A Slow-Motion Disaster: Photos From The Louisiana Oil Spill

A few days after the Deepwater Horizon sank beneath the waves and millions of gallons of sweet Louisiana crude started pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, Field & Stream asked photographer and FlyTalk blogger Tim Romano and me to drop everything and head for the coast to cover the unfolding disaster. Tim and I had never met, but we both had profound connections to the Lousiana marsh country. I lived in New Orleans as a young man, and have returned to fish the marshes over the years when ever I could. Tim was a volunteer in the clean-up efforts after Katrina, and is close friends with many of the best fishing guides in the region. Neither of us could accept the fact that all that oil was spewing out not fifty miles away from this place we'd both come to love and revere (what we, and everybody else we spoke with kept saying was "I just can't seem to get my head around this…"). Neither of us could do anything about the spill. But we could help tell the stories of the people and places affected. And so neither of us hesitated a second when the call came. **
** We started our coverage in Hopedale, a small town 30 miles south of New Orleans that's located in the heart of the fishing, shrimping, and oystering communities of the bayou. Tim had been here just last January, hunting and catching big bull reds. I'd last been here in December of 2009 with a lifelong fishing buddy and my ten-year-old son, Harold, on his first trip to the bayou. He caught his first big red, and altogether we picked up enough trout, reds, and prime blue crabs to feed the twenty people who stay at our house over the Christmas holidays. There is nowhere like this place on the entire planet.
We arrived at Hopedale mid-afternoon, and found guides Travis Holeman and Jonathan Sanchez on the porch of the Sanchez' Breton Sound Marina. Bent over maps, they were working out a strategy for saving the deepest reaches of the marsh from the oil leak. The maps showed it clearly- a maze, 186,000 acres of channels, bays, ponds, and muck, the nurseries for everything from oysters and blue crab to monster redfish. We were looking at the place that produces 40% of all the seafood harvested in the US.
Holeman took us on a run through the bayous to look at the newly-set booms, and to get a sense of the country. On our way out we passed this BP staging area set up to respond to the spill. The area was quiet, but as reports on the spill grew worse over the next few days the place would become a swarming beehive of activity.
Holeman and Sanchez were adamant that booms in interior marshes could work, but that too much energy was being wasted trying to protect big, open waters. What we witnessed seemed to back him up. Currents and wind-driven waves made a mess out of booms set too far out.
On our second day in town we decided to interview some of the folks whose lives depended on the inshore recreational fishery threatened by the spill. And so, instead of heading to Venice to watch the media crews sit around waiting for the slow-moving disaster to unfold, we drove north to New Orleans. We parked deep downtown next to what looked like a bombed-out parking lot in the Warehouse District. Across the block was the Professional Sports Shop, the oldest tackle shop in one of the oldest cities in America. Gail Gele' (shown) and her family have owned the place since 1980. They cleaned it up after looters ransacked it during Katrina, and were back in business when the first fishermen shook off the effects of the storm and flood and came looking for tackle.
Just down the street from the Pro Shop was the Orvis store, where Greg Moon presides over trays of big, psychedelic-colored salt water flies and racks of 8- and 10-weight fly rods, as well as top-of-the line fishing clothes and gear for the marshes. Moon retired from work as a bodyguard in Las Vegas so that he could re-invent himself as a redfish guide in the marshes of Louisiana. He and his wife live in the Warehouse District, and Moon commutes to the buggy wilderness, trading the old streets and the clamor of the nearby French Quarter for a silence broken only by birds and the heavy splashes of a big red busting bait along the grass. He's as comfortable discussing handgun technique as he is fishing tackle, and he's among a new breed of flyfishermen who treat guiding and fishing like an extreme sport.
The fishing report at the Orvis shop.
Captain Gregg Arnold is another of the new breed, and big reds drive him like an addiction, though in his case, a very happy one. Here he is at high-speed near Hopedale in the Biloxi Marsh, after taking us out to Breton Island to check out the booms and the oncoming oil slick. In better times, a client flyfishing with Arnold took a 41.6 pound bull red in the marsh here, the new world record for a fish caught on 20 pound tippet. Like almost every other working person in southern Louisiana who makes their living from the water, Arnold lost everything in Katrina, rebuilt his business, and is now jammed in limbo and fearing the worst, watching boat payments and bills mount while every day the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf grows. "This is the coolest place I know," he said, "There's nothing like it anywhere I the world."
When we got back to Hopedale that evening the scene was radically different. The massive response had begun. Nobody could pass through the gates to see what was happening without being accompanied by law enforcement.
Here's a photo of an inshore drilling rig. Visitors who expect the locals to be furious at BP for the spill and the fishing shutdown will be disappointed. Oil and fishing have been mixed in Louisiana for so long that many working people move from a job on the rigs or the crew boats to crabbing, oystering, commercial fishing, and back again. People fish around the rigs, use oil company canals for navigation (even thought they'll be quick to tell you that those canals are one of the reasons the marsh is dying), and welcome the money and opportunity that energy production has brought to the region. You just won't find many critics of the oil industry in the marshes of southern Louisiana.
The oil hit first on the Chandeleur Islands, and we were able to reach them aboard the Voodoo, a boat owned and operated by Captain Trey Pique, of Venice, Louisiana, and chartered by the National Wildlife Federation. We arrived right as the oil slick begin to invade the shallow waters. There were Spanish mackerel- one of my favorite fish- killing bait off to the side of the boat, and a giant ray glided over the grass on the sand bottom. Captain Pique had the same look you see a lot of around Venice- shocked, then okay, then shocked again, like reality can be kept at bay with a good joke, or seeing fish working, but then it comes back, and there is the big greasy orange slick to prove it's not just a bad dream. The booms that were supposed to protect this wade-fishing Mecca were washed up on the beach and buried in the sand. Overwhelmed by the currents, winds, and waves.
Many years ago I worked on a long line boat, and remember how the gear we used collected the stinging tentacles of Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish like these. The tentacles always ended up all over us, stinging with a peppery burn that you couldn't get used to and couldn't avoid. We didn't hate them though- they were just too colorful, and too weird. Seeing them trapped in mats of oxidized oil, Sargasso Weed, and floating trash was sickening.
Tim had a little underwater camera that he strapped to a deck broom and stuck under the water off the side of the boat. The dispersants used by BP to break the oil up and keep it off the surface of the water may help to save wildlife and birds from immediate danger caused by a big, solid slick, but by creating a kind of emulsion of oil and water, they add a multitude of uncertainties to the cleanup effort. Media crews gathered in Hopedale, Venice, and other bayou communities thought they would find a destructive wave of oil washing onto shore. Instead they found these dispersed, rusty patches rolling slowly in the Gulf and held offshore by winds. The images they sent back have helped to downplay the real magnitude of this spill, at least outside the Gulf Coast.
One day, as we were riding down to Shell Beach, we found ourselves in the middle of an impressive military deployment. Campo's Marina- it has been in Shell Beach for generations- was the staging area for the 2225th Multi-role Bridge Company of the Louisiana National Guard. Based in communities around the West Bank, up by New Orleans, the troops were super-squared away and were making a tough and dangerous job look like a cakewalk. In this photo, a section of Improved Ribbon Bridge hits the surface of Bayou La Loutre. The sections are pushed out into a wide part of the bayou, and linked together to form a huge floating dock used for loading booms directly onto an armada of shrimp and oyster boats. By May 9th, fishermen and other workers had set a million feet of boom along the coast.
We passed working boats from all over the bayou loaded up and headed out to set boom. Commercial watermen shut down by the oil leak were hired by BP to help in the response. Thousands showed up- these are men and women who, like the sport fishing guides, lost most or everything in Katrina, and then, just when the shrimpers had boot-strapped themselves back to work, a flood of dirt-cheap Vietnamese shrimp imports sucked all the money away from their harvests. Many are living with the dire ghost of loans and years of lost income already hanging over their heads. The BP money is, in many cases, the only thing keeping food on the tables. But, in early May, BP had prospective employees sign a liability waiver that many watermen believed would prevent them from later filing claims for their lost livelihoods. The issue was settled when BP dropped the requirement to sign the waiver, but the distrust runs deep.
The big shrimp boats are outfitted with boom material on their outriggers instead of the shrimp nets they would usually be using. And instead of a harvest of valuable Gulf shrimp, some of the finest seafood on earth- they are corralling an orange harvest of sludge. As the corrals fill with skimmed oil, thick, rope-like lengths of absorbent material are unloaded into the water to soak it up and remove it.
National Guardsmen watch the local shrimpers heading out to offload the booms and other equipment from the giant floating bridge they have assembled in open waters. We talked here with 1st Sergeant Kevin Giroir, of Destrahan, Louisiana, who grew up fishing Shell Beach, and was now charged with helping to save a place he considers "the best speckled trout fishing anywhere." Giroir said he and fellow guardsmen were proud to do whatever they could.
You don't have to be here long to notice that these bayous are inhabited by a lot of tough, self-sufficient Americans who have lived for generations on their own sweat, blood, ingenuity, and the enormous wealth of the marsh. It's not a wealth measured in dollars, and it can be fearsomely hard to get sometimes, but it has made for a uniquely free kind of life. The food, the music, and the conversation all reflect how powerful this place is, and how it has shaped the people who live in it, and love it, and know it as home.
Everywhere we went we saw trucks and boats stacked with crab traps, because commercial crabbers had worked double-time to pull every trap in the closure areas. For the men and women whose livelihoods depend on the crabs and oysters that are most susceptible to contamination by oil, there is real fear that this could be the end of the line. Even if the oil spill does not ruin their business, waiting through another year of no income might take them down.
As we came back in from looking at the spill on May 7 we met a group of ecstatic anglers setting yellowfin tuna on the bragging board at Venice Marina. Charter boat captains were still going out of South Pass and offshore on the west side of the mouth of the Mississippi River, which was still open to fishing at the time. The horde of media reporting on the spill from Venice gathered around the tuna and a big wahoo, seemingly astounded that people were still fishing. "Are they contaminated?" someone asked. A fisherman answered, "Of course not, these guys go for hundreds of miles. They've probably never been anywhere near the oil." Suspicion on the part of many out-of-towners was dropped when the man cutting the tunas set out a tinfoil plate of soy sauce, and began tossing in perfect red strips of fresh sashimi from along the tuna's spines. It was strange to see everybody eating, enjoying the bounty of the Gulf, while here to report on one of the most disastrous events in the history of our relationship with the sea. Behind the folks eating fresh sashimi, a man was unloading a cooler stuffed with 40-50 pound amberjacks. Under the fish cleaning table, mullet swarmed, joined by a long whiskered catfish that slurped fish oil and bits of meat off the surface, much to the delight of the children that had gathered to watch.
The photo board at Glen Sanchez' Breton Sound Marina is a brilliant record of what is really out there, and how much fun can be had fishing for it. There are photos of stacks of big specks, monster tripletails, cobia, and large, small, and medium reds. You name it, if it can be caught in the marsh, it is somewhere here on the board, usually in front of a face beaming from ear to ear. It is almost too much to believe. The Mississippi River has been levied, cutting off the crucial flow of water and silt. The energy companies have dredged, cut, and drilled it. In the old days people dumped sewage and worse into it. Roads have been built across it, nets strung across it. It has been cleared and filled for homes, marinas. One of America's oldest cities lies just upstream of it, and more cities sprawl in every direction from that one, replete with asphalt, oil, fertilizers, coolant, herbicides, pesticides. And yet, year after year, the marsh keeps on giving up huge catches of fish, oysters, crabs, like some bottomless basket in a fairy tale. It has absorbed every insult we can offer it, and it's only response, so far, is to offer us an almost unlimited supply of the world's very best seafood.
Captain Glenn Sanchez of Breton Sound Marina in Hopedale was one of our best sources for local knowledge. Sanchez and a partner rebuilt the Breton Sound Marina after Katrina wiped the place out with a fourteen-foot storm surge. But that brutal effort is all in the past, eclipsed by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. "This is the nursery for everything in the Gulf, right here, this is the place where all the babies are born. These bayous are the arteries that feed the heart. If we lose this, we won't have nothing. This community won't have a reason to exist."
Out on Breton Island with Captain Gregg Arnold, we saw some of the best boom work anywhere, including some that were painted with the insignia of the US Navy. There's a lot to fight for here. Breton Island National Wildlife Refuge was created by Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, making it the second oldest wildlife refuge in the US. The sea grass flats around the islands provide incredible wade fishing for specks and reds. It is also one of the most important rookeries for brown pelicans, least tern and piping plover, and a wintering ground for redhead ducks and lesser scaup. Oil began coming ashore here around May 7th.
The marsh is not really a place for the modern, air conditioning-addicted indoorsman. It can be hostile, and it can kill you. Swarms of fierce yellow flies and no-see-ums hover over bottomless muck that's filled with sharp oyster shells and smells like rotten eggs. Prickly pear grows on the spoil banks. Gators bathe in the sun. The whole place is like a maze. But the marsh has a profound beauty, and underneath its still surface a storm of life churns in the water.
For decades now, the energy industry and the marsh have existed together, and the marsh has seemed to survive almost every new incursion, even though it is disappearing at a frightening rate. Tightened federal regulations over the past thirty years have freed us from the kind of pollution that might have made us ask the toughest questions - what are we doing? What do we value? Is it oil? Seafood? Protection from storms or floods? Up until now, we've had it both ways. But our insatiable thirst for energy, and our fantastically wasteful use of it, has created a bill that is coming due. Imagine being so clever that we can harvest ancient deposits of energy from not just a mile under the sea, where pressures are almost 3000 pounds per square inch, but also 18,000 feet deeper into the earth below. We can refine these deposits into gasoline using fantastic, Rube Goldberg contraptions created by the world's finest engineers. And yet we cannot seem to preserve the natural systems that support our very lives and that bring us the greatest joy of anything in life except for our own children.