Sylvia Earle’s warnings about Gulf deserve prime-time attention

Dolphins (c) Ron Wooten

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle’s warnings about Gulf deserve prime-time attention

By now most of us have seen those feel-good television spots featuring a Louisianan, an Alabaman, a Mississippian and a Floridian, all smiling and boasting good-naturedly about the relative advantages of their home state as a tourist destination. With a clear emphasis on the many pleasures of the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico shared by all.

The object is to draw visitors to spotless beaches and crystal waters, along with historical attractions, golf courses and, of course, food! Endless buffets of mouth-watering dishes served fresh from the bounty of the Gulf.

The message to prospective tourists is that the widely publicized miseries brought by the April 2010 BP spill are a thing of the distant past. A homegrown BP spokesman proclaims that things are better than ever, and urges one and all to come on down!

Crude OIl

The ads are sponsored and paid for by BP, as part of its settlement for the harm caused to these same waters and fragile coastlines by the 2010 Macondo spill offshore Louisiana. And they’re very effective. We’d guess they’ve raised the visibility and favorable images of all four states by a measurable amount.

We don’t for a minute believe that the Macondo spill, which claimed 11 lives and spread its tarry mess across environmentally sensitive areas for hundreds of miles, was a good thing in any way, shape or form. It was a nightmare that must not be repeated.

But we concede the spill may have served one unintended but constructive purpose: raising national and international awareness of the Gulf of Mexico’s many valuable uses – as home for a large and prosperous fishing industry, host to oil and gas rigs that supply 30 percent of our nation’s petroleum needs and not incidentally, as a place of subtle natural beauty that is attractive as a tourist destination.

If our neighbors to the east get an economic boost from the BP ads, and the Gulf itself claims a place in more people’s minds, so much the better. Up to a point.

That point is the one at which we make a 180-degree swivel to embrace the quite different views of oceanographer Sylvia Earle concerning these ads and the larger consequences of selling the Gulf to tourists.

For more than half a century, Earle has served as the conscience of the Gulf. Explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, the diminutive Earle is referred to by her legion of admirers as “Her Deepness,” for both her skills as an intrepid diver and her depth of thought about vital issues such as the long-term health of the Gulf and all of the world’s oceans.

Crude Oil to the Horizon (c) Ron Wooten Photography

If Sylvia Earle had her wish, the tone of BP’s advertising campaign would look and sound quite different:

  • It would make the case for creating a national parks system in Gulf waters that would mirror those inspired on land by the likes of President Teddy Roosevelt and the conservationist/photographer John Muir. During the administration of George H.W. Bush, the small but biologically rich Flower Garden Banks 100 miles south of the Louisiana/Texas border were declared a marine sanctuary, and George W. Bush used his power as president to establish the largest area in the ocean where even the fish have a safe haven around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It is an idea whose time has come.
  • It would de-emphasize gorging on shrimp, tuna, grouper, snapper and other native Gulf species in favor of “fish watching,” a la the bird watching done on the North American flyway on the coast not far from Houston.
  • It would make the case for giving what she calls the Great Blue Engine of the Gulf of Mexico a break from fishing and other extractive activities in special, vital areas. Giving back to the ecosystem that has given us so much.
  • It would showcase the bigger picture: Nearly 60 percent of the freshwater rivers, streams and creeks in North America eventually flow into the Gulf – and that is not always a good thing. Agribusiness in the Midwest on a huge scale has yielded enormous deposits of fertilizer that create seasonal “dead zones” downstream at the mouth of the Mississippi. These dead zones could soon spread as far west as Galveston Bay, harming highly valued recreational and fishing resources in this area.

We could elaborate. But Earle’s reputation speaks for itself. And she speaks ably in defense of the health of the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo: (c) Ron Wooten

Through her work with the National Geographic Society and her association with the Harte Research Institute for the Gulf of Mexico at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, she already has a sizable megaphone with which to communicate needed warnings about the dangers facing our aquatic front porch.

Wouldn’t it make for interesting viewing if BP chose to do a series of commercials featuring Sylvia Earle and some of her warnings about the Gulf?

We think so. In the interests of full disclosure about the problems still facing the Gulf of Mexico, those views deserve the kind of prime-time television platform a BP-sponsored ad campaign would offer. What say, BP?

Originally published (c) Houston Chronicle, Editorial

Supplemental Feature Photo (c) Ron Wooten Photography

Chandeleur Islands – 2011 April 21st

2011 April 21 Thursday (posted 2011 May 05)
Posted Courtesy of ‘On Wings of Care’

Four weeks since we first returned to the Gulf in March 2011, where on our first day of flying we had found vast expanses of subsurface plumes and streamers and some surface sheen extending along the west shores of the Chandeleur Islands, dramatically surrounding a very active rookery on Breton Island, and extending from the shores of Grand Isle, LA southward at least 10 miles and southwestward almost 30 miles. We wondered what we would see today. 
The weather during the preceding week had been windy, and the sea was choppy and murky. We knew we wouldn’t see many animals, but choppy water doesn’t hide the kinds of huge quantitites of crude and crude-dispersant that we documented all last summer and saw again in March of this year.  We were on a tight time constraint for this flight, just 90 minutes.  So I  headed directly to the GPS points I had marked previously in late March as looking the worst.


John Quigley
The shores of the Chandeleurs looked very dirty, with trucks and evidence of dredging work all along that once-pristine and rarely-visited chain of islands and wildlife sanctuary.  But when we reached the southern Chandeleurs and Breton Island, we were upset to see remains of those expansive subsurface sheets of deep red.
Not wanting to create a lot of frustration and anger without having good knowledge of what the stuff we found in March was, we didn’t publish this report right away.  But now, May 5, we are publishing our photos,  for now we have results of laboratory analyses of the waters near Breton Island sampled in late March.  Samples from those subsurface sheets of deep red oily stuff all around Breton Island and along the Chandeleurs were positively identified as BP MC252 (Deepwater Horizon) oil, still showing highly toxic concentrations of polyaromatic nuclear hydrocarbons (PAHs). 
The adult seabirds setting up their nests on this popular rookery have been eating highly contaminated fish here for quite a while, and now they are setting up their nests to raise their young in this toxic environment.
This day was not great for photography.  Clouds were thick and low and there was much moisture in the air.  And in the haste to fly within our short time window, we forgot to bring our polarizing lens. But look closely at these photos, and you’ll see the lines — the lines of deep red, the lines of foam, tragically not the natural lines of rip tides and convergence zones and sandbars.  We also spotted a dead dolphin on the east shore of Breton Island.  The photo did not come out well, but flying low and slow over it left us certain of what we saw.  Who knows how many others there are that have not yet washed up or been seen, and whether we will ultimately be able to understand and prove what caused the many ‘unusual mortality events’ of dolphins and sea turtles in these waters since last spring.
In these photos you’ll also a see a shrimp boat with his nets down, not two miles northeast of the island!  We wondered if he knew what lurked in the waters so close to him.
Special Thanks to
by Dr. Bonny Schumaker

‘A Day of Remembrance’ at Grand Isle

April 24, 2011

~ In Memory of the Victims of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

My return to Grand Isle was far different from what I’d expected. Often referred toas the hardest hit area from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster, Grand Isleclings to the edge of the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana ~ the fastestdisappearing land mass on earth. It was quintessential American beach town with long stretches of white sand beaches until last year when the BP Oil Disaster changed everything.

Tar balls

But as Rocky Kistner of NRDC points out, there is a ‘Parallel Universe’ phenomenon going on at Grand Isle. 

On one hand, there is incredible degradationof the previously powdery sand beaches – most of which is now completely compacted by heavy equipment from cleanup operations. It’s now as hardas pavement. And where it’s not as hard as a rock, your shoes stickin oily gooey muck as you walk. Tar balls litter the beach ranging from almost powder sizedto the size of a large hamburger. When you look out to the Gulf, the waves are opaque and dark brown ~ not clear and blue. And it doesn’t smell one bit like the ocean.

But then you realize that up and down the beach, there arefamilies doing what they have always done. Kids building sandcastles andfrolicking in the waves, in many instances stepping over large rotting redfish or catfish to reach the water’s edge.  I cannot help but wonder –“What are these people thinking?”… and “What health problems will they haveahead of them now?”

Rocky Kistner reported that earlier that day, “Auniformed park ranger packing a 9 mm pistol and a broad-brimmed hat marchedthrough the sand towards us, clearly on a mission. “Excuse me but everyone hereneeds to get off the beach,” he barked. “This beach is closed.”  This, due to tar balls and tar mats that continue to coat the previously sandy beach. 

Later in the day when I arrived, families with their beach chairs & umbrellas dotted the beach and not one officer was present. And no warning signs wereposted whatsoever.

Karen Hopkins,  Jessica Hagan, Darlene Eschete

Beyond this, it is puzzling how parents can be so unaware of the potential hazards in this water that they would allow their kids near it atall. Unfortunately it may be the children who will pay the dearest price, asthey receive a much greater dose of toxins due to their size than the adults.  I question how so many Americans can bury theirheads in this oily sand.

We as Americans are in denial about just how bad this environmental disaster really is. And shame on us as a people for continuing to delay in moving toward alternative energy and to change our lifestyles to lessen our dependence on petroleum. We’re going to pay a heavy price, but the heaviest price, I am afraid will be paid by future generations long after we are gone.

Grand Isle Documentarian Betty Doud
A small but deeply dedicated group of activists attended a rally at this ‘Day ofRemembrance for the Victims of the Deepwater Horizon’. 
But for the most part, onGrand Isle, it was business as usual. Long lines at the Snow Cone stand, peopleswimming, and a baseball game being played on the town field. The dichotomy was striking.  My old and new friends at the rally remarked that most of the residents of Grand Isle don’t want to hear about the oil or protests anymore. They just want things to go back to normal. All they want is to sit in the bleachers and watch their kids play the great American pastime. Just for a while, until Monday comes around again and they face the fact that their lives will never be the same. 

Those businesses that have not closed since my last visit, are barely holding on. Last summer, The Subway, the bars & even the gift shops still had the BP cleanup crews to bring in business. Today there is only a fraction of the number of workers from last summer. Although there are some tourists here, the fishing charter boats are largely without work.

I was surprised to see shrimp trawlers maneuvering in the current by the Route 1 Bridge into Caminada Bay. The water around the boats was black. I wondered if these boats were using TEDs, or Turtle Extrusion Devices, to prevent endangered sea turtles from being drowned in their nets. The situation for the fishermen in the Gulf is serious. There simply are no easy answers to the dilemmas facing the population of the Delta.

And a final word from Mac MacKenzie

Gulf of Mexico Beaches ~ One Year Later

April 18 – 28, 2011

One year after the Deepwater Horizon Disaster began, just a few days of walks on Gulf beaches from Grand Isle to Biloxi, Mississippi produce a haunting set of photographs showing just how deep the toll on marine life has been from the worst environmental disaster in American history. Walk with me and take a few minutes to think about the fate of the Gulf of Mexico. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

House of Blues Benefit ~ Anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster


New Orleans, April 23, 2011

Harmony for Health Benefit

It was a rockin’ night in the French Quarter of New Orleans at the House of Blues & also at Tipitina’s – where celebs & regular folks mixed to raise funds & awareness on the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Spill. Kevin Costner & Modern West rocked the house down with some great country rock and a host of others including toxicologist Dr. Susan Shaw & UC Santa Barbara’s Dr. Ira Leifer shed light on what they believe is still just the beginning of the Gulf’s problems from last year’s blowout.

Captain Paul Watson & Dr. Bonny Schumak
Bonny Schumaker from ‘On Wings of Care’ shared her insights on the ongoing situation in the Gulf. Last summer, Bonny & I landed for fuel at Galliano airport in the Mississippi Delta to wait out a nasty squall, and we were told by several state officials who were also waiting out the storm that they were currently managing 25 active spills – aside from the blowout at the Macondo well.  It seems like this is how it goes on in the Gulf, spill after spill, continuing the degradation of the fragile wetlands and the endangerment of people and animals that get in the way.
In March, Bonny came back to the Gulf, and when she took to the air, she saw what she never wanted to see again. This particular spill had been reported at 5 gallons. This video was taken near the Chandeleur Islands (check out the video here: March Gulf Spill.)  Does this look like five gallons to you?  Bonny’s love for the Gulf has only grown deeper and she took the stage to assure everyone that her commitment continues to be their ‘eyes in the sky’ the Gulf and it’s ecosystems from her beloved Cessna, “Bessie” in every way that she can.
Dr. Susan Shaw & friend Mandy
Captain Paul Watson sported his finest officer’s uniform to honor the Gulf on this first anniversary of the biggest environmental disaster in US history.  The crowd cheered as he painted a vivid picture all earthlings as crew on spaceship earth – an earth that we are damaging in dangerous and possibly permanent ways.  You could feel the passion behind his words ~ the same drive that brings him to the Southern Ocean and around the world to defend animals against human cruelty.

It was a delight to finally meet another true hero for the Gulf, Dr. Susan Shaw. By the time she took the stage later in the evening, folks at the House of Blues had become a bit loud and rowdy, but after just a few minutes of Susan’s heartfelt words, the crowd hushed to listen.  @font-face { font-family: “Cambria”;}@font-face { font-family: “Tahoma”;}p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }A marine toxicologist and executive director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, Maine, she has undertaken a long term study of the Gulf disaster, the Gulf Eco-tox project. As one of the very first people to actually dive into the oil and dispersant filled waters last summer, she knows first hand about the toxins that the Gulf residents have been exposed to. Dr. Shaw is committed to a long term presence in the Gulf, and  being an independent researcher, she has always been able to be truthful and outspoken about her findings.

Dr. Ira Leifer and Robin Young

The crowd cheered as she promised them that she would stand by them for the long haul, and to do everything in her power to ‘make things right’. As much as the people of the Gulf have been lied to,  it was clear that this lady from Maine is truly a force to be reckoned with and a hero who they can trust.

A couple of months back, I attended an Oil Spill Conference at Chevron World Headquarters in San Ramon, California. You can only imagine the level of lies and politics as top oil industry executives from most of the major oil companies took the stage to defend their oil spill management methods – from the use of Corexit to the ‘Burn Box’ man who actually took the podium and admitted that he is a closet pyromaniac. I was horrified, but not surprised.

But on the second day of the conference,  Dr. Ira Leifer took the podium and it was like a breath of fresh air. As NASA’s chief scientist in charge of remote sensing for the oil spill, this guy could be a pie-in-the-sky nerdy scientist living in a world of statistics & satellite images. But no.  Ira is a man with a heart of gold, and after running NASA’s program which included flying planes at 65,000 feet over the spill with incredibly high tech imagery equipment that revealed amazing amounts of information such as the location, direction, speed and composition of the slick, he is now doing case studies of people in the Gulf who have fallen ill as a result of being exposed to toxins.

FEMA trailer outside of the “House of Blues”

And when I asked him who was paying the bill, he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and held it up.  He explained that if we wait for funding to come through for these studies, it will be too late, and we will never know the whole truth.  It’s already late to be getting started, he says, so he’s putting his heart and soul into this project now – when it matters most for the people of the Gulf. And how lucky they are to have this mindful genius on their side! Perhaps my favorite thing about Ira is his ability to communicate at a simple level. After explaining that although people’s symptoms are perhaps subsiding now in some cases, there will be a new wave of serious illnesses in four to five years, as people’s organs show even more serious effects of the toxic exposures.  And after this, he roused the crowd into joining him in a chant of ‘No more bull@&#*’!!!!” Wow.

And I must mention the big draw for the fundraiser – Kevin Costner & his Band, Modern West. He’s just a lowly Academy Award winning movie star, not a rocket scientist like some of the folks I’ve written about today, but he certainly cares a great deal about what’s happening to the people down here.  And they can certainly deliver that old good time music. Having spent considerable time in the Gulf over the years, the place & it’s people have obviously gotten under his skin.  Kevin and the band brought it home and kept the place jumping for hours.

So on days when it seems like nothing will ever be right again in the Gulf (or anywhere else), when we feel sick and tired of it all, it’s good to know that there are people like these who are working hard – and who will always be working hard to help. There ARE angels among us, and these are some of them.