Oil from all angles

June 1, 2010

From the moment the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico made headlines, Reuters has provided extensive coverage. Below are accounts from six of our photographers who have been sent at various times to document the story.


Reuters photographer Lee Celano photographs oil in a marsh near Pass a Loutre, Louisiana, May 20, 2010.  REUTERS/Matthew Bigg

Covering the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster as a still photographer for Reuters has brought unique challenges. Although the volume of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico is huge, relatively small patches of oil have landed along coastal Louisiana. It’s like a monster who hides most of the time and lashes out quickly, withholding its full strength. But it has been important to show that oil is in fact having an ecological impact here, and to find areas with visible proof.

On Thursday May 20, I accompanied a Reuters TV crew, correspondent Mathew Bigg and Maura Wood of the National Wildlife Federation on a boat, looking for heavy concentrations of oil in an area at the very southern tip of Louisiana. We headed for an area which had just begun being inundated with oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak. After hours of searching, a broken propeller, and an unexpected lunch aboard a work barge, we had found the spot. As Wood prepared to take a sample of the water to check its toxicity, I suited up in chest waders and slowly got into the murky water, one camera and lens stuffed into my waiters. Maneuvering in the soft lagoon floor was tricky; I sank down as I tried to walk and was concerned I might loose my balance and get myself and camera wet. So I held onto the drifting boat long enough to get into position, cautiously letting go so I could have both hands free to shoot. Wood leaned over to get samples and I was able to shoot it from from the perspective of the oily water.

Maura Wood, Senior Program Manager, Coastal Louisiana Restoration for National Wildlife Federation takes a sample of water in a heavily oiled marsh near Pass a Loutre, Louisiana May 20, 2010.   REUTERS/Lee Celano

The last task of the day was washing oil from the hull of the boat, at the request of owner/captain Carey O’Neil. We wanted to avoid going through decontamination, so I scrubbed the sides in the water with Dawn.


Photographer Brian Snyder rides in the US Army National Guard blackhawk.  REUTERS/Nick Cangemi/Handout

The first thing I realized upon arriving in Mobile, Alabama as a part of Reuters’ coverage of the BP oil spill is that Alabama has a lot of coastline on the Gulf. Whenever I was in one place, I was always thinking “what if there’s something going on somewhere else?” Twice I flew out over the Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana coastline, once with the environmental group Mobile Baykeepers and once with the US Army National Guard. From that vantage I could really see just how long a shoreline was at risk. Oil booms surrounded some of the barrier islands and portions of the coast, but at times their placement seemed random. Forecasts of the path of the oil changed constantly and dramatically; one day the oil was projected to hit Alabama within the next 48 hours, the next morning it was projected to head west towards Louisiana.

Beach goers sunbathe behind a wall of hay bales, used to absorb any oil that might come ashore, on Dauphin Island, Alabama May 11, 2010.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder

As it turned out, Dauphin Island in Alabama was the first place with human habitation where any oil came ashore, in the form of tar balls washing up on the beach. This provided some of the most incongruous images I made while covering the story. The beaches were never closed or evacuated, so what I saw was beachgoers sitting on the beach and swimming, watching as clean-up crews wearing hazardous materials suits, gloves and boots combed the beach picking up suspected tar. Some beachgoers seemed unnerved by the sight, but others continued what they were doing as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Children played in the surf, with their parents watching, as the crews worked their way along the beach.

Three year-old Morgan Edmonds plays in the surf as a clean-up crew combs the beach on Dauphin Island, Alabama May 10, 2010, two days after tar balls washed up onshore.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder


Greenpeace Marine Biologist Paul Horsman surveys oil pooled between reeds and brush on the shoreline of the east bank in the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana May 17, 2010.  REUTERS/Hans Deryk

The first day we saw more than a few drops of oil or “oil balls” on the beach was while I was with Greenpeace marine biologist Paul Horseman, touring an area with other journalists in the mouth of the Mississippi River where it meets the Gulf of Mexico in the South Pass. Although we had discovered a large amount of oil deposits washed up on shore earlier in the day, we were forced by the U.S. Coast Guard to leave before we could get off the boat. This had been a frustration for days with covering such a large area and not really seeing any significant signs of the spill evident on shore.

Oil drips from the rubber gloves of Greenpeace Marine Biologist Paul Horsman as he shows oil deposits wrapped around rope on the breakwater in the mouth of the Mississippi River where it meets the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana May 17, 2010.    REUTERS/Hans Deryk

Later in the afternoon after returning from the breakwater area we came upon an area that funnels water from the Gulf into a marsh area. Once getting out of the boat we discovered the most significant amounts of oil to date there. Two days later several other media groups, as well as the Louisiana governor, toured the area to find more oil inside the coastal marshes. It’s startling when you finally see for yourself the damage and realize it is only the beginning.

The following day we were finally taken out to the spill site by BP, a trip they had postponed a number of times since the previous week, forcing me to remain in the area. Heading out on the two hour-plus trip covering approximately 60 miles out into the Gulf we weren’t sure what we would encounter. About 20 miles from the site we realized that there was barely any sign of marine life or birds in open water which had been closed off to unauthorized air and boat traffic. You could already see the tell-tale trails of dispersed oil on the surface as we continued our journey. It was an ominous sight once we got to the site and were given permission to come within 500m of the main drilling rig and the developmental drill ships drilling relief wells. You could actually smell and taste the oil as it hung in the air and churned like soup in the water from the wake of our boat. That’s when the magnitude and scope of the disaster really hit me. Until I could smell and taste it in the air, it had been an elusive subject. The press boat that I was on was eerily silent as all of us recorded what was before us.

Dispersed oil floats on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico waters close to the site of the BP oil spill as Discoverer Enterprise drill ship looms  on the horizon approximately 42 miles off the coast of Louisiana May 18, 2010.    REUTERS/Hans Deryk

Although I have only covered the story for the past week and several of our staff had been there for weeks ahead of me, what I was left with was the fact that the region is just getting back on its feet from the storm and fallout from Hurricane Katrina. This sentiment was echoed by many of the people I talked with through the days in the region — the shrimpers, the fish wholesalers, the restaurant owners in New Orleans. There is a resilience in their faces and their eyes. But as one shrimper explained to me on an early morning visit to a marine dock: “At least with a storm, we could put our boats upriver, save what we could and rebuild if we had to. There is always a beginning and an end to a storm With this disaster, we have no idea what the future holds for us. We could be shut down any day, and it could be years before we can fish the area again. This is all I know.”


Photographer Sean Gardner shoots from the air.  REUTERS/Stringer

It’s hard to grasp the severity of the situation until you see it first hand. Friends would call me a pretty optimistic person but my days of keeping the faith are now few and far between. On Friday, May 21, 2010, I was sent down to Grand Isle, Louisiana, a small fishing community lined with fish camps and sandy beaches located on the Gulf of Mexico, about two and half hours southwest of New Orleans. I met up with reporters Katharine Jackson and Sebastian from Reuters TV to do a ride along with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Our first objective for the day was to patrol the beach by four-wheeler looking for any animals that may be in distress. Within fifteen minutes of our arrival on the beach we found a dead Northern Gannet, lying face down in the sand covered in oil.

A dead Northern Gannet covered in oil lies along Grand Isle Beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana May 21, 2010.   REUTERS/Sean Gardner

Throughout this ordeal I’ve ran scenarios in my head about what I may encounter, with the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989 as a reference. I was eleven. So far away and unaffected by the damage, I put that moment out of site and out of mind and lived my life as a young, immature boy. The Friday on Grand Isle marked another growth spurt in my life. After documenting what we had seen, we traveled up and down the beachfront. Stretching over five miles, the beach was covered in gelatin oil droplets ranging from a few spots on the beach to thick pools of oil. While riding along I kept thinking to myself, “there is no way anyone or anything can live in this”. Keep in mind this was only the beginning of my day.

After a quick break, we were out again. This time by boat traveling with our specialist from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. We began to travel southwest out into the Gulf of Mexico. At first there were no signs of oil. I began the revert back to my previous thoughts while desperately clinging to my senseless optimism that the situation was isolated to only this area. Reality check. Within five miles from the Grand Isle coastline we ran into ribbons of oil. Sebastian and I immediately began to work to document the area. Oil splashed up alongside the boat and the smell permeated the air. The viscosity of the oil mixed with orange dispersant covered the waves while debris clung to the edge of each ribbon. We traveled down this ribbon for than a mile then jumped to the next. Only five miles separated us from the Grand Isle shoreline. Being a Louisiana native and visiting these areas from time to time I am now very much aware and fearful of what lies ahead.

Oil is seen in the water along Grand Isle Beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana May 21, 2010.  REUTERS/Sean Gardner


Photographer Rick Wilking covers the oil spill from a Blackhawk. REUTERS/Soren Larson

I’ve spent a lot of time in the gulf covering hurricanes but it was weird going down there from my home in Denver not to cover death and destruction but to be on a beach and watch for an oil slick.

Driving up and down the Mississippi coast waiting for the oil proved futile so I chartered a fishing boat (that was idled by the fishing waters being closed) and went out almost 40 miles to the Louisiana barrier islands. The seas were so rough that one wave broke the seat I was on right off the transom of the boat so that I had to stand up through the 6 foot swells. Think of riding a roller coaster standing up – for 2 1/2 hours hours straight!

Once there the oil that had been seen on the islands the day before had mysteriously disappeared. We now know the heavy oil was surfacing and sinking randomly. We motored around for awhile and bumped into the slick by accident, not on the island beaches but at sea. A line of bright orange partially-dispersed oil appeared. It was about 20 feet wide and stretched as far as the eye could see. It was eerie to see it lurking out there like it was an organism deciding what to do and where to go.

A band of oil from the BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana floats in the water near Freemason Island May 7, 2010. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

On another day I rode a U.S. Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter to watch them try to block a beach inlet and finally flew over the site of the original spill on a Coast Guard surveillance plane. Once in the air you realize that as big as the slick is, the ocean is bigger, much, much bigger and you felt there was a chance that this catastrophe might not be as a bad as some thought. I think it will be decades until we really know.

Will Hill (L), and Kenneth Jones (C), both captains and owners of commercial fishing boats, listen to a BP contractor lead a class in BP's "Vessel of Opportunity" program in Biloxi, Mississippi May 5, 2010. The program trains boat operators in treating the oil spill still offshore. REUTERS/Rick Wilking


Photographer Carlos Barria walks on Chandeleur Islands, Gulf of Mexico.  REUTERS/Matt Bigg

During the 10 days I was covering the oil spill in southern Louisiana I had very few opportunities to see the direct effects of the rig disaster. We were stationed in Venice, more than 90 miles from the platform, and the oil hadn’t yet arrived in significant amounts along the Gulf Coast. It was a story that required a lot of patience.

Besides the distance, we had to contend with restrictions imposed by authorities that limited our access to areas where we could photograph oil that was coming ashore, which made my job as a journalist extremely frustrating. Even the fishermen who were contracted by BP to contain the spill were prohibited from speaking to the press.

It’s hard to grasp the impact of this spill in the immediate aftermath. I think first, we’ll see the economic fallout, but my impression is that the damage to the environment will emerge slowly and will be devastating. My hope is that one day, as a society, we’ll reflect on our own responsibility in this story, and on our dependence on oil. Today BP is at fault, but until we change our attitude towards energy consumption, we risk more nightmares like this one.

A man holds a plastic bag with oil from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill south of Freemason Island, Louisiana May 7, 2010.   REUTERS/Carlos Barria


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1st of all, excellent photos. They are awesome! In regards to your article, this spill is not due to the fact of our energy reliance on oil. The facts on why this spill has happened has yet to be released. Petroleum cannot be blamed like people cannot blame a gun for a gunshot wound. Petroleum has given you the freedom to get your photos with gasoline or diesel for boats, protective equipment (gloves, suits), and has provided a plastic bag to take water samples on your last photo. Reality is we rely on petroleum not only for energy but for countless other things too.

Posted by LookAtAllAngles | Report as abusive

I’ve read the accounts and I commend all of you for the hard work, the risks to your health, and for the honesty of your reporting and photo journalism.

But your job is only just beginning. You must know this, right? This time stay. You must be our eyes, you must force your editors to let you remain, to document and keep us focused on how this must be the beginning of the end of deregulation and the raping of our planet, our workforce, and our children’s future.

What troubles me is that some of you will not protest your dispatch to the next assignment. You have control over this, as a group of journalists, if you leave—we won’t know the true magnitude of this evil. You must promise you will continue to return and demand full access to the ruins.

As a lone journalist, maybe you feel powerless, but as a group, you must also make the story about the accountability of the boardrooms of the nations largest news organizations. They own this disaster as much as BP.

When they’ve made you leave the previous disasters or forbid your return to document the previous devastation cycles of other disasters, they became part of this story.

The “news cycle” is artificial. That these assignments end too quickly is the biggest untold story of the gulf. For many of you the assignment might already be ending. This is not acceptable. And this is the issue that must really be our learning opportunity. Because nothing, absolutely nothing about the gulf crisis is new. This is actually a very stale news story.

The very same crowd who brought us the Silver Valley, Libby, the Exxon Valdez, Hanford, Butte and the contamination spreading throughout the Intermountain West courtesy of energy and mineral extraction industry is the same executive teams and management philosophies dominating the board room of BP.

The stagnation of the press is part of this story.

When the press leaves, often the actual story, the devastation, is only really beginning to gets legs.

The press left Libby Mt long before all the residents that will certainly die from the atrocities of the Grace Corporation even became ill. The mining company, with executives knowing all along the toxic nature of their product, actually supplied their contaminated fill material to the school district for playgrounds and baseball fields.

But your assignment ended. You won’t be around for the sorrow that lies ahead of all the children of the miners who just because they played on those fields while their parents worked in the mines, will also die.

The press won’t be around for the endless funerals and the slow agonizing deaths that extend into the future for decades.

Your assignment ended in Butte, MT. But the tragedy was only getting started. This amazing place, is the beginning of the story of our lives in the Northwest, for this is the headwater for the Black River, which becomes the Clark Fork, which becomes the Pend Oreille, which becomes the Columbia.

Our dear Columbia River is the canary warning of what would befall the Mississippi Delta. The Columbia Watershed in parts, is so endangered and laced with toxins, bearing multiple front page news stories from previous decades, that the true contaminaiton and ruin is beyond our comprehension. In some cases, known science is not advanced enough to mitigate the contamination.

At the headwaters to the Columbia, when Swans land in Butte, MT, in the same waters that serve as the cemetaries for the tailings for the mining industry, they die.

Another tributary of the Columbia, the Spokane is so laced with heavy metals, that signs warn anglers, do not consumer the fish caught here. These signs are the tombstones of the devastation that befell Idaho’s Silver Valley, another EPA superfund clean up site, generatons ago.

And then there is Hanford, the nations biggest scientific unknown. And the radioactive toxins there will impact the nation just as the oil washing up on the beaches of the gulf visibly alarm us. A former engineer for CHM2 Hill told me a decade ago, that radioactive contamination had already reached the Columbia River.

But you’d aleady left. Reassigned.

Just so your still paying attention, the Columbia is a river systems= that provides irrigation water for much of the nation’s crops. Think Cherries, apples, peaches, plums, beans, legumes, and potato’s. Think french fries and hashbrowns and tator tot’s. Think Onions and alfalfa consumed by cattle. The contamination goes from the river to the irrigated hay crops to the cattle that saunter in for milking, and the cylce is such, that water moves through water will eventually wind up in the milk produced by dairies and the hamburger of the Big Macs born from meat packing plants.

But you left these disasters. And like in the gulf, much of the area impacted, is also now off limits.

Which is the biggest story of all: Water is our planets circulatory system, our blood. And yet, we allow and tolerate the corporations and governmental agencies the right to deny access to what will eventually circulate throughout the planet. Endlessly.

This time, you can not leave.

We beg you, stay. Document the story, even when our attention drifts, just as some of you kept coming back to the devastation of Katrina, you must remind us of the poisoning of our planets blood.

As they say in AA, keep coming back—it works. And that if its worth doing, its worth overdoing. And what you document, is among the most worthwhile endeavers of a lifetime.

God Bless you all.

Posted by cowboyup | Report as abusive