The Spill Seekers: Sailing into the Gulf after the BP oil spill

Originally published on

In the aftermath of the Big Leak, the author wrangles a skipper, a conservationist, and the real Forrest Gump to hoist canvas and sail into the mess that is the Gulf of Mexico. But here’s the crazy part: While stewing in America’s worst environmental disaster, he has a hulluva lot of fun.

Dolphin's Waltz in deep water surrounding the Gulf oil rigs.    Photographer: Andy Anderson

Dolphin's Waltz in deep water surrounding the Gulf oil rigs. Photographer: Andy Anderson


She needed to get out. Wide of beam, 43 feet long, and 11,000 pounds of lead in her keel, she’d been built with oceans in mind. Her name was Dolphin’s Waltz, and she was sick of putzing around the shallows of Alabama’s Mobile Bay, where she docked. Now, stately breakers rolled across her bow, muddy waters giving way to the gray-green Gulf of Mexico. She was on the hunt.

We passed within kissing distance of shrieking rigs, hunkered down and drilling away like mosquitoes; dodged a swarm of shrimping boats that looked like giant waterborne grasshoppers, their spars deployed as they searched for oil slicks; and then made for Dauphin Island Pass and the wide open. A Coast Guard chopper slashed overhead, and a blimp hung in the southern sky like an alternate moon. We were the only pleasure boat around. A west wind snapped the jib taut as dolphins hot-dogged across our bow wave, exploding into the air. For being smack in the middle of America’s biggest environmental disaster, it was pretty fucking nice.

You might say July 2010 was an odd time for a pleasure cruise in the Gulf of Mexico, and maybe a sailboat—slow, bulky, with the upwind quarter of the world off-limits—is an odd way to do any sort of journalism. I won’t argue. I wasn’t going to scoop The Wall Street Journal, but that was the point. Perhaps, as the press hordes stampeded past us in their helicopters and vans, chasing the latest oil sighting, they were missing the real story.

So we’d take it slow, on the gulf’s schedule. I’d challenged our skipper, Josh Deupree, to a wind-powered tour of a particularly stunning corner. I’d heard rumors of cleanup operations gone awry—workers pelting each other with eggs from Louisiana rookeries—so we’d head west to investigate the situation on Petit Bois Island, known as the most pristine wilderness island in the gulf and vital habitat for more than 250 species of birds. From Petit Bois we’d cross Mississippi Sound to see the marshes and seagrass meadows of the coast, taking in as many marine ecosystems as we could in three days.

A sort of nagging consumer guilt, and the desire for seafaring in its purest form, was the motivation to try it without fossil fuels—once out in the gulf, at least. Sailboats are docked in slips like parking spaces. Exiting had involved cranking up, making several right-angle turns, negotiating a narrow harbor, passing under a bridge, then following a dredged shipping channel across Mobile Bay and out into the gulf.

As soon as we’d cleared the bridge and caught the shipping channel, we killed the engine and raised the sails. Close-hauled to the wind, Dolphin’s Waltz heeled over and shot straight out of the channel toward Dauphin Island Pass. The smell of diesel faded, replaced by the slow oscillation of wind and wave. She was free.

Not that we were making any kind of statement. Just getting to the boat, our crew had of course burned gobs of petroleum products. I flew from Vermont to Newark, where I looked down upon a grid of refineries and tanks, then to Houston, same damn thing, and then to Mobile. Oil was everywhere and in everything, not just the gulf.

LIKE SOMETHING OUT OF MORDOR, a refinery’s orange methane flare blazed atop a black pillar on the shore of the bay. Fed by six rivers, Mobile Bay covers 413 square miles and spits out some 62,000 cubic feet of water every second, making it North America’s fourth-largest estuary by flow. Its mouth was crawling with boats as we sailed out. Vessels of Opportunity—boats hired by BP to patrol for oil—darted across the channel. The program was the biggest gold rush on the coast. Even the smallest boats made $1,600 per day.

About 3,000 VOOs, as everyone called them, were operating out of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. They came in every size and shape: sportfishing behemoths, Boston Whalers, pontoon boats. I tried not to think about how much gas they were burning in the effort to save us all from oil. All flew the triangular VOO flag and seemed to be zipping about with minimal coordination.

As we passed within 20 yards of one diesel-burning rig, a man on the catwalk waved his arms and shouted. I thought maybe we were too close, but Jimbo Meador, one of our crew, said, “He wishes he was on this boat and not that goddamn rig.” Virtually everyone I’d spoken with on the Gulf Coast had said, “Oh, you have to meet Jimbo Meador. He’s the real-life Forrest Gump.” Well, Jimbo’s buddy Winston Groom did dedicate the book to him. And, yes, like Gump, Jimbo once ran a huge shrimping business out of Alabama. And, yes, for the accent, Tom Hanks studied Jimbo’s speech. (“But I don’t know why he bothered,” says Jimbo. “He sounded like an idiot.”) But there the similarity ends.

Born and raised on the Alabama shore, Jimbo is one of the best fly-fishermen on the gulf and, because he does it all by kayak and stand-up paddleboard, one of the fittest 68-year-olds you’ll ever see. The ocean is his life. “If I get too far from salt water, I start to get nervous,” he told me. With his deep tan and wavy light-gray hair, he looks as if sand and sea foam crystallized into a man and strode out of the surf. If anyone cared about the health of this place, it was Jimbo.

Our other crew member, Bill Finch, was equally invested. A senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation, the 51-year-old had been instrumental in creating one of the country’s best oyster-restoration projects. A mile and a half of new oyster reef had been “planted” on Coffee Island, off the Alabama coast, in April—the beginning of Bill’s Hundred Miles of Reefs vision, part of the Restore Coastal Alabama 100–1000 project for Mississippi Sound and Mobile Bay. It had seemed a heartening success until BP’s Deepwater Horizon blew, on April 20, and started spewing 205 million gallons of black goo.

I’d met Bill in early May, when I went to document the oyster reefs before the oil arrived, and he told me something new and surprising at every turn in our conversation: Alabama has the greatest biodiversity of any state east of the Mississippi; the greatest diversity of freshwater fish and mussels; the greatest concentration of turtle species in the world; etc. Sure, with such awful casinos, condos, and refineries, parts of the Gulf Coast do live up to the Redneck Riviera reputation. But few folks know about the other gulf, the natural miracle with arguably the finest beaches in the nation, the best diving, the best birding, the most productive wetlands, the thriving communities of shrimp and bluefin tuna and sperm whales. If we were to hold up the Gulf of Mexico in one hand and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the other, then agree to protect one and exploit one, the decision would be a no-brainer. Bill had helped me see that.

He’d taken me to Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a 10,000-acre crown jewel of biodiversity shared by Mississippi and Alabama, where we stood in the salt marshes, squinting into a tide pool at the turquoise streaks of male sailfin mollies displaying for females. “Look at that!” Bill had said. “Isn’t it stunning?” With his gray beard, balding pate, and general demeanor, Bill struck me as the Lorax of the coast—an impression cemented when he suddenly bounded across the marsh through knee-deep muck to stop an airboat from plowing into the cordgrass.

Behind us, on the salt pan, willets piped their pennywhistle love songs. A rail had just hatched her chicks. At the edge of the marsh, acres of oysters spawned. It was, normally, the most hopeful time of year. And Grand Bay sure as hell looked normal. Miles of rush stretched to Mississippi, backed by a wall of some of the only tidal pine forest on earth. Waves rolled over vast seagrass beds. Beautiful.

But it had been hard to enjoy. Three miles offshore, a cannonade of tarballs was splattering Dauphin Island. Farther out, something dark and dead was gathering strength in the depths. When oil hits marshes, it chokes out the oxygen and nitrogen and the soil goes hypoxic. Then the marsh dies. Estuaries like Grand Bay are where at least 90 percent of the fish species in the gulf come to breed. If the estuaries die, the gulf is a goner.

WE HAD TO SLALOM RIGS as we sailed, there were so many. East Coasters may stand on a beach and expect to see nothing but blue horizon, but Gulf Coasters enjoy nothing so sublime. Stand on any given shore in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or Texas and you can count as many as 20 oil rigs rising out of the haze on spindly legs, like the Martian invaders from War of the Worlds.

Most people seem to believe it’s a horrible coincidence that BP’s leak happened so close to the lower 48’s most bountiful fishing grounds, but the same factors that make the northern Gulf of Mexico so rich in oil also make it rich in life. For millions of years, the Mississippi River has been the gulf’s great benefactor, pouring midwestern nutrients into its warm coastal waters and fueling extraordinary production of phytoplankton, the single-celled plants that are the foundation of the marine food web. That phytoplankton feeds some of the most fantastic stocks of oysters, shrimp, crabs, and fish on earth. What doesn’t get eaten drifts to the bottom as it dies—”marine snow.” As additional sediment buries it over eons, it gets pressure-cooked into that blackest of sauces, oil.

In the steamy Cretaceous, 100 million years ago, seas were much higher, and much of Texas and Louisiana lay beneath an expanded gulf. As global temperatures cooled and the gulf shrank, the easily obtained oil became accessible beneath the gulf states. That was the first oil boom. We burned through most of that in a few decades. That was the first oil bust, and by the 1980s it had turned East Texas and Louisiana into very ugly places. But in the 1990s, geologists discovered enormous oil reservoirs much deeper in the gulf than ever suspected. New technology provided the means to drill a mile underwater through three miles of bedrock, and oil prices went sky-high, making it all worthwhile.

More than 4,000 rigs pepper the gulf. You head their way to catch red snapper, which cluster beneath. The Deepwater Horizon blowout has focused attention on deep-water drilling, but there are still only a few dozen rigs capable of operating in water a mile deep. These massive platforms are the Parthenons of our time, soaring high-tech temples to the reigning god. But the majority of rigs are more like rinky-dink parish churches, mostly stuck to the seafloor close to shore. Many lie abandoned; others limp along sketchily, like the Mariner Energy rig that caught fire on September 2. The low-hanging fruit is gone.

Deep-water is the source of most gulf drilling jobs. A few decades after the last of those reservoirs are drilled, they’ll be tapped out. The gulf’s petroleum era will end and the region’s entire identity will change. To what, no one knows. A graveyard on the edge of a cesspool? It’s not hard to imagine.

OUR SKIPPER, JOSH DEUPREE, is one of the coast’s top sailboat racers, yet he’d been trapped lately, hesitant to even take Dolphin’s Waltz out of port for fear of mucking up her engine and hull with sticky oil. Lucky for us, though, the 36-year-old couldn’t resist the lure of an exploratory mission.

A few miles off the coast of Petit Bois Island, we finally got the boat dirty. Our first slick looked like a trail of brick-colored diarrhea run­ning to the southern horizon. We punched through it and watched it disappear behind us. We hit a few more slicks as we approached the island. Sailing has been defined as hours of boredom interrupted by moments of terror. This was hours of beauty broken by moments of disgust.

A line of trees on the horizon: Petit Bois, a typical barrier island, a wandering carpet of dunes that gets piled just high enough on the inland side to support a few marshes and trees. These trees were mostly dead, casualties of Hurricane Katrina. Petit Bois is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore. In 1978 it was designated as wilderness, the Park Service’s highest level of protection. Yet we could see blue shapes along the beach. Binoculars revealed them to be tents, each shading an assemblage of coolers, rakes, and plastic chairs.

The sun was oozing orangely into the sea as we anchored in the lee of the island. It appeared to be deserted, but the lagoons were fenced with bright-yellow boom, and anchored farther away was a clot of crew boats, barges, and tenders. The barges were stacked with double-decker, 40-foot steel boxes marked LIVING QUARTERS, shipping containers serving as windowless “flotels.” So this was where Hazmat Nation was spending the evening. I wondered how many were squeezed into each tin.

Anchored near us was a gigantic, three-story sportfishing boat flying a VOO flag. A couple of guys in camo fatigues lolled on the upper deck. The boat never budged in the 16 hours we were anchored there. The VOO program is a boondoggle. The boats’ ability to deal with any oil they find is very limited, as explained by a VOO captain who agreed to speak anonymously. “If we found anything,” he said, “we’d call the shrimp boat assigned to us, they’d come, and we’d boom it off and suit up in Tyvek. You’d put a produce bag on the end of an aluminum pole and actually scoop oil up with those bags, then you’d put it in bigger plastic bags and drop it off. We got as much as we could, but it was almost pointless. You can’t really clean that shit up.”

The idea was to employ out-of-work fishermen, but my VOO mole—a sportfishing guide—explained that it hasn’t worked that way. Despite the fact that his guide business had dried up after the Deepwater Horizon blew on April 20, it had taken him until July 1 to get activated. “There were people not in the fishing business who formed corporations early on,” he said. “One group had nine boats. Their friends’ kids operated them. And you’d call BP and ask, ‘When am I gonna get activated?’ ‘Well, we’ve got too many people.’ A friend of mine was out there for two months in a 12-foot johnboat. Two months! In a 12-foot boat! There was no supervision. You’d just check in: ‘See ya in 12 hours.’ People were going out and fishing all day.”

BP also launched the $500 million Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, which might be coined the Scientists of Opportunity. I learned of some being offered $250 an hour for their research—on topics approved by BP, of course—but prohibited from discussing or publishing their findings for three years.

WE SLEPT ON DECK to beat the heat, slapping mosquitoes through the night—except Jimbo, who ignored them. At dawn, he muttered “I got to marinate” and threw himself overboard. The water looked clear of oil, so I did, too, and immediately got stung by a jellyfish. These Jimbo tuned out as well. “I used to swim long distance,” he said, pulling beautiful strokes around the boat. “I’d get stung constantly. Put yourself in a different mind-set. They don’t actually hurt.”

Jimbo—who’s a part owner of Dragonfly boats, the most enlightened fly-fishing craft ever conceived—had been fishing in the Bahamas with his old pal Jimmy Buffett when the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Jimbo and Jimmy hatched a plan, with the musician funding the design and construction by Dragonfly of two skiffs custom-made for wildlife rescue. The Shallow Water Attention Terminal, or SWAT, boats have whisper-soft trolling motors, a draft of just ten inches, mid-deck worktables, misting systems, canopies, Wi-Fi, video cameras, and “sea-mist green” hulls (so they merge with the waterline and don’t spook birds). After the boats were built, however, Jimbo was informed by Fish and Wildlife that only trained specialists with federal permits have clearance to handle oiled birds; if anyone else tried to rescue one, they could be in violation of federal law under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Jimbo suggested donating a boat to the local Audubon Center. Nope, no permits. He would eventually have to donate it to a conservation nonprofit who could then lend it to Fish and Wildlife for rescue and research efforts. “Most frustrating thing I’ve ever experienced,” he said.

Still stinging from the jellyfish, I kayaked to Petit Bois with Bill Finch. We dragged the kayak ashore and made our way through the dunes toward the gulf side. Blooming morning glory vines crawled over the sand and scrub. Bill nibbled on wild plants: sea rocket, a briny, mustardy green that tasted like Grey Poupon, and glasswort, which was crunchy and salty, the potato chip of the beach.

Foraging is one of his passions. Not long before the Big Leak, he’d been out on the islands wandering over Native American middens—ancient heaps of oyster shells—grazing on glasswort and wolfberries, shucking oysters straight out of the water. “It’s the way people must’ve eaten for 10,000 years,” he said.

Birds flushed out of our path as we walked. The six barrier islands of Gulf Islands National Seashore are the first pit stop for many birds, as well as monarch butterflies, flying north from South America and the Yucatán in the spring. Emaciated fowl rain down on the islands, rest, refuel, and then scatter across America. In fall the islands are often the last staging area before the big flight over the gulf. The lonesome islands have a poignant feel. “Prepare yourself for enchantment!” the Exploring Gulf Islands National Seashore guidebook says of Petit Bois. “The feeling is primeval, as if you have been deposited on an oasis.”

Things had changed. Stippling the high tide line were tens of thousands of tar patties, and suddenly we weren’t having a nice nature walk anymore. They looked like underbaked molasses ginger cookies and smelled like hot asphalt. Some were as big as Frisbees. A ghost crab was mining one, carrying clawfuls back home. On the beach, blue tents but nobody in sight. ATV tracks cut through the sand.

Our crewmates caught up to us as we trudged. A helicopter inspected us, and a flock of brown pelicans sailed past. “Hope you make it, boys,” Jimbo called out. The temperature headed toward 100 degrees. The oil seemed to have an affinity for trash. Any piece of plastic was shellacked with it, as if it had some sort of molecular attraction to its own kind. But despite the horror on the beach, the water looked clear. Jimbo needed to marinate again. We swam. Jimbo bronzed.

I’m always struck by the energy of coasts; the friction of two worlds colliding draws so much life, like us, to hug the edges. We stood in the surf and watched clouds of mullet dart by. “Shit,” said Jimbo, “one throw of my cast net and we’d have supper for a week.” But all waters were closed to fishing. (We’d been eating tinned sardines from Portugal.) The dolphins had no such restrictions. They caught the breaks, surfed into 18 inches of water, and scraped the sand as they scarfed up fish.

Farther down the beach, the water turned the color of iced tea. Crabs with aprons full of eggs skittered through it sideways. Suddenly a pack of Gators—heavy-duty, four-wheel-drive ATVs made by John Deere—came skidding around the end of the island. The cleanup crews were awake. The Gators sped past us toward the shade of the tents, and the mostly obese crews suited up in Tyvek and gloves and grabbed their tools and plastic trash bags. It looked punishingly hot in those suits. The long scoops used by the crews are slotted, so sand filters out as they dig up tarballs. It was like watching a bunch of little people clean the world’s largest litter box, with older tarballs dry and easy to bag but recent arrivals messy and laborious. One of the ATVs veered toward us and slammed to a stop. “How’d y’all get here?” asked the driver in a thick Mississippi accent.

“Boat,” said Josh.

“Hell, I know that,” said the driver. “But how’d you get here?

“Walked.” We’d come about a mile.

The marvel of it all slowly sunk in. “You walked?” His passenger, a weary-looking man with a grizzled beard, narrowed his eyes: “Y’all better not be steppin’ on any tarballs.”

This was the crew boss (whose name I was never able to confirm). Things weren’t going well for him. He had orders to keep all the Gators operating in a single track to avoid tearing up the dunes, but the rut was now so deep, they were starting to run aground and break down. “It’s just killin’ our Gators,” he said. How were they supposed to get up and down the island without their Gators?

So far, his crews had raked up 60 tons of oil, dumped it into petroleum-based garbage bags, and hauled them out to the barges. But Tropical Storm Alex had recently deposited a whole new layer of oil and sand on the beach, so they were essentially right back where they’d started. Worse, the new sand from Alex had covered huge mats of old oil, which they now had to dig through several inches of beach to find. He was trying to requisition some gas-powered leaf blowers to blow the new sand off the old.

Nothing was happening fast. The worker-safety guidelines were strict about heat. On a yellow-flag day—pretty much the best you can hope for there in the summertime—employees work 40 minutes, then get a 20-minute rest. We were into the red-flag days (temperatures in excess of 92 degrees), meaning 20 minutes on and 40 minutes off. Should a reallyhot day rear its sweaty head, they’d bust out the cooling vests and A/C or work after dusk. The best that could reasonably be hoped for was about two hours of work per day out of any employee, and a fair amount of that seemed to be devoted to shuttling people to and from the potties stationed at one end of the six-mile island. “It’s a logistical nightmare,” sighed the boss. Recently, however, there’d been a breakthrough. “We got permission,” he said, gesturing out to sea, “to take a pee in the ocean.”

Read more, here.

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