Oil from all angles
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.