Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How bad is the oil spill? Flight sheds light on magnitude of disaster

How bad is the oil spill? Flight sheds light on magnitude of disaster

Author David Helvarg takes a flight from the shores of Alabama to the site of the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion. What he finds is disturbing.

TAINTED SEA: The shadow of a helicopter passes over oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in waters less than 10 miles off the coast of Grand Isle, La., on June 28. (Photo: Gregory Bull/AP)
Ten years ago I flew out to a BP Deepwater platform in the Gulf of Mexico to report on offshore drilling and was amazed I could see oil rigs all the way to the horizon. Now I’m appalled that from 2,000 feet up I can see heavy oil slicks all the way to the horizon. 
On Monday, June 21, I flew out of Sonny Callahan Airport in Fairhope, Ala., with pilot Tom Hutchings of SouthWing, a nonprofit group whose T-shirt logo reads “Conservation through Aviation.”

Tom is an angular biologist with an MBA who loves to fly. John Wathan, who joined us, shooting photos and video through the open luggage door, is the Hurricane Creek Keeper, a member of Bobby Kennedy Jr.’s environmental group. An ex-construction contractor, John looks more like a former Hells Angel than a tree-hugger with his full white beard and red, white and blue headscarf.

John’s been flying with Tom since the third day after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig sank and the Gulf of Mexico erupted with tens of thousands of barrels of oil per day, creating one of the most devastating eco-disasters in recent history. 
In the days since I’d cut my “Saved by the Sea” book tour short to return to the Gulf, I’d been visiting oiled beaches, oiled pelicans, oil-soaked wetlands and the Louisiana Incident Command Center at a BP facility outside Houma where private security guards made me erase a digital photo of the building (I re-shot it from a public road). Scientists I know in Mississippi and Alabama both had the same reaction when I called them, laughing and saying they heard from me only during disasters (I’d last visited them after Hurricane Katrina).
We take off behind a Coast Guard Sentry aircraft and are quickly 1,000 feet over Mobile Bay.
“I’ve got some color, I got red in the bay,” John reports from the back of the plane, looking down where some oil appears to have floated in despite the bay’s freshwater outflow that has kept most oil at bay and off the state’s beaches until this week. Two miles out we spot our first wind-drift streaks of oil. 12 miles out the oil becomes more pronounced like the speckled fat in marbled meat. 
“The water looks so unnatural the way the light comes off it now. It’s a dull yellow rather than shiny and sparkly reflections,” Tom notes.  He’s been flying these waters for 30 years. 
“It’s flattened out the white caps [small waves],” John points out. “It’s like someone stretched Saran Wrap down on top of the water.”
Oil everywhere
We spot a school of fish splashing and breaking the surface in the oil. “We’re in heavy now,” John says 17 miles offshore, though in fact the orange oil streaks and coppery patches will grow thicker. By 30 miles off the coast, oil is everywhere. There are dozens of shimmers of purple oil that seem to sink downward into the sea, a possible effect from the millions of gallons of Corexit dispersant that have been sprayed over this stretch of ocean.
“I get more and more pissed off every time you bring me out here,” John says to Tom. “Check it out!” 
“And we’re still 60 miles from the source,” Tom responds on his mike.
There are serpentine rivers of flat rainbow colors and ribbons of thick syrupy orange/black “product.” The dull purple-colored oil looks like bruised water. We pass our first rigs and a plane flies too close underneath us.
“Most rotary wing traffic [helicopters] stay below 1,000 [feet]” Tom tells me. For most of the flight we see no skimmer boats or “vessels of opportunity,” as they call the shrimp boats, workboats, recreational cabin cruisers and other vessels that have been hired by BP and re-outfitted for oil skimming.
We soon spot pillars of dark smoke to the northwest around the same time I see a pair of shrimp trawlers towing a line of yellow boom strung in a crescent bow between them. 
A few minutes later we’re watching the three smoky burns on one side of the plane and sargassum streaked with oil on the other side. This free-floating seaweed acts as habitat for small fish and attracts larger predators and endangered sea turtles as well. There have been reports that BP has set off “burn boxes” that have killed sea turtles and other critters that they failed to clear before torching the oil. Right now they’re conducting 10-16 burns a day, including three more we now see being lit off and beginning to burn with heavy oily smoke and orange flame on the water. 
Dolphins, bigger creatures swim, die in the muck 
I’m staring at a canal of green water through the big jigsaw pieces of coppery oil thinking the clearing must have been produced by skimmers. Just then John reports seeing something breach below. “That was bigger than any dolphin.”   
Then we spot a pod of dolphins in the middle of the oil.  “They’re right off the wingtip,” Tom says.
John is hunched in back shooting stills through his big lens. “I got a dead one. Godda*n it!” 
I count nine dolphins before the plane banks off to the left. Through the pillars of dark smoke, fire and gray haze on the water I spot a complex of workboats, ships and rigs with two torches of fire flaming off them. It’s “the source.” 
“Got another one,” Tom announces. “Too big to be a dolphin.” Later, looking at John’s photos we’ll confirm it’s a sperm whale swimming through the slick.   
From the front right seat I spot orange flames where another fire is being set on the water.
We get closer to the ships and rigs, including the Enterprise that’s collecting 15,000 barrels of oil a day and the Q-4000 rig that’s burning 9,000-10,000 barrels a day, putting massive amounts of soot and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, skipping the middle man, the autos and trucks we drive. A diesel smell infiltrates our aircraft 1,000 feet up.  
“Dolphins on the left.  Get out of here Godda*n it!” Tom shouts.
I count over 30 this time.  
Fires on the ocean
We do a photo run over the dolphins and then circle the source with its relief well rigs and big ships and helicopters taking off from the Enterprise and fireboats directing torrents of water at the burning flares, and as we circle, the flat sea gives off strange reflections of flame, smoke and sky distortions I’ve never seen before, like a funhouse mirror and a rainbow haze drained of all color. 
We pass over a dozen more dolphins in thick oil only 9 miles from the source. Like the last dolphins they seem to be lolling at the surface rather then leaping forward together as you’d normally spot them.   
“There’s more on the left. It’s like Jonestown, man!” Tom exclaims.
“It’s like they don’t know,” John says. 
“Their home’s dying and they’ve decided to check out. They’re drinking the water like those people in the jungle,” Tom explains his Jonestown reference. “They’re dying.” 
“When I was a little boy I’d watch the dolphins in our bow wake on the way to Ship Island [in Mississippi].  They were my friends. It’s heartbreaking,” John says, needing to verbalize what we’re all feeling.
“That’s the most dramatic thing I’ve seen flying out here for 60 days” Tom adds. “Just seeing the death.  I mean we lost 11 people out here [on the BP Deepwater Horizon when it exploded] but those humans who died made a choice. They assumed the risks of their work. These boys [the dolphins] have no choice.”   
Birds and booms
We fly on to the Chandeleur Islands that were shredded by Katrina and were then the first landmass to be hit by BP’s oil. We spot more shrimpers with booms but no collecting barges for the oil they gather. We fly over lots of birds on the wildlife refuge and random booms placed around the islands without any discernable order — there’s yellow boom on parts of the green and sand islands, then a few hundred yards of red boom, then oiled sand at the end of one island, then guys in hard hats on the beach.
“BP,” John says like a curse.
Just north of the natural islands we spot a dark mud island maybe 4 acres in total with half a dozen bulldozers pushing more mud around and a big dredging barge nearby. This is the beginning of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s big (if not credible) idea to build hundreds of miles of artificial barrier islands to protect the state. 
“That don’t make sense,” John says, looking down at the dredge spoil island likely to wash away in the next storm.   
“Tell me what you’ve seen today that makes sense,”  Tom responds.
We fly on past Horn Island and see bull sharks chasing fish in the shallows just off the beach, and also some rays. News reports suggest that as oil eating bacteria begin to suck the dissolved oxygen out of the offshore waters, more fish are moving inshore where the oxygen levels can still sustain them.
We fly over a few more islands, and then on our return to Mobile spot an oil slick 1 mile off the eastern shoreline with its upscale private homes and jutting wooden piers before making our final approach to the airport runway.
“Uh oh,” Tom says as we’re about to land. We jibe right and left before the 1,800-pound plane makes a smooth landing on the asphalt. “Tail winds,” Tom says with a sheepish grin. Small planes are kind of risky and that’s understandable.
What’s not understandable is the risks we continue to take trusting our energy choices and our public seas to oil companies like BP.
David Helvarg is an author and president of the Blue Frontier Campaign (, a marine conservation group. His latest book is "Saved by the Sea – A Love Story with Fish.’" (St. Martin’s, 2010).


  1. Ive been following your blog since the start.
    Thanks for your report on KO tonight. Most have suspected the awful truth, and what youve seen and filmed confirms.

    It is beyond heartbreaking.


  2. Tremendous work you're doing here. This information and these images are not getting out to us nearly as much as it should.

    Keep it up!

    Jim H.

  3. I saw you on Keith Oberman and would love to have you join me on my radio show. Please message me if you would be interested. I would love to have you share with my listeners what is really going on out there.
    Thank you so much for what you are doing.. it's important.

    Donna DeVane

  4. Saw you on Keith Olbermann's show. Thanks for your dedication to our ecosystem.

  5. I was a resident of Santa Barbara county,and a high school student, during the 1969 horror. It took years for me to get those images of dead and dying mammals and fowl out of my nightmares. I know the odds of most of the animals living through this is slim and none..they were then, and they are the same now.

    I am having those nightmares again thanks to the gusher in the gulf.

  6. Your video posted on a popular Boston area website UniversalHub here:

  7. Our complacency with this international disaster is astounding. It's time to seal the leaks far below the bottom of the Gulf, and here's how:

  8. The media is doing a piss poor job of covering this, thanks for getting the info. out. It is so devastating, but people need to know the true extent of this.

  9. The video was sad and sobering....and probably the most effective reporting I've seen on this disaster by anyone.

    Thank you for your dedication, for telling the truth, and pulling no punches.

  10. Thank you for documenting what is happening. I hope it helps somehow. I don't understand why more isn't being done to stop this.

  11. Thanks for all the hard work. I only wish the "professional" journalists did as thorough a job as you.

  12. Me, too...saw you on Keith Olbermann. Keep up the good work!!!

  13. Thank you for sharing these incredible visuals of the Gulf. It's disturbing, yet we need to see the truth of what's really occurring. I look forward to following you.

  14. ty for you effort it takes a heart of steal to shoot video let alone watch it,im so sad it makes me cry evryday plz keep the peeps informed you should go on kieth oberman once a week to give us the truth i will donte so you can continue your work ty very much

  15. I've visited the gulf many times and love the beauty and wildlife that only this area has. Is there any way to warn the dolphins. Their sounds and signals must have been extensively studied since they have been used to help humans in the past. Could anyone create a signal travels quite a distance.

  16. Are you supporting Marco Rubio???? I see his ads all over this site. He's a supporter of offshore oil drilling and has not come out strong against this oil spill whatsoever. Perhaps you should rethink this. Thanks

  17. visit to share your stories and experiences -- bp is covering up their activities in the gulf, please help us get the story out!

  18. I noticed that there was an ad for a Ford-F150 truck on your site. Do you control the ads on your site. If not I think a disclaimer would be in order about who or what advertises here.

    Otherwise I have not seen reporting like this from any of the news media.

    Keep up the good work.

    I have have posted a link to this site on my blog and also the current video from YouTube.

    The entire world needs to see this.

  19. Can we have the Planet of the Apes speech at the end in front of the fallen Liberty of Statue on the beach?

    Thank you for the heartbreaking work you do.


  21. Moxnews on youtube has your interview posted too.
    Many of us are doing all we can to get your info out there = thank-you Again !!!!

  22. Sonia,
    No I do not support Marco Rubio. This is a free site and I do not get to control ads.

  23. Monyetotac,
    I do not control ads. It is a free site.

  24. Donna DeVane
    I do not have a contact for messaging you.
    e-mail me at
    I would like to come on your show.

  25. Possibly worst than Pearl Harbor, SOS for the 11 lost on rig and the untold future human toll this will bring as well as the animal and plant life along with earth's food chain. Why has this not been the #1 story in media. Need's to be played and replayed on multiple sources as people don't realize the magnitude. Deeply saddening. Thank you hccreekkeeper and all others that care, SOS, SOS, SOS!

  26. John, heartbreaking but very good work again.

  27. Thank you. Thank you for doing this work. Thank you for going against the BP spin machine. I am in Mobile, and the latest video broke my heart. Such a crime has been done in our water, and thanks to people like you at least the people can learn what's actually at stake.

  28. Excellent work on the video and the media should be tried for treason for not reporting thoroughly on this national ecological disaster. It amazes me how our elected officials have turned their heads to the severity of this crisis. Our President told the people in the Gulf that things would be back to normal in 2 years. What?! This may not return to normal in our grandchildren's lifetimes. Corporate Greed and decades long political corruption are the responsible culprits in this disaster. It's heart breaking.

  29. Did you notice that during the dolphins struggling to swim through petroleum video the Google ads ask us to "Invest in Oil & Gas Wells." I took some screen shots of the video as the ads cycled through their offerings and posted them on my blog.

  30. Unutterably horrifying. Thank you for your dedication to documenting this catastrophe.

  31. This well needs to be taken away from BP. Obozo should say to the world that whoever can stop the gusher can have the well. Now it comes out that this oil field is the second largest in the world?!!
    Gas should be 10 cents a gallon here in the states but the Bankers and oil companies are outright lying about "peak oil".

  32. What happened is so sad and one unique one among many disasters that has ever hot the natural ecosystem.there are many lives that are dead and many that are sure to die and I don't know what best can be done to clean this up.

  33. Being a native Mississippian, I sincerely appreciate your work, Sir. Please keep reporting this as the media is certainly being bought off to not show the extremeness of what is going on.

    And meanwhile, a huge supertanker that could skim millions of gallons gets told to simply 'wait' while the 'government decides' on whether or not to 'allow' it to work. Just one more example on how this government that is supposed to be FOR THE PEOPLE is nothing anymore than a farce.

    We as citizens need to TAKE BACK WHAT WAS OURS! In closing, I wish to quote Thomas Jefferson:

    "God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion.
    The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is
    wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts
    they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions,
    it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. ...
    And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not
    warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of
    resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as
    to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost
    in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from
    time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
    It is its natural manure."

    I think it's time People. We need a citizens revolt; a Revolution against big government and fat, greedy corporations who care for nothing but their quarterly statements!!!

  34. Hi-I posted on the other blog. I live here on the Gulf in Fl. Bp is training people for clean up two counties above mine. We all enjoy the gulf and the Sponge trade. But I was in the medical field and our Power Supply comes from a Plant with a Water canal inlet that cools the turbines. What is going to happen when it gets plugged with oil-No Power! There are thousands of patients here local to me that need power for oxygen-nebulisers and many other things to survive.

  35. To Anonymous: My guess is that a canal would be a pretty simple fix to make it so the oil will not impede your operations. I'm more than certain you have people on your staff already working on making a "filter" and the entrance of your canal to prevent oil from messing up your turbines. Now go back and check on your patients and r-e-l-a-x. It'll be ok.

  36. Father Alan KapronJuly 5, 2010 at 10:10 AM

    I almost hesitate to thank you; the images of the horror of your video are burned into my memory. As I watched it kept on recurring to me the incredible number of safety violations BP has had in recent years and how all the evidence seems to point to their utter disregard for the potential disaster that such an event could have. It's egregious beyond words and I can't imagine that even the deep pockets of BP will be enough to even begin to compensate and remedy this onslaught of our gulf. We have been entrusted with dominion over this world; we should hang our heads low. Thank you and I pray that this teaches us many lessons.
    Father Alan

  37. About time someone showed the truth instead of the propaganda. Thank you, thank you, thank you...

  38. If great moral indignance cannot swell the masses to cause change then our children, and generations to come, will inherit our moral fiber.
    It serves us Americans no purpose to rise against the minority tide and expel our dearly elected officials. It serves us contrary to our static positions as office workers, doctors, construction workers, nurses, judges, teachers, homemakers, biologists, cooks, etc. The generation of such a revolution would require us to forego our ballgames; our mortgages; our fast food restaurants, our legal system; our credit card payments; our 8 o'clock viewing of American Idol, our weekly sojourn to the nail salon, strip joint, casino and local tavern; our iPads, thinkPads, cell phone bills; our 9 to 5 cubicly induced head traumatizing jobs; our urgency in paying off the vastly inflated student loans, etc..etc...etc....
    Is The vision is starting to pierce your mind??

    There is a reason people don't hold our elected officials fully accountable, as our Constitution gives us the right - Because Jane X has to pick up her daughter from soccer practice. She doesn't have time for civic responsibilty. Mr. and Mrs. JOnes don't have time to bother with writing their senator - they have car payments, mortgages, and tuition costs to consider paying.
    As the political efficacy in this country dwindles so millions of gallons of oil continue to paint the Gulf of Mexico with massive ribbons of crude sluge. As we become more despondent of the turtle's pace at which job recovery our leaders enjoy an extend weekend holiday not having resolved the unemployment extension dillema.
    we have become so jaded, cynical, and static towards government that we only hope, anticipate, and expect change ONLY on election nights.
    Lest we forget we have some of the richest (culturally and technilogically) institutions, brighthest minds, and biggest & kindest hearts (collectively speaking)- i mean when Haiti, Indonesia, Mexico, or some other nation experiences some traumatic event are the Americans always at the forefront of helping? -
    Because really, what are we going to do when all the oil dries up? One day it WILL all be gone.
    WE seem to really respond to the heart of matters only after there has been a sudden or violent crisis. Give us Americans slow, static, and decaying conventionality and we're ok.
    Please change, Please?
    mike r


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