Oil on the Water

An Eyewitness Account from Barataria Bay

Since the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up and sank 53 days ago, killing 11 men and unleashing a gusher of oil, reporters have complained that federal government officials and representatives of BP have sought to restrict access to oil-impacted sites to manipulate media coverage of the disaster. Here in Grande Isle — ground zero for the spill — the main beach is closed, as is all of adjacent Elmer’s Island, normally a popular vacation spot. The beaches are no-go zones even for homeowners with beachfront property, and the press can hit the sand only by going through a complicated credentialing process. The Coast Guard is arranging media tours by boat, but the waiting list is close to a week long. Charter boats are either hard to find (most of the captains are working for BP), or else relatively expensive ($300 for an afternoon on the water).

Thank God, then, for Greenpeace. The environmental group has been posted up at the Bridgeside Marina in Grand Isle all week, providing free tours of Barataria Bay to working journalists. Yesterday I took the Greenpeace activists up on their offer of a tour and, along with a reporter from the UK’s Guardian, went to see for myself what the spill looks like.

Oil-soaked booms at Cat Island, LA

It was a lovely day to be out on the water, as a steady breeze took the edge off the punishing humidity. Minutes after Greenpeace’s 20-foot zodiac left the dock we got our first sighting of dolphins, larger numbers of which patrol the fish-rich openings between Barataria Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  

We had gone about three miles into the bay when we began to catch evidence of the blowout. At first, the oil was hard to notice. But once I spotted it, I saw that it was everywhere. The rust colored globs of petroleum showed up sharp against the green water. Some of the blobs were the size and color of a tarnished penny. Others were long and stringy, like a cat turd. A few were as large as my palm. Every dozen or so yards we passed through whole ribbons of the stuff, a great mass of viscous junk, a kind of hydrocarbon kelp string.

Our guide, Greenpeace’s Deputy Campaign Director Dan Howells, took out a pair of common kitchen gloves and scooped up some of the oil. Out of the water, reflecting the sunlight more directly, the gunk looked as black as tar. Howells rubbed his hands together, then dipped them back into the water, then scrubbed his hands together again. The oil didn’t come off; it just smeared across the gloves further. “Imagine what would happen if a dolphin got caught in this,” he said. “Or a pelican trying to preen itself.”

I looked behind the boat and, as I faced the sun, I saw that in addition to the big globs there were long sheens of oil on the water. The silver-and-rainbow slicks made the sea surface look tattered. “Like a silk blouse,” I wrote in my notebook, “that’s had a straight razor taken down its front.”

The Greenpeace pilot hit the throttle and we sped forward again. Up ahead, the bay was dotted with boats. But they weren’t shrimping — they were skimming. As we passed the vessels we could see booms covered in oil lying on their decks or hanging from the trawling masts. After a full day of skimming, the sides and sterns of the boats were filthy. The oil muck looked like someone had smeared diarrhea along the white walls of boats. (A cleanup worker I met at my hotel last night told me that at the end of each day they have to pull the boats out of the water and spray them down with decontaminant.)

A few minutes later and we were at our destination — Cat Island, a speck of mangroves that’s an important nesting spot for pelicans, spoonbills, and egrets. The birds went about their birdy business, unconcerned with all the fuss around them. Their island was, for the moment at least, safe, encircled by a double wall of protection. First, a layer of bright orange plastic booms covered in oil, and behind that a line of cottonball-like absorbent booms, some of them already turning the color of tea. A big pile of oil-soaked absorbent boom littered the southwest edge of the island, washed onto the mangroves by a high tide. Fish and wildlife crews hadn’t removed the mess, the Greenpeace folks said, because they didn’t want to disturb the birds too much during nesting time.

A few minutes later I saw what they meant. A young pelican — a downy khaki color compared to the dark brown of its mother — scrambled awkwardly out of the nest. Through the binoculars it appeared the perfect nature scene … as long as I ignored the red smear of oil on the mangrove roots about six inches below the nest.

We turned the boat around and headed back to shore. On the way to the marina, right after motoring by the main docks for the cleanup operation, we passed the main facility for ExxonMobil’s Gulf of Mexico operations. An offshore platform re-supply boat was loading up. A crane lowered onto its deck a pallet full of necessities: paper towels, toilet paper, some kind of package of green beans. A moment later, an ExxonMobil helicopter swept overhead. The helicopter crossed over the installation’s concertina wire fence and settled onto the company’s packed airfield. 

Even in the midst of the largest environmental disaster in US history, it’s mostly business as usual for the oil and gas industry.

All photos by Kate Davison, Greenpeace.

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