Sea Shepherd Operation Gulf Rescue Update

By Bonny Schumaker

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s “aviation wing” has been extremely busy in the Gulf of Mexico for the past couple of months and especially this past month. In keeping with the strong emphasis being put on collaboration, Sea Shepherd has been working with other NGOs as well as local people and businesses, indigenous groups in the Gulf area, and government agencies in order to maximize effectiveness in protecting and promoting recovery of the Gulf wildlife and ecosystems.

Oil on a beachSea Shepherd has forged some strong connections with these groups, and we have obtained access to regular low-altitude surveillance flights over the Gulf, the coastal waters, and the off-shore islands. As such, we have compiled a large video and photo database that has helped us track the movement, extent, nature, and consequences of the oil as it has spread from “the Source” (the Deepwater Horizon rig) to the off-shore islands and right up to the coastal shores from Texas to Florida.  

We were able to provide invaluable oil-spotting flights to scientists from universities, the USGS, NGA, and NASA to guide their boats for sampling and spectral analysis of the oil and water. In the course of those flights, we used every opportunity to document with our eyes, camera, and video equipment the behavior of wildlife and the status of vegetation around the off-shore islands from Dauphin (south of Alabama) west to Marsh Island, an expanse of over 250 miles east to west centered around Venice, Louisiana. Through many generous and helpful contacts in the Gulf area, we’ve also had access to a variety of boats and permits to enter secured beach areas, which have enabled us and the scientists and media who joined us to get a close and objective look at what the conditions are in the coastal areas.  

The look of the surface of the ocean changes from day to day, in part because of winds and currents moving the oil and emulsion around, but also in part because we humans continue to spray a dispersant known as Corexit in massive amounts from large C-130s and other planes, in attempts to break up the oil and make it separate into small particles and sink beneath the surface…  

Gulf Rescue UpdateWhy do we do this? Sadly the answer is because less of the oil will make it to shore, because photos from the air will not look so egregious and horrifying, so that maybe tourism and BP's reputation can be salvaged. So that fishermen can still go out and try to bring in shrimp? One might not believe the last, and yet we have seen trawlers out there almost every day, not trawling but still pulling their nets! Sure, some of those boats are now pulling skimmers, trying to salvage some of the fresh oil from the surface. But some of them are still fishing, unbelievably. As the dispersant works, and the small bubbles of oil sink, all life beneath the surface becomes coated with it. They ingest it. Their eyes and ears and gills fill with it. They suffocate, they are poisoned, and they die slow and horrible deaths.  

We have seen less and less ocean wildlife over the past two months. What we do see is now much closer to shore than it was previously, typically within 50 miles of the coast, and crowded into the shallow waters on the coastal sides of the off-shore islands. Within 30 miles of the coast off Caillou Bay (west of Grand Isle), and within 5 miles of the oil-scarred shores of the Chandeleur Islands, we have seen many schools of cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus), golden-colored and swimming very close to the surface, 20-40 in a square-shaped school. Often these rays are followed by sharks. We’ve seen small pods of dolphins, almost always swimming very fast, almost frantically in circles, and often within a few hundred meters of thick patches of brown crude oil emulsion. If we had been seeing this in beautiful clear blue water, we might have thought this was enthusiastic play, but in this toxic pool, we wondered if this isn’t a sign of serious stress.

Having flown over the “water” for hundreds of miles, we know that there is no clear passage for those animals to swim out of the oiled areas and out to cleaner open water, unless they first go several hundred miles along the coasts east or west and then out to open water. Do they know to do that, we have wondered? Perhaps the animals who are still here do not, and we wonder, what will become of them? As hurricane season arrives and blows oil all over the off-shore islands, the thousands of nests with hatchlings—pelicans, egrets, herons, and more—they seem doomed.  

Birds on boomsIn the coming weeks, we’ll be bringing more boats, more fully hazWOPER-trained crew who are experienced and trained in the recognition of oiled wildlife and coastal ecosystems. Wildlife rescue activities are tightly controlled in the US Gulf waters. At this time, even the International Bird Rescue and Research Center (IBRRC), people who clean and rehab most of the captured oiled seabirds, are no longer permitted to capture and bring to shore oiled birds; that authority is reserved for the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF).

Less parochial, it seems, are the sea turtle rescue efforts. Several non-government groups in the New Orleans and Alabama areas have been very active and effective in the rescue and rehab of oiled turtles. We have flown and boated and worked and discussed at length with sea turtle experts, and Sea Shepherd will be coordinating tightly with sea turtle rescue activities throughout the Gulf, including proactive efforts farther south, near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico, where so many sea turtles live and begin their lives. We will work with the many indigenous peoples of Mexico whose lives and cultures are tightly bound to sea turtles and what they represent.  

You’ll hear more about the ships and experts that Sea Shepherd will be supporting in the Gulf in the coming months. For now, we’ll continue to bring you objective, clear documentation of what conditions there really are, and we’ll continue building strong ties with groups, scientists, and local people who can help us make a big impact toward protecting and preserving as much of the Gulf wildlife and ecosystems as can be saved.

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