Pictures from a mile deep: Ground Zero of the BP oil leak

September 20, 2010

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in this handout photograph taken on April 21, 2010.  REUTERS/U.S. Coast Guard/Handout

Illustrating a news story with photographs can be much more challenging than simply deploying a talented photographer on site. Sometimes initially identifying where and how the best pictures will be made is a daunting task, let alone getting a photographer there, especially when the subject is spread over thousands of square miles of sea and ground zero is miles offshore and a mile below the surface. No news event in recent memory has been more challenging to cover than the Gulf Coast oil spill due to the nature and dynamics of the story.

Oil is seen on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico as BP tries to stop oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico 55 miles (89 km) south of Port Fourchon, Louisiana May 8, 2010.  REUTERS/Sean Gardner

When it was first determined that the BP well was gushing oil, our coverage efforts for the next several months were focused on oil seen on the surface, oil reaching the hundreds of miles of shoreline, impact on local fishermen and residents and wildlife and clean up efforts.

Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Director P. J. Hahan holds a tri-colored heron after spotting the seriously oiled bird along Queen Bess Island near Grand Isle, Louisiana July 17, 2010.  REUTERS/Sean Gardner

While several talented Reuters photographers documented these aspects of the story, my co-workers and I on the Washington picture desk, with help from our colleagues in Singapore, went 5,000 feet below the surface to illustrate the actual leak and containment, all from the comfort of our desk chair. How? By capturing still images from live video feeds of the seabed operations provided by BP.

A room known as The HIVE is command and control for ROV operations at the incident site, and is located in the Houston Crisis Center at BP Westlake.   Reuters/BP/Handout

Pressured by Congress, on May 21, a month after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig caught on fire; BP began showing on their website live video feeds of oil gushing from a riser on the seabed floor. During the following 4 months while efforts to contain and kill the well were underway, live video feeds could be viewed from up to 16 remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), tethered to and managed by up to 8 surface boats.

A ROV works to cut through the riser pipe at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico in this video image taken from a BP live video feed June 3, 2010.  REUTERS/BP/Handout

A combination photo shows the BP oil leak in images taken from BP live video on May 26, 2010 (top L), June 1, 2010 (top R), July 13, 2010 and on July 15, 2010 (bottom R) after the leak was contained.   REUTERS/BP/Handout

The ROVs carried out all the tasks necessary for containment, giving the viewer of the live feed a front row seat to perhaps one of the largest engineering undertakings ever performed at such depths. As the story as a whole involved so many angles, some of the key turning points to illustrate centered on the progress seen only from the video feeds, from the first view of the leak at the source, to the capping of the well and the first time no oil could be seen gushing from the mechanism.

Work continues as oil leaks from BP's Gulf of Mexico well after the oil containment cap was removed so it could be replaced with a bigger cap, in the Gulf of Mexico, in this frame grab captured from a BP live video feed July 10, 2010.   REUTERS/BP/Handout

The biggest hurdle faced in capturing images from the multiple video feeds was the ability of the computer used for the task. When opening the BP live video site all of the feeds automatically opened at once, causing some computers to crash. Our iMac was able to handle the multiple video feeds with a few minor hiccups. The video feeds opened in individual QuickTime windows, which recorded the feed over several hours and enabled us to review each video for key images without having to constantly monitor the live feeds. Once a key image was identified, it was captured, converted to jpeg and distributed to our clients worldwide.

A screen shot of the iMac while monitoring the live video feeds for capturing still images.  REUTERS

While reviewing several hours of video from the ROVs in just a few minutes on a daily basis, I became intrigued with the tasks performed by the ROVs and their operators: from sawing off the broken pipe in the first days to installing the capping stack on top of the broken BOP, performing the top kill and the eventually successful static kill, monitoring pressure gauges during certain operations, seeing oil leak, seeing no oil leak, maneuvering of multiple tools and components, all while under extreme pressures and darkness of the formidable depths. The video feeds displayed the exact depth in feet among other things, which changed respectively as the ROV moved about or surfaced for maintenance. Other ROVs could be viewed from the eyes of one as they worked and preformed intricate tasks. The precision with which the submersible robots worked on such a grand scale endeavor was both impressive and exciting to watch.

Oil leaks from BP's Gulf of Mexico well after the oil containment cap was removed from so it could be replaced with a bigger cap, in the Gulf of Mexico, in this frame grab captured from a BP live video feed July 10, 2010.  REUTERS/BP/Handout

The innovations undertaken in the operations of the ROVs by the containment team resulted in advanced capabilities for ROVs for spill containment, but unfortunately not without a huge cost in lives, livelihoods and to businesses. Illustrating the story from video a mile deep as it unfolded and eventually came to an end gave us another angle to fully document the story, and has advanced our ability to seek new and innovative ways to provide news pictures to the world.

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