"Diviner than the Dolphin is nothing yet created, for indeed they were aforetime men and lived in cities along with mortals. They exchanged the land for the sea and put on the form of fishes. But, even now, the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thought and human deeds." -- Oppian of Silica, 200 A.D.
Dolphin in Arnica Bay, AL courtesy Captain Lori DeAngelis
Oppian of Silica might question today whether dolphins, and not men, have a more righteous spirit.
The explosion of the BP Macondo wellhead at the Deepwater Horizon platform in April was more than an economic and environmental disaster. Besides resulting in the deaths of eleven men, the flow of 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico has proven to be an assault on the soul of every man, woman and child living on the Gulf Coast. The uncertainty of the final outcome has resulted in wild accusations, lies on the part of BP, and obfuscations from the government we have elected to protect us. It has produced even wilder claims from bloggers that the Gulf is now a "dead zone" with "yellowed" skies, no fleas on dogs, toxic rains, whales mysteriously spirited across the border to Mexico, and unusual respiratory illnesses. Fears of the dispersant, Corexit, have resulted in windfalls for fly-by-night chemistry labs as terrified residents pay up to $560 a pop for "dispersant testing" of everything from well-water to backyard fish ponds.
Seemingly normal, intelligent people have been driven to distraction by fear of the unknown. Part of this fear is exacerbated by "experts" working for attorneys revving up for what could be the biggest rash of class action suits since the Exxon Valdez. The result is that the most vulnerable -- the elderly, the poor and the dispossessed -- are frightened and left feeling that there is nowhere to turn.
I spent part of the last week on the Gulf coast from Terrebonne Parish in Louisiana to Dauphin Island, Alabama, trying to chase down rumors and separate fact from fiction. It felt like chasing the rust on my aging Toyota, and was a fool's errand. What is a journalist to do when claims are made, but no one will offer up any facts, leads, names or documents to prove the claims made by bloggers who visited the same area in previous weeks and had no documentation, but published anyway?
I left days before my scheduled departure, completely demoralized by lawyers, do-gooders and eco-activists who seemingly have no interest in a rigorous quest for the truth. These sycophants and carpetbaggers have thrown veracity out the window in favor of money, book sales, political expediency, possible movie deals, and sensationalism.
Why has this happened? A friend suggested to me that it is because reporting on this catastrophe has been lacking a spiritual dimension. There is no doubt that the BP river of oil has taken a terrible spiritual toll on the people of the Gulf coast and beyond. "When grief levels are high, people do strange things," my friend suggested.
When people are running scared they will do anything to protect themselves. Individuals lie because in some sense they have no idea what the truth is. Meanwhile, compassion dictates that we realize people are afraid for their lives and their livelihoods. Certainly there are individuals who will prey upon these vulnerabilities and they should be roundly condemned.
Scientists suggest that it will be many years before we know the full extent of the disaster, and are wary of reporters since the media ends up misquoting them or distorting the facts. It is not so much media bias as it is lack of scientific training on the part of journalists and bloggers. We don't need any more photos of dead birds and the same oiled marshes of Barataria Bay again and again. Yes, thousands of birds died and it is a tragedy. Dying and dead dolphins are documented on video. Yes, hundreds of miles of shoreline were oiled, and filthy boom remains in Barataria Bay and elsewhere, but not everything was destroyed. Yes, questions and uncertainties remain, but it is time to examine what happened so that it never happens again and examine the consequences with an unflinching scientific eye. What we don't know far exceeds what we know, and this is not to suggest that the tragedy be diminished.
It is also time to be thankful for what was not damaged. I spent a night in Dulac in southern Terrebonne and the marshes are as beautiful as ever. But no one is reporting this.
There is some excellent science being done and there are also five-year baseline studies out of Dauphin Island Sea Lab that will prove invaluable as scientists try to learn from and evaluate this ecological disaster.
Future reports from this writer will examine what scientists know and don't know, what has been hidden on the beaches, and whether there will be serious long-lasting health effects. We are faced with uncertainty, and uncertainty makes us very uncomfortable..
But what I would like to share now is an interview I had with Captain Lori DeAngelis of Orange Beach Alabama. We met at Flipper's dockside restaurant after a session with local activists earlier in the day. We could not go out on the water because her boat is in BP's "vessel of opportunity" program, meaning it is on standby for oil-spill related duty. As a form of compensation for me, Captain Lori brought along a thick, three-ring binder with photos of all of the dolphins known to her in the area's waters. Each has a name, a history and distinctive markings as well as personalities that provided fodder for fascinating stories.
This remarkable woman is not a scientist, but she has lived with nature and the dolphins of Arnica Bay as owner and operator since 2004 of Dolphin Queen Cruises. Captain Lori's love of the dolphins goes without saying. What is fascinating about this woman is her unrelenting dedication and sense of responsibility towards these cetaceans. The BP disaster has filled Captain Lori with uncertainty also, but she does not wallow in self-pity or anger. When she cries it is for the dolphins and not for herself. This woman is driven to understand what is happening to her beloved waters and to do what it takes to protect the dolphins that live there.
"Man needs to make right their waters," she says.
Captain Lori is no ideologue, but instead readily admits that she does not understand the science and is not willing to make false claims. Captain Lori relies upon observation of the dolphins' behavior, and that, combined with her own instincts, tells her that something is not quite right. She will not make sweeping predictions, but admits, sadly that she "just does not know" what is happening in the local waterways. That the dolphins are reacting, she is certain.
It is Captain Lori's unflinching, honest emotion and compassion that makes her testimony some of the most compelling I have documented in three months of visits to the Gulf Coast since April.
This is a woman totally committed to nature, speaking the truth of what she knows. That is all we can ask of anyone bearing witness to this tragedy. And, it is required of everyone.
Captain Lori DeAngelis knows and understands only the moments she is with the dolphins and their reactions to their environment. She, like them, waits for the sun each morning and is willing to face the darkness when and if it comes. Her hopes and fears are real and not merely stories with no soul.