The Birds of British Petroleum

Five years after the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, the author of The Tarball Chronicles grabs his binoculars and returns to the scene of the slime.

Uncertainty was king five years ago in the Gulf of Mexico, from the moment the BP Deepwater Horizon rig blew, killing 11 men, and for the next 87 days, as hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil spewed into the Gulf. By late June I had grown sick of other people telling the story, so I picked up an assignment from an environmental magazine and headed off to see the disaster for myself. For the next month I toured the tar-balled coasts, hitched a helicopter ride with the Cousteau film team to see the rig and the giant oil slicks, and talked with local fishermen and politicians while observing the media circus that I was part of. Traveling along the marshes and barrier islands, I had the deep sense that no one knew what the hell was going on: not BP, not the government, not the scientists, not the media, not the stunned locals, and certainly not those who captained the cleanup boats, the Orwellian-named “Vessels of Opportunity.”

After weeks in the Gulf, I was feeling somewhat hardened to the catastrophe, but something cracked when I visited the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, a kind of avian MASH unit on the front lines. There I stared into the eyes of the very symbol, even the cliché, of the spill. The Brown Pelican that gazed back at me from inside its cell of a plywood box had wings still dark with oil. Face-to-face with this bird, I was struck by the deal we had made as a culture and a society, surrendering animals and destroying their habitat, all so we could keep living exactly as we like.

Even before the BP disaster, the Gulf was a region of neglect. We certainly have not treated it like a spot that deserves to be studied, which would have been helpful. Many scientists say it’s practically impossible to determine what the state of the Gulf ecosystem is now because we didn’t know what it was then. As John Dindo, senior marine scientist at Alabama’s Dauphin Island Sea Lab, puts it, “Without that baseline data, you are pulling things out of your ass.”

For offshore birds in particular, the amount of monitoring data is “mind-numbingly sparse,” according to Chris Haney, chief scientist for Defenders of Wildlife, who previously studied how the Exxon Valdez spill affected birds and who last year published a paper that attempted to offer an estimate of the BP spill’s cost to regional birdlife. “The Pacific Coast is well studied, while the Atlantic, by contrast, is kind of an orphan. But if the Atlantic is an orphan, then the Gulf is like a baby abandoned on the church steps.”

By all accounts, the picture of what’s happened to the wildlife in the Gulf remains as murky as the oily waters of Barataria Bay, where I watched dolphins swimming at the height of the spill. As I learned then, it’s best to see things for yourself. So earlier this year I threw my binoculars and bird books in the car and headed back to the scene of the spill. 

My first stop: the barrier island national park of Fort Pickens in the Florida Panhandle. When I was last here, caramel sludge had covered Fort Pickens’s famously white sands, and dozens of cleanup workers, like a ghostly prison crew in fluorescent vests, swept the shoreline for tar balls. “Don’t ask any questions,” one local told me. “BP won’t talk to civilians.” There was also a fight underway. A local wanted to report a giant tar ball to the EPA; a young Texan girl wanted it as a trophy. “If he touches that tar ball, my daddy will kick his ass,” she told me.

Now the beach was again sugary white, and the birds I saw were abundant and oil-free: mergansers, loons, gannets, Ospreys, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and an immature Bald Eagle perching on a salt-killed live oak. By the time I reached the ranger station I was ready to sing a song of nature’s resilience, but the ranger brought me back to earth. “They still come in when you get a big surf,” he said, referring to the tar balls. “And then the workers come back out and clean.” 

Departing Fort Pickens at dusk, I made it all the way to a hotel near New Orleans, and the next morning met up with David Muth, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf Restoration Program, for a Christmas Bird Count. We were accompanied by a quiet but efficient birder named Lisa Stansky, and by James Beck, who at first glance looked more like someone who would be here to shoot birds but turned out to be a kind of birding savant gifted with supernatural eyesight and hearing. Before I could even lift my binoculars, my hosts would point out this Black-necked Stilt or that Neotropic Cormorant or those Black-bellied Whistling- Ducks, and by morning’s end I had added a few more species to my life list.

Once again, rather than the paucity I feared and expected, I found a wild scene of thousands of birds from dozens of species. Within a hundred feet of the causeway-like road where I stood, an Osprey was scaring some Turkey Vultures out of a dead cypress, while dozens of roosting Brown Pelicans, a tad slower to react, filled the dark-silhouetted trees. The rising sun turned the mob of White Ibises pinkish and the Roseate Spoonbills even pinker while lighting up the undersides of the White Pelicans that wheeled above the harbor. I found myself laughing out loud at the frenzy of so many birds moving in so many directions as I turned my binoculars one way and then another. Dozens of Black Skimmers carved the sky above Barataria Bay, while a Merlin flew overhead. In a puddle-like pond I saw a King Rail, an American Avocet, a Black-necked Stilt . . .

But we were not in the heart of some pristine wilderness; we were on Haliburton [sic] Road, a thin finger of land in this watery world. And out across the wetlands, providing a kind of twin to the fiery ball of the rising sun, was the eternal flame of a gas flare above an oil refinery, a hundred-foot column of fire licking the sky.

How the oil and gas industry affects the birds remains a big question because, while the Christmas counts can reveal trends over the long term, the data are incomplete, Muth explained. In as little as five years, the counts alone can’t show a clear reduction in birds. “Go out tomorrow and the weather could be different, and you could get different numbers.”

Defenders’ Chris Haney’s retrospective study of bird deaths concluded that approximately 600,000 to 800,000 were killed by oil from the BP spill, despite the fact that only 6,147 cadavers were collected and counted in the year after. “Of all the spills I’ve ever studied, none had as many combinations of factors that have made it harder for a dead bird to actually reach the morgue and be counted,” he’d told me. “I fear that the science coming out of the spill won’t be a match for the size, scope, and volume of the spill itself.”

Those factors include the Gulf’s vast geography, with the oil spilling far offshore and spreading over at least 2,500 square miles, and the strong Gulf currents, which could whisk away the dead bodies, the perfect crime. And another factor: Only people with government permits—even in the midst of a tragedy like the BP spill—are allowed to handle wild birds, a legal provision meant to protect birds from humans. Thus, I was once in a boat with a fisherman when we saw an obviously oiled and distressed heron. He said he was sorry but without such a permit, he could not rescue the bird himself.

In addition to bird losses, we now know more than a thousand dolphins have died over the past five years and that those deaths are being tied directly to the oil; subsequent studies have found dolphins suffering from lung disease. Kemp’s Ridley turtle nesting has been cut almost in half; oyster harvests are down by 23 percent; and traces of oil and the dispersant Corexit are turning up in White Pelicans that nest 1,400 miles north in Minnesota (see “Body of Evidence”). Meanwhile, the question of where the oil has gone has been answered to some extent by reports that up to 10 million gallons are spread over the seafloor, driven downward in part by the 1.8 million gallons of Corexit that was dumped on the slicks during the early panicked days.

What the Gulf needs desperately is an injection of well-funded, rigorous scientific research to record what’s there now. So that next time we have a clearer idea of what exactly has been lost.

Late in the afternoon I abandoned the bird survey to drive 20 miles up the road to the tiny town of Buras (population: about a thousand), where Ryan Lambert owns a hunting and fishing lodge. The last time I visited, during the height of the spill, Lambert’s lodge was almost empty, since he refused to rent out rooms to the men who came to operate BP’s vessels. But this time the place was jammed with hunters and their dogs; you could practically smell the testosterone. There was little question who the alphas’ alpha was: Lambert, who has been hunting and fishing these waters for 35 years. He took a short break from telling fish stories to sit down at one of the dining hall tables and give me a quick state-of-the-Gulf report.

He said the redfish were doing well, helped no doubt by the moratorium on fishing right after the spill, another testimony to nature’s ability to rebound if we let it.

“The shrimp are doing okay,” he said when I asked. “It’s the speckled trout that I worry about. They’re a sensitive fish, and they’re not here like they once were.”

Lambert and I are at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, and during the spill he would tease me and refer to Obama as “your” president. But he was pretty worried back then about what species would be hit hardest, and one day he showed me a hundred-pound pile of shrimp on his scaling table, each individual with a black stain on its gills. 

I asked him about the duck population, since that was his worry then. “The ducks are back. That’s why this place is full,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of our best duck seasons over the last couple of years,” with 15 species to choose from, including Gadwall, Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, and Blue-winged Teal. But while he was now happy that the ducks were back, he was worried about habitat. “The trouble is they are not breeding here in the winter,” he said.

There are times you can’t be sure of much in the Gulf, but amid all the confusion, one thing is undeniable: Habitat is going away, and it is going away fast, the land sinking and sea rising like nowhere else on earth, to the point where organizations working in the region report that the Mississippi River Delta loses “a football field” of coastal wildlife habitat every hour. We are not talking about geological time here but about whole marshes and small islands that have disappeared since I last visited. During the spill summer, Lambert took me out on his boat and pointed at the GPS, which claimed—despite the open water all around us—that we were actually floating on top of six miles of grass. There wasn’t a single blade in sight.

To that very obvious loss of habitat add the more subtle and yet unknown sublethal effects of the oil in the ecosystem, an impact that, while not as sexy as slicked birds or plunging populations, could still have a quietly devastating effect. More than 25 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, the herring fisheries in Alaska still haven’t come back.

Signs of these long-term effects have already begun to creep in. In a five-year study of loons in the Gulf, biologist James Paruk discovered a spike in the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), semi-volatile organic compounds, in the study’s third year, indicating that oil is making its way into the food chain. There has been a corresponding drop in the number of loons in his study area, and some juveniles have experienced a loss in body mass. What this will mean in three more years, or in 30, is anybody’s guess.

During the spill I had taken a boat ride directly across Barataria Bay, but now, traveling by car, I had to drive north toward New Orleans, then west and south again to reach my next destination. After three and a half hours I crossed a long arcing bridge and was greeted by a sign that said “Jesus Christ Reigns Over Grand Isle.”

The next morning I met Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation for Audubon Louisiana, at Grand Isle State Park. On a day more arctic than tropical, with cold winds strafing the beach, we stared through our binoculars at Semipalmated, Piping, and Snowy plovers, and pondered how the spill must have affected them.

Five years ago tar balls had filled the sand here, and I’d witnessed BP workers raking away wrack lines (seaweed that collects at high- and low-tide marks). “Of course, the birds need the wrack line,” Johnson told me. “It provides insects and a windbreak.”

Johnson and I next drove to Elmer’s Island, one of the area’s least-developed beaches. Out on the water, beyond the line of gulls, terns, sandpipers, and plovers along the shore, a dozen or so oil rigs stood on their stilted legs, looking to me like abandoned space stations. Johnson spotted a Herring Gull whose face was dirtied with oil, so he called the oil hotline on his cellphone. As he was transferred to several different offices, he told me that reporting oil was always a tricky business, a Byzantine affair where you can never be sure if your call ever gets to the right person.

That gull was a reminder that not all of the oil out in the Gulf is BP’s, and that a small spill’s worth of oil is dumped there annually from slow leaks and spills that don’t grab headlines. Also of this: Five years after the spill, no real legislation has been passed to slow down deepwater exploration. In fact we have kept plunging deeper with newer and inherently riskier technology. Most won’t say it out loud, but another Gulf spill is surely coming. Until then, we’ll likely see BP in reruns, as in 2012, when Hurricane Isaac raked the seafloor and splattered the shores with that oil again, all the while eating away large chunks of coastline and marsh.

I had hoped that on this trip I’d find firmer ground, but I’m not sure that ground exists in a land of leaking oil and rising seas and sinking land. I know all of that oil still out in the ecosystem is going to have effects, both lethal and sublethal, both known and unanticipated, and that, combined with ever-shrinking habitats, that does not bode well for the birds of British Petroleum. Still, the Gulf remains a place of wild abundance, a place where you no sooner dip in your line than you catch another redfish, and where I still often find myself surrounded by varied flocks of birds. Despite its strangeness and its many contradictions, I have fallen hard for this doomed and dying place, this living embodiment of the clash between our need to consume and our love of beauty, the very place where our possible futures seem to be fighting it out. Other than that, I am certain of nothing.

David Gessner is the author of nine books, including The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and Into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill and, most recently, All the Wild That
Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West.