Sunday, August 22, 2010

Oil & Wildlife in Barataria Bay ~ They're Both Still Here

As my Oceanic Defense colleague Samantha Whitcraft says, “Where there’s life, there’s hope”. I keep reminding myself of that. Today we found life here. Dolphins, pelicans, hermit crabs, and yes, even the welcome stings of mosquitoes. Just a few weeks ago, it was eerie to be on the docks with no sounds of seabirds, and in the marshes at dusk with no mosquitoes buzzing around your ears. So today I didn’t much mind the itching of a few mosquito bites.

On Friday, Chris Pincetich, Brock Cahill & I were guided out into Barataria Bay by Captains Al Walker and Tracy Palmisano. We were also joined by marine biologist Scott Porter. All three men have been on the job since day one of the Gulf disaster and their insights into the realities of what’s going on here have brought me to a new level of understanding about the scope of this tragedy. We went out to see for ourselves how much oil is still there, and we found plenty.

Al Walker was a charter fishing captain until the Deepwater Horizon disaster made his local fish unsafe for consumption. A supporter of offshore oil drilling until this disaster hit, his outspoken and often controversial commentaries have been aired on AP, FOX news, and numerous other media outlets. He’s hosted the Cousteau family onboard and has been diving IN the toxic crude & dispersant mix. Local boatyard owner and fisherman Tracy Palmisano and biologist Scott Porter have been right alongside Captain Al, documenting what they’ve seen for these months since the gusher blew. And what they’ve seen isn’t pretty – or healthy.

On our way out of Myrtle Grove harbor that morning, we passed shrimp boat after shrimp boat, heading out to their fishing grounds. The jury is still out on how safe or abundant their catch may be, but after what we have seen, I just don’t understand how anyone could buy, sell or eat shrimp caught in this area.

Oil is still very much present in the marshes, on the marsh grass, and on the bottom of the bay. As Tracy maneuvers his Glacier Bay catamaran into the shallows, the outboards kick up oil from the bay’s floor. As you walk along the edge of the marsh, your steps are surrounded by oil. And just a few yards offshore, a pod of dolphins chases bait fish and plays. Pelican Island was covered in birds, but the dark colors on some of the birds indicated that they too, may be oiled. We did not approach closely, not wanting to disturb these poor creatures anymore than they already have been.

As we motored around the marshes, we checked out a new kind of boom that is being deployed in some areas. All over Barataria Bay, you see booms. And only a few are of this new type. Its similar to the brushes used in a commercial car wash. The booms float on the surface, and below them hang hairlike ‘mops’ to catch oil and dispersant flowing under them. They certainly seem to be working better than the standard booms which just bob along on the surface, blocking only what is on the top of the water. The use of the standard booms makes no sense, especially with the overuse of dispersant, which has sunk most of the oil and dispersed it into the water column.

For Captain Al and his friends, their raw anger has perhaps mellowed a bit, but it still seethes below the surface, just like the oil which is still very much present in the Gulf and its bays. Yes, Captain Al and his buddies know that they’ve been exposed to large amounts of toxic materials, but they don’t make much of it. That’s just the way it is for them. I find it hard to put into words what I think of these men. What runs in their blood is what is missing from too many Americans today. They are overflowing with determination, strength, courage and love for their natural world. They are not going to give up, they’re not going to be silenced. The world needs more Bayou Warriors like my new friends, Al, Tracy & Scott.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Putting Our Heads Together - It's Just Not That Simple

Yesterday, Chris Pincetich of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project & I visited with the good folks at the Gulf Restoration Network in downtown New Orleans. Meeting with Blue Frontier / Peter Benchley Award Winner Cyn Sarthou and her staff, we discussed many aspects of the plight of the Gulf and it’s endangered turtle species.

Aside from the obvious threat of exposure to oil, turtles are in harms way on many different fronts. Not all states enforce the use of TEDs - turtle extruder devices which are installed in shrimper's nets to allow trapped turtles to escape without drowning.

Sea turtles must surface to breathe approximately every 20 minutes or suffocate. Some states put the economic hardship to their fishermen above wildlife welfare, and this has caused additional turtle mortality beyond what has already been caused by the oil and dispersants. And now, with shrimping season re-opening, many are worried about how many more turtles will lose their lives.

It is definitely a tough call. The economic impact to the shrimping families here is staggering and it’s hard to think about enforcing any law that makes it even worse for them.

It was interesting to learn that there are actually three shrimping areas in the Gulf – The deep bayou, the coastal area, and the deep sea fisheries. Sea turtles do not live in the deep bayou, plus these fishermen are working in shallower areas. If they use TEDs, it hinders their work and lowers their catch. Obviously, coastal and open ocean shrimp fisheries must continue to use these devices. It seems that at every turn, the complexities of the situation here become more evident.

It seems that the biggest problem right now for Gulf turtles are the dredging operations rebuilding some of the barrier islands. It was fascinating to learn more about the Mississippi Delta system and how the Army Corps of Engineers and others continue to battle the natural course of this mighty river – year after year, costing literally billions of dollars. Here’s an amazing fact. The Mississippi delta is losing a football field every day to the sea.

The Army Corps of Engineers devised a plan some years ago to deploy 60’ long trawling nets in the area of dredging where turtles are suspected to be present. Turtles caught in the net are relocated out of harm’s way from the dredging operation. Despite these measures, however it seems that turtles are being killed by the dredges in increasing numbers. And the unfortunate thing is that if turtles are caught up in the hopper dredges, no one ever knows. I’ll spare you the gory details.

I, for one am not convinced that there is any long term benefit to building up these barrier islands. After spending many days flying over them, I don’t see how they could possibly offer much protection to the mainland from a hurricane. And with climate change and the sea level rise that will come with it, how long should we throw good money after bad, all the while endangering fragile species along the way?

Perhaps it’s time to let Mother Nature and the Mississippi follow their natural course, and take what they will back into the sea.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Gulf Whale Sharks ~ Canaries in the Coal Mine?

Whale Sharks, the largest fish on earth who are also known for their docile nature are in danger from the Gulf Oil Disaster. As filter feeders who feed by skimming along the surface, the possibility of ingesting oil is high. Dr. Hoffmayer is very concerned about these gentle creatures, and is doing everything he can to determine how they are faring in this crisis.

MSNBC Nightly News with Brian Williams did a great feature on our work.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Gulf of Mexico Flyovers ~ August 8th & 9th, 2010

Flying with Bonny Schumaker from 'On Wings of Care' has been an eye opening experience. Bonny has been flying her souped up Cessna over these waters most days since the gusher broke loose in April. And with insights added by Samantha Whitcraft of Oceanic Defense, we were able to draw some pretty clear conclusions as to whether or not there is still oil out in the Gulf. And there most definitely is, and you can see it for yourself in this footage.

This disaster, which some experts estimate at 20 times the size of the Exxon Valdez, is not over. With the copious amount of Corexit sprayed under and over the Gulf waters, much of the oil has dispersed, sunk, or otherwise become hidden from view. But there is no mistaking the vast areas of rainbow sheen on the surface of the ocean, stretching in patches as far as the eye can see to the horizon. As we approached, we all hoped that we were looking at areas of no wind where the sea surface would appear like glass. But as we got closer, the multicolored sheen made it clear. We were looking at oil. Seeing it in person, your mind really can’t grasp how much oil you’re looking at. It is mind boggling.

Another confusing thing out there is the sargassum weed, which looks deceivingly like crude oil, or what they call ‘mousse’ when seen from the air. The weed collects in lines, and is the same orange color as weathered crude. And we saw both. Today a BP employee told me at breakfast that there are still tar balls washing up on the islands off Mississippi. “This stuff is going to keep coming to the surface for a long time”, he said. In the next breath, he said that yes, BP is scaling back operations and removing more equipment & personnel every day.

The Gulf disaster is like cancer. When the doctor first tells you, you panic and you feel as though your life has been ripped apart. Everything goes into high gear as you scramble to deal with the monster. But over time, if you survive, it becomes a long term management issue. It’s less dramatic but nevertheless, still very much there. Just like the dispersed oil, the disaster lives below the surface now. Even in many of the residents, it's not something they talk about anymore. How can we make sure that the Gulf region is not forgotten? Every day that I am here, I see more evidence of the pull back.

In many of the Gulf heroes who I’ve learned to love and respect, I sense a change. It’s harder to keep going without the impetus of immediate disaster. But they’re shifting into low gear and continuing on. Just as they did after Katrina, just as they’ll always do.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Grand Isle - Where Is Everybody?

It was my second visit out to Grand Isle in as many weeks. My expedition partner Samantha Whitcraft from Oceanic Defense has been engaged in on the water research and aerial surveys since her arrival in the Gulf, and wanted to round out her experience by seeing the gusher’s impact on the terrestrial environment as well. The Gulf Disaster has all but disappeared from the national news, and Unified Command continues to open more beaches and fishing grounds at the same time that they are laying off thousands of workers. Having spent three days flying over the Gulf, we are very much aware that this is not over, nor will it be for a very long time.

It’s just that the character of the disaster has changed. One could say that it has moved from an acute phase into a more chronic situation. The long term effects of the blowout will evolve over time. For wildlife, immuno-deficiencies, genetic disorders, expanded dead zones, and more problems will manifest as the years go by. In terms of the economic impact, the effect is easier to see. Boarded up businesses, sarcastic billboards ‘thanking’ BP, all tell you that all is not well in this former fisherman’s paradise.

In the meantime, Unified Command is scaling back their operations. What does this mean for the people of the Gulf? For many in the Vessels of Opportunity Program, cleanup workers, and others, it means that their boats sit in port, and their meager income stops. For the shop owners & hotels of the hardest hit areas, it means that this artificial boost to their business will be trickling away.
The sad truth is, if these people want to work, there isn’t much left out there other than working in the oil industry. And with the drilling moratorium, these people are in a world of hurt.

What we found this week was an abandoned beach. The BP camp at the end of Grand Isle was almost empty. Even the fences marking off the makeshift parking lots were gone. Last week it was crawling with workers, dune buggies, trucks, and there were Porta Potties everywhere. Now, I’d say 85% of that is gone. The locals told me that they’ve been promised that the military & cleanup workers will come back after the Tropical Depression passes. I don’t believe it. I think they’ll come back, but in smaller numbers. They could be using the storm to sneak out the back door. I expect no less of them.

I’m making a commitment to return to Grand Isle before I leave the Gulf just to see if Unified Command is going to stand by these people, or not.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Grand Isle & Barataria Bay - What Have We Done?

Grand Isle. Barataria Bay. Port Fourchon. These are not just names on Google Earth to me anymore. Each one has a unique flavor, and they have a way of getting into your soul. The little fishing towns are dying. Shops still haven't taken down their signs advertising crab and shrimp. I stopped by today in a souvenir shop, hoping that my purchase of a few t-shirts might ease some hardship. The owner said to me that if it weren’t for the workers & military on the island, she’d be out of business. Later, as I watched a huge black bus load up with military personnel, I thought about the government and BP ‘scaling back’ their operations. This woman’s livelihood will soon be gone as well. Many of the other businesses on Rt. 1 in Grand Isle are already gone. Only the hotels are still full – in fact it was impossible to get a room anywhere in the vicinity. For now. But as the cleanup workers and the military trickle out, I’m afraid so will the livelihoods of the rest of the fine folk of Grand Isle. I ask myself. What will become of them? Where will they go?

At the same time, I am taken aback by the incredible beauty of the place. I didn’t expect that. Driving out through Barataria Bay on a long ribbon of causeway, it seems that the marshes and wetlands stretch on forever. It has the feel of being out at sea, even though the actual coast is many miles away. It’s simply exquisite. It’s not a sweaty dirty swampy place – it’s pristinely beautiful. I can only imagine what a paradise this must have been before the Deepwater Horizon. And even with the environmental disaster that’s befallen this corner of our planet, people were still fishing and casting their nets in the marshes. It’s a mystery to me.

If you were to drive through with your windows closed (not hard in the 98 degree heat), you’d be craning your head to see the booms, the big ships, the waterways – it’s fascinating to see. But in many areas, the minute you open your car window, you are met with the putrid stench of death. It fills your nostrils. Today I actually started back to the car to get my respirator or at least a dust mask against the smell – it was sickening. But I decided to tough it out and walked the shoreline looking for what had died. I never found a thing. Later there were news reports that Grand Isle had suffered a fish kill the night before. In typical ‘Incident Command’ style, it was all cleaned up by morning. But they still haven’t figured out a way to hide that smell. And even now, almost twelve hours later, I can still smell it.

The beach road of Grand Isle is much like many other coastal towns in America. Quaint funky houses on stilts, backed by a low hill covered in sea grass, and on the other side, the ocean. How many times have we, as children climbed such a hill, and at the top of the rise, there it is, like magic - the ocean! But here it's different. When you climb over the hill, you’re hit with a complete assault to your senses. It looks like Iraq. You come over the hill, and there it is – our own, self created hell. Huge trucks rumble by, compressing the sand and leaving their monstrous tracks. Bulldozers push piles of filthy sand into piles for removal. The young military have a look on their faces that is at the same time polite, yet also somewhat ashamed as they tell you 'the rules'. This is what our dependence on oil has reduced us to, and may God forgive us. No photos, no words can accurately convey the shock I experienced today.

As you drive back towards the mainland, there’s a fantastic raised causeway over the marshes that comes down into Port Fourchon, the seaport known as "The Gulf's Energy Connection". The industrial complexes belonging to the big oil companies and the Port Commission spread out over the landscape like a cancer. It feels like they should absolutely not be there, but our hunger for cheap energy demands it. I came away with the deepest feeling I’ve ever had that we must cure our addiction to fossil fuel. It is a blight on our planet and everything about it is an assault – from the burning in my eyes to the ugliness of these huge complexes of steel and smoke spreading out over these beautiful green and blue marshes. We must find a way to stop this. I’ve said that before, but I’ve never truly meant it as much as I do today.

Despite the ugliness & destruction that I witnessed today, somehow through it I could see the America that our forefathers discovered. That pristine continent is clearly gone forever, but we must pull together and make the necessary changes to save at least a glimmer of its beauty for the future children of our ocean planet.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Long Beach Marina ~ Precursor to the Fish Kills?

On August 1, 2010 I took a late afternoon walk on the jetty at the Long Beach Marina in Mississippi. Folks were fishing although the entire marina is still surrounded by booms. As I walked along, the putrid stench of death almost knocked me over. I looked down at the waterline and saw a very large fish lying dead on the rocks. The seagulls swooped down to take a look, but even the crabs wouldn’t touch the carcass. And yet, just a few yards away, people were fishing and casting their nets out into the water. As I watched the scene, I saw two more bodies of the same type of fish drifting towards the shore. Two nights later, a massive fish kill was reported just a few miles away in Biloxi.

Don’t believe what you hear, things are definitely not OK in the Gulf. This week, there have been fish kills reported in four states: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi & Louisiana. And that doesn’t take into account all the fish that die offshore and sink to the bottom. One thing is clear: the scope of this disaster is in its infancy. People here are frightened, angry and stunned. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if this were my home.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bonny Schumaker ~ An angel flying 'On Wings of Care'

On July 31 I had the privilege of meeting pilot, NASA physicist & animal rights activist Bonny Schumaker at Lakefront Airport in New Orleans. Bonnie is founder of ‘On Wings of Care’, a non-profit dedicated to promoting the welfare of domestic animals and wildlife and their habitats by helping with searches, rescues, transports, rehabilitation, and scientific research.

 From November of 2009 until March of this year, Bonny was officer on the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker in the Antarctic. She was onboard the Bob Barker during the infamous sinking of the Ady Gill by the Japanese whaling fleet. She also served as officer for the delivery of the Sea Shepherd ship Steve Irwin to New York in preparation for crossing the Atlantic to defend the lives of endangered blue fin tuna in the Mediterranean this spring.

During this crisis, Bonny has devoted herself to almost daily flights over the Gulf, often operating in the red as not everyone who has a need to fly with her can afford to help her pay for fuel, maintenance and her time. Even before I met Bonny, her generosity, pureness of heart and love of all the planet’s creatures was clear. Meeting her was like stepping into a ray of sunshine.

She struggles daily to reconcile what she sees when she looks down from Bessie, her souped up Cessna 180 plane with what she hears from BP & other officials. As you’ll see in the video, there is still a lot of oil out there. My sources say that when BP and the Coast Guard hear that oil has been sighted in an area, they dispatch their dispersant planes immediately and poof, it’s gone. But we all know – it’s not really gone, is it?

As a child of the sky, Bonny’s mind compares the effect of the dispersant to flying through clouds. “You learn that cumulus clouds can be dangerous to fly through. They can contain hail and high winds, so as a pilot you learn to steer around them. I think of the dispersant as a thick fog that you cannot avoid. You can’t steer (or, if you’re a fish, swim) around the danger. It’s everywhere.”

I showed this video to marine biologist Eric Hoffmayer today. He is studying whale sharks at the University of Southern Mississippi in Ocean Springs (much more on Eric in a future blog). He is also very skeptical of all the ‘good news’ coming out in the media. He did say that the first few shots of ‘blobs of red’ could be crude oil, or they could possibly be sargassum weed. But as the slideshow progressed, what we were looking at was clearly oil and clouds of dispersants.

Bonny described the appearance of the oil from when it comes to the surface. First, the crude oil appears as a bright reddish rusty color. As it ages, it becomes thicker – what they are calling mousse. Once sprayed with dispersant, it looks like clouds in the water. And in the last stage before disappearing completely, it looks like rows of fine bubbles on the water. You’ll see all of these stages in the photos, as well as blackened beaches with tar balls present.

Having seen several videos of Bonny’s flights, such as her flight with Wallace J. Nichols and Chris Pincetich of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, where she flew quite close to the ‘burns’ near Ground Zero, I asked her if she had experienced any toxic health effects from her work. She said yes, describing the classical symptoms, sore throat, hoarseness, and flu symptoms. “And I never ever get sick”, she added.

I then asked if she has come in contact with the oil. She said, yes, she has had to wipe an oily material off of her plane everyday. Since she has been flying over the Gulf during the blowout, the leading edges of her wings and body of the plane get covered with gunk during each flight. I asked if she wears gloves. She said no. Bonny then showed me a rash on her arms and hands. Her hands are red, blistered, chafed and peeling and she hasn’t found anything that will help. They have been in this condition for months.

Bonny is the kind of person who thinks of others – be they animals, humans, or the planet itself before she thinks of herself. She made light of her skin rash, but I was very concerned. The good news is that her afternoon flight that day included marine biologist, Exxon Valdez survivor and toxicologist Riki Ott.

When Riki arrived, the first thing I said to her was, “Please, look at Bonny’s rash and talk to her about it”. You can see a video of Riki in the links on this blog, along with a link to most recent Huffington Post article, where she talks about the risks to public health in the Gulf, and much more. It’s definitely a ‘must read’.

Riki told us that the people washing the clothes of oil cleanup workers have a chemical rash up to their elbows, and the cleanup workers themselves have it up to their knees. And the insurance companies are refusing to pay for treatment, saying that BP is the ‘responsible party’. And of course, BP is calling the rash everything from scabies to staph infections. Every case they can deny responsibility for is dollars in their pocket. It’s criminal.

Also flying that afternoon was Mike Roberts of Louisiana Bayoukeeper. He’s a salt of the earth shrimp fisherman from the heavily afflicted area West of New Orleans. I’ve made arrangements to meet both he and Riki later this week when I drive out through Barataria Bay and Plaquemines Parish to Grand Isle. That’s where local hero Billy Nungesser is from and that’s where the oil is still the worst. I wondered how I’d get out on the water there, I wondered how I would be able to talk with the fishermen and residents out there, and it looks like Mike is my ticket. I look forward to getting to know him and to seeing this disaster through his eyes. He’s one of those guys – when you meet him, you just know that he’s as good as gold.

Samantha Whitcraft from Oceanic Defense and I will be flying with Bonny on August 8th, so stay tuned!