Oil spill update from the field: Oil highs, oil lows, oil blues

Two Coast Guardsmen guard the rear cargo door of an HC-144 aircraft near the spill site. The leak has been capped but a tropical storm is now headed straight for the Louisiana Coast. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

Houma Jet Center, Louisiana, July 23
I sit on a couch with other journalists and sip water from a plastic cup, on TV is a show about Australian serial killers. The well has been capped and we are waiting for a flight to the spill site on a Coast Guard HC-144, an aircraft with a rear cargo door that opens, allowing photos to be shot out the back. I see an AP photographer I met back in May, an oil spill friend. He looks fatigued. “I just got off a week-long trip on an oil skimmer,” he says. “We only found oil twice.”

Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded three months ago somewhere between 94 and 184 million gallons of crude oil has spewed into the Gulf; Exxon Valdez was about 11 million gallons. “Is it just a complete nightmare down there?” my sister recently asked me. People seem to think the entire Gulf coast is slathered in oil but that is not the case. Diluted by dispersants, blown by wind, driven by currents, stirred by storms, the oil takes an unpredictable path. A herculean effort has been put forth to capture it, some 5,300 skimmers, tugs and barges are on the water from western Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle and more than 11 million feet of boom has been strung along the coast.

But still, oil reaches the coast, coating beach, marsh and wildlife. No one knows exactly what is happening out at sea, sea turtle experts are in the midst of moving 800 loggerhead nests from Alabama and the Florida Panhandle to the unoiled east coast of Florida. New reports about the spill’s effect on blue crab spawning are frightening, and millions of birds are migrating from the Great Plains and the Arctic back to Gulf spots that may or may not be oiled when they get there.

We are briefed by U.S. Coast Guardsman Stephen Perusin then stick squishy yellow plugs in our ears and cross the tarmac to the plane, a huge empty metal tube. Thin benches line the side and we sit. The HC-144 is a modified version of a military aircraft originally developed in Spain and Indonesia. It is meant to haul bulky cargo, enforce maritime law, track icebergs and execute search and rescues. In the Gulf the planes have been used to spot oil and escort media. “This is like my 26th time going out to the spill site,” says Perusin.
We pass features I have become familiar with; the disappearing marshes north of Terrebonne Bay, still dotted with fishing camps wrecked in Hurricane Gustav; Bayou Lafourche, a tea-colored finger of water that thousands of years ago was the main channel of the Mississippi; Grand Isle, a summery community of daiquiri bars, seafood restaurants and beachside homes colored sherbet and baby blue, the oil first hit here in mid May, transforming the town into a bustling oil response center where cleanup workers outnumber residents; the lip of Barataria Bay, wherein are small islands filled with nesting pelicans, spoonbill, heron and ibis, when oil washed ashore many birds were oiled and also numerous eggs. Finally we come to the Mouth of the Mississippi, a marshy jungle where two months ago I spotted thick sheets of orange oil with an out-of-work shrimper and his dog.

"This has been an incredibly challenging story to cover," a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who typically shoots war tells me. With her car as home base, she has been criss-crossing the Gulf since early May. As the HC-144 approaches the spill site we crowd to the back for the best position, the cargo door opens and we are staring at the sea. I make out Development Driller III and Development Driller II, the rigs drilling the relief wells, and several large support vessels, which control the underground rovers. We crouch behind a safety strap and shoot through the length of the rear hatch. The angle is bad and the light is off. The plane circles three times then heads back to Houma. "No good," says the Pulitzer photographer.

I am going through photos a few days later when I receive a string of press releases from the Joint Information Center regarding the weather. A weak low pressure north of Cuba has become Tropical Storm Bonnie and is headed straight for the spill site. The decision has been made to leave the cap on the wellhead, even though the vessels that control the underwater rovers that monitor the cap will leave as the storm approaches. The Development Drillers have begun withdrawing drill string and boom and cleanup materials stockpiled along the coast are being moved to higher ground. Meanwhile, I am studying weather maps, trying to determine where along the coast to plant myself for the storm.

Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine

Coast Guardsman Stephen Perusin says he has been out to the spill site 26 times. He typically works out of Mobile, Alabama, running search and rescue missions. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)