PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (AP)- The oil spill plaguing the states along the Gulf of Mexico isn't one slick; it's many.
Oil thick as pancake batter suffocates grasses and traps pelicans in sensitive Louisiana marshes. Blobs of tar the size of dimes or dinner plates have dotted the white sands of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. Little seems amiss in Mississippi except a shortage of tourists, but an oily sheen glides atop the sea west of Tampa.
"We're no longer dealing with a large, monolithic spill," Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Monday at a White House news conference. "We're dealing with an aggregation of hundreds or thousands of patches of oil that are going a lot of different directions."
Officials reported that a containment cap over the BP gusher at the bottom of the Gulf was sucking up much of the oil, though there's disagreement among observers on just how much, as video feeds from the sea floor continue to show black clouds bursting forth.
BP announced plans to swap out the current cap with a bigger one next month. Officials noted that initial cleanup could take months and that the spill's effects could linger for years.
But as the oil patches dance from coastline to coastline, slathering some spots and leaving others alone, residents who depend on tourism and fishing are wondering in the here and now how to head off the damage or salvage a season that's nearing its peak.
At the Salty Dog Surf Shop in Panama City Beach, near the eastern end of the spill area, manager Glen Thaxton hawked T-shirts, flip-flops and sunglasses with usual briskness Monday, even as officials there warned oil could appear on the sand within 72 hours.
"It could come to a screeching halt real quick," Thaxton said. "So we've been calling vendors and telling them don't ship anything else until further notice."
In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour over the weekend angrily blasted news coverage that he said was scaring away tourists at the start of the busy summer season by making it seem as if "the whole coast from Florida to Texas is ankle-deep in oil."
Mississippi, he insisted on "Fox News Sunday," was clean.
That sounded about right to Darlene Kimball, who runs Kimball Seafood on the docks at Pass Christian.
"Mississippi waters are open, and we're catching shrimp," Kimball said. Still, her business is hurting because of a perception that Gulf seafood isn't safe, she said, and because many shrimpers have signed up to help corral the spill elsewhere.
The random, scattered nature of the oil was evident this week near the Alabama-Florida state line. On the Alabama side on Monday, oil-laden seaweed littered beaches for miles, and huge orange globs stained the sands.
But at Perdido Key, on the Florida side, the sand was white and virtually crude-free. Members of a five-person crew had to look for small dots of oil to pick up, stooping over every few yards for another piece.
On Tuesday morning, though, the Alabama side looked markedly better, with calmer seas, signs that cleanup crews had visited and sticky clumps of oil no longer clinging to washed-up seaweed.
For some who are planning vacations in the region but live elsewhere, the spill's fickle nature is causing confusion.
Adam Warriner, a customer service agent with California-based CSA Travel protection, said the company is getting a lot of calls from vacationers worried the oil will disrupt their trips — even if they're headed to South Carolina, nowhere near the spill area.
"As of now we haven't included oil into any of our coverage language, and that's not something that I've heard is happening," he said.
That kind of misperception worries residents and officials in areas that aren't being hit hard by the oil — and even those in some that are.
"The daily images of the oil is obviously having an impact," said Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the state closest to the leak and the one where the oil is having its most insidious effects on wildlife. "It's having a heavy, real, very negative impact on our economy."
Some of the most enduring images are of pelicans and other wildlife drenched in oil.
As the sun rose Tuesday on Barataria Bay, La., just west of the mouth of the Mississippi River, marsh islands teemed with oily brown pelicans and crude-stained white ibis. The birds inadvertently used their oiled beaks like paint brushes, dabbing at their wings, as the brown goo bled into their feathers.
Some struggled to fly, fluttered and fell, while others just sat and tried to clean themselves, sqwawking and flapping their wings. Dolphins bobbed in the oily sheen nearby.
Fishing guide Dave Marino looked out over the water in disbelief and disgust. The 41-year-old firefighter has been fishing these waters for 20 years.
"I'm an optimistic guy, so hopefully it doesn't just overwhelm the entire system," he said. "But if it continues to go on and the oil keeps coming in, eventually the balance is going to tip. Then what happens? Is it all over?"
The Barataria estuary, one of the hardest-hit areas, has been busy with shrimp boats skimming up oil and officials in boats and helicopters patrolling the islands and bays to assess the state of wildlife and the movement of oil.
President Barack Obama sought to reassure Americans by saying that "we will get through this crisis" but that it would take dedication.
Later, he said he's been talking closely with Gulf Coast fishermen and various experts on BP's catastrophic oil spill and not for lofty academic reasons.
"I talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers — so I know whose ass to kick," the president said.
The salty words, part of Obama's recent efforts to telegraph to Americans his engagement with the crisis, came in an interview in Michigan with NBC's "Today" show.
"This will be contained," Obama said earlier. "It may take some time, and it's going to take a whole lot of effort. There is going to be damage done to the Gulf Coast, and there is going to be economic damages that we've got to make sure BP is responsible for and compensates people for."
Obama's prediction of further damage only exacerbated a sense of dread filling residents in places the oil had yet to foul, like Panama City Beach.
"It just makes me sick to my stomach to think about one morning I could wake up and our beaches would be ruined," said Joseph Carrington, a 39-year-old worker at a scooter rental service who moved five years ago from Chester, N.Y., out of love for the beach.
"I have nightmares thinking about it on what it would do to us, my job, all of our jobs."