As my 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.