people, because they showed the changing use of the beach. Then I started counting more disruptive things: cars, helicopters, dogs. And, of course, I noticed the trash.”
With his windblown hair, 59-year-old Amos looks the part of the beach-roaming scientist. Born in England, he speaks in well-crafted sentences that with minimal editing could become a lecture on the degradation and decline of Texas beaches. His official title is research associate at the Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, and although he does not have a doctorate, he is widely published in scholarly journals (he specializes in the Texas coast and the Antarctic). Yet the endeavor that has brought him the most recognition is his study of garbage, done on his own time with grant money he raised from the National Science Foundation and other sources.
Why would a man who could rise high in academia choose instead to emphasize trashology? Because he thinks that trash is an early (or maybe not-so-early) warning sign about the health of the environment. He worries that if we don’t do something about litter-strewn beaches, we will become immune to their ugliness and accept them as inevitable. “Cold, hard facts on the actual damage of beach refuse are difficult to come by,” he says, “but facts are not everything. People need wild places and beaches and shorelines. I feel that we degrade our enjoyment of life when we degrade the natural world.”
Amos sleeps only five hours a night, which is how he has managed to fit two careers into the space of one life. Among the myriad groups and task forces on which he has served, one of the most important was the National Academy of Sciences’ special committee on shipborne waste. In Texas Amos’ surveys helped jump-start the General Land Office’s ten-year-old Adopt-a-Beach cleanup program. Most recently, his work was one of several models for the forty-site National Marine Debris Monitoring Program, which was launched on Earth Day this year. Its purpose is to probe the sources of beach refuse and gauge the strength of anti-dumping laws.
Without specifically intending to, Amos has become the foremost authority in Texas on marine debris. His magnum opus has yet to be written (“No time,” he demurs), but he has still done as much as anyone to make the public aware of the problem of beach pollution. He understands the power of the media: He writes four regular local columns and lets reporters tag along whenever he can. And he accepts at least a dozen speaking engagements a year. He is a born teacher with a quiet charisma that draws people to him. Gilbert Rowe, a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University in College Station, recalls an Amos moment of several months ago: “A manatee became isolated in Corpus Christi Bay,” Rowe said, “and I went down there and met with Tony. We walked into a restaurant, and the customers recognized him immediately from newspaper articles. They said, ‘Hello, Dr. Tony. Where is the manatee and what will happen to it?’” He spoke to them about what he knew and the whole place was captivated.
“The beach is a never-ending and fascinating thing,” Amos told me. “I only wish I could do this full time. There are lifeguards to protect and help the people, but we need somebody to look after the animal and natural side too. I would like to be the person to keep his eye on this part of the coast and watch out for its creatures. I would like to be the steward of this beach.”
He already is.