Today as I sat in a boat in the Gulf, surrounded on all sides by oil-tainted seas, its hard to say what hit me the hardest. Was it the graceful and enigmatic dolphins surfacing through the slick? Or Captain O’Neill pointing out the spots where he fishes for speckled trout, redfish, flounder, crab and shrimp, and hearing the desperation in his voice? Was it seeing first-hand the soup of oil droplets, dispersed but thick as Louisiana bean soup, as far down in the water column as one could see? Or was it the overwhelming odor of petroleum that left me feeling slightly nauseous?
It’s hard to say. But the cumulative impact was heartbreak. Heartbreak because standing there on the boat, all I could feel was helplessness.
We knew we were physically vulnerable, standing out in the middle of the vast oil spill, so we didn’t stay long. But for the few minutes that we were there, the magnitude of the spill hit us all like a ton a bricks.
As Captain Carey O’Neill stood behind the wheel of the Victoria, the 23’ skiff we were in, a skiff which he built by hand in his backyard, he told us today was the first day he had actually encountered oil, the first time it had gotten close enough to his marina to easily reach it. It took us only an hour to motor through the bayou and out into the Gulf. We hit oil right in the vicinity of Little Gosier Island, which is now submerged thanks to the erosion caused by Hurricane Katrina.
We saw oil in all of its possible stages, including weathered rust-belt fingers stretching as far as we could see; shiny oily sheen floating on the surface; suspended oil droplets dispersed by chemicals but so dense it still turned the water brown; and clumps of oil so thick it effectively trapped marine debris that floated in its path. We were a mere 4 miles from Breton Island, the westernmost barrier island in the Breton National Wildlife Refuge. We had stopped at the refuge on the way out to check to see if oil had made it to shore (we did not observe any). It was easy to see why it was a refuge. Thousands of birds – brown pelicans, frigates, laughing gulls, terns – swarmed around us – it was the most remarkable assemblage I have ever seen in my life.
The ride back to the marina was a sober one. I sat in the back of the boat, watching Captain O’Neill and wondering what is in store for him. He had told me that he expects fishermen might get through the season this year by working for BP to help contain the spill. I asked him what would happen after that, and his silence in response was loud and clear to me. Nobody knows at this point. Nobody knows how many livelihoods will be destroyed. How many fish will die before they can be caught, before they can reproduce. How many shrimp will be contaminated. How many dolphins will suffocate. How many marshes will be lost.
Eventually, my feelings of helplessness turned to anger. How could we have allowed this to happen? How unfair that the most vulnerable among us will be hit the hardest. It is so senseless.
My anger was energizing, though. It reminded me that in this great country, we live by democratic principles, and that means I am not helpless, that we are not helpless. We have the power to change things that are broken. We have a voice, we have a vote, and we can make a difference.
After witnessing the great Gulf oil spill, I say emphatically that we need clean energy now! We need clean energy that doesn’t despoil our precious planet and safe jobs that don’t imperil our workers. It’s time to end our addiction to oil.
And we can do this by working together! Each and every one of us. You can do your part by calling your senators right now and telling them to support and pass comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation that cuts our dependence on oil, and puts this country on the path towards a safe and clean energy economy. Click here to take action.
NRDC will do our part by working tirelessly in the days to come to hold those responsible for this spill accountable, and to make sure this disaster is not repeated. We call on President Obama to work with Congress to pass clean energy and climate legislation. We also outline three steps the Obama Administration can take right now to protect marine life and coastal communities from future offshore oil disasters: impose a moratorium on all new drilling activities offshore, initiate an independent investigation into the rig explosion and oil spill, and ensure rules for future drilling reflect the lessons of Deepwater Horizon.
Photos taken May 5 on and around Breton Island.
This post originally appeared on NRDC"s Switchboard blog.