Guest blog by Kris Ansin, Tulane MPH grad student, LABB volunteer and organizer of the Grassroots Mapping project
The British are coming. Almost 235 years to the day that Paul Revere embarked on his famous Midnight Ride, another invasion began, which to date has shown no sign of relent, only deeper and further impact.
This past Wednesday, I spent the day with the Blue Seals, a rapid response conservation group led by environmentalist Peter Brown. Accompanying them in their amphibious glass-nosed aircraft, I was wedged in the very front of the seaplane, photographing the Gulf from the clear nose, 1000 feet above the oily ocean.
Our team consisted of the aforementioned Brown (of Whale Wars lore, among other television pursuits), two folks from the Gulf Restoration Network, an independent French cameraman whose passport would rival the list of UN member nations, and six Blue Seal pilots- commercial airline pilots who give their time unselfishly for humanitarian causes, most recently using their craft to bring supplies and doctors to Haiti immediately following January’s earthquake. After an exciting takeoff, and even more dramatic water landing, our first stop was Lake Maurepas, northwest of Ponchatrain, for the obligatory film footage of the plane in the water, the sun behind it, water glistening for the video production. The simple task ultimately ate up a good portion of our day, however, as engine issues kept the bird on the water for three hours. With little to do but pass an occasional bottle of water to the pilots working on top of the plane in crippling humidity, I waited, and sent a few “I’m in a small aircraft marooned in the bayou” texts that may have brought more alarm to the recipients than intended.
Fortunately the pilots were well equipped to manage the malfunction, and their perseverance through the heat and humidity paid off. The left prop finally began to whir, engines roared, and we were off. Donning headsets and taking positions, we climbed above the bayou and set off for the coast. No one was prepared for what we saw.
According to the preplanned route, our trip would begin over Port Fouchon, along Grand Isle, down Plaquemines Parish, out to the source and site of the exploded rig, over the Chandeleur Islands and finally back along the Mississippi coast. Almost immediately, the unmistakable impact of oil hitting the shore was evident. Mirroring highway 1 below us, the plane snaked along the southern coast, large blotches of oil scattered along the shoreline while infected gray waves lapped at the sand, the thousands of miles of boom seemingly no match for the invasion.
As we veered away from the shoreline towards ground zero, the landscape- and mood in the plane- turned. Shoreline sheen gave way to deepening discoloration. Lines of boom sprinkled across the waters. A handful of shrimping boats floated about, redeployed to skim the top of the water and collect what they could, a seemingly impossible endeavor given the minimal amount of surface area covered. The water below began to take a different form- ominous, almost dead. Unsightly lines of dark orange dispersant scarred the surface. Dark black ocean abutted natural seas. A hazy sky and murky water bled together at the horizon, the water below suffocated by endless collections of crude. Somewhere below a flash of white caught my eye. Focusing, a gray shape appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in the sea of murky blue. A dolphin swimming alone, making its way in the same direction we were heading, towards the source.
Moving further south the entire sea began to shine, the way a marina reflects light after a heavily trafficked holiday weekend. Large oblong shapes of pooled oil linked and streaked across the entire surface. Stretching horizon to horizon, the ocean was being swallowed. A sweet sickly smell invaded my cabin. As the members of the crew began to grasp the extent of the damage below, expletives over the headset gave way to a swollen silence over the hum of the engine and snap of the camera. “Dante’s Inferno” finally crackled over the headset.
In the midst of the thickest part of the field, a billowing tower of smoke emerged from the hazy horizon. Flying closer, a ring of flame engulfed a small portion of the sea. A vessel below was given the unpleasant task of burning the oil off the surface. Granted I’m no expert, but moving the oil from the water into the air seems like a questionable move. It doesn’t seem coincidental that due north of this burn- along the Mississippi coast- has been the site the of the most health effect incidents reported on our Crisis Map.
Leaving the smoke behind, small shapes appeared at the edge of the horizon. Moving closer, the haze dispersed, and a group of large vessels and oil rigs emerged- the site of the rig explosion, ground zero. Large vessels were at work, skimming, burning, siphoning, floating on purpled water. Moving past the proverbial yellow crime scene tape, we circled through the restricted airspace. An eerie feeling permeated the plane, we were bearing witness to the epicenter of this catastrophe that has sent shockwaves around the world and perhaps irrevocably damaged a region that’s already suffered too much.
After a final lap, flying directly over the main vessel, we departed. Crackled conversation resumed, but with a heavy tone. The weight of the scene below remained. Flying north, we passed over the Chandeleur Islands, part of a National Wildlife Refuge, at the moment still teeming with birds, though oil is no stranger on the protected island. Coming up to the Mississippi coast, we followed the shoreline west, over the area that absorbed Hurricane Katrina’s direct hit five years ago before finally touching down once again at New Orleans Lakeside Airport.
Overall, the waters were desolate. Scattered shrimp boats and concentrated vessels were out there, but the supposed cleanup efforts appeared much smaller than reports broadcasted- no more than three hundred boats dotted the waters. And Dante’s Inferno is getting closer to shore.
Even after the flight, the potential impacts are still hard to fathom. Whether the spill is stopped today or August, the long-term effects are only beginning to be understood. One of my earliest memories is set in the Gulf of Mexico, splashing in waves with my brother while visiting my grandparents on a small key south of Tampa, the same body of water I saw from the glass nose of the Albatross, wounded, suffocating and helpless. 235 years after his midnight ride, Paul Revere’s famed words once again ring true- the British (Petroleum) is coming, to shore, to stay, to impact the environment and livelihoods for years to come, long after the glow of the cameras fade from this region, the new invasion will remain.