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 an 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!