Six Months Later, What Have We Learned

Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil SpillOctober 21, 2010

Not only does the ocean cover 70 percent of the planet’s surface, it also touches us in ways we forget.

The ocean drives climate and weather patterns, generates more than 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe, absorbs carbon dioxide, feeds clouds with rain-inducing moisture, provides food, connects cultures, inspires our spirits and, most importantly, sustains all life on this planet.

Yet the vitality and diversity of the ocean is being compromised largely by one terrestrial species…US. It is unfortunate that it takes catastrophes such as the Gulf Oil Spill for us to realize our direct connection to the vulnerability of our life support system.

And now that we have just past the sixth month anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, what have we learned?

Coral Spawning in the Gulf of MexicoThe Gulf of Mexico is 9th largest body of water on this planet, supporting a wide range of species from the microscopic plankton to some of the largest whales in the world. It is home to the highest diversity of life found in any ecosystems on this planet, the coral reefs. Spawning under the darkness of night, only on a handful of nights out of the year, corals release their future generation in to the water column to be swept away by complex currents and to form new reefs in far off places, connecting the Gulf of Mexico to the rest of the water planet.
The Gulf of Mexico is also home to a wide range of habitats that support complex webs of life, from marshlands to mangroves to open ocean to deep-sea benthic communities. Within these habitats are the iconic species of the Gulf: five species of sea turtles, aggregating schools of Goliath Groupers, endangered blue fin tunas, societies of bottlenose dolphins, and billions of resident and migratory birds.

Goliath Groupers make the mangroves their home during the first years of their livesWhat we do know is that before the tragic day on April 20th, the Gulf of Mexico was already a highly stressed ecosystem. Because of the size and volume of the Mississippi River, it not only delivers valuable sediment that helps to nourish the Mississippi delta but it also transports a toxic river of fertilizers, chemicals and pollutants into the Gulf, creating one of the largest dead zones in the world, now the size of New Jersey and getting bigger every year.

This region has been an on-going experiment on how humans can control nature, from natural flooding events and hurricanes. We have altered, manipulated and controlled the flow of the Mississippi for over 80 years. And now we are coming to terms with what this means to the natural flow and replenishment of the barrier islands that support a rich ecosystem and connects the Mississippi River with the entire Gulf of Mexico. We are literally destroying one of the richest breadbaskets of America.

These areas used to be dynamic, naturally ebbing and flowing under nature’s rhythms. They have supported a diverse range of wildlife that has adapted to this ever-changing aquatic way of life. 90% of all marine species in the Gulf depend on coastal estuaries at some point in their lifetimes. But now we have stopped, blocked, or channelized this natural flow of water with flood control projects that are today stripping the delta and marshlands of valuable resources that keeps them alive. Over 50% of the Gulf’s region’s wetlands have been lost since the 1970’s.

Shrimp Boat at SunriseDespite these human induced stresses, the Gulf of Mexico is still an extremely rich fishing ground, producing 50 percent of the U.S. shrimp crop, 35 percent of the nation's blue claw crabs, and 40 percent of its oysters. But increasingly, fishing practices have put tremendous pressure on these vulnerable natural resources, pushing some fisheries towards collapse.

It is area also rich in petroleum resources and has been for tens of thousands of years. Today the Gulf of Mexico supports over 4,000 offshore oil and gas platforms and tens of thousands of miles of pipelines. 90% of our country’s offshore drilling takes place here; but as we all clearly now understand, it comes with a heavy price.

Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20th and was finally capped 86 days later. It took weeks to finally determine the total of amount of oil leaked; experts now say 4.9 million barrels spilled into the Gulf from 5 miles under the surface of the sea, making this the largest marine spill in history. 1.8 million gallons of toxic dispersants were also added, making this the largest toxic experiment ever conducted in a body of water.

Ocean Futures Society Director of Photography with an oil soaked boom from the Deepwater Horizon DisasterI was on location in the Gulf with my team to help document this disaster, seeking answers and telling the stories of the local communities who have to endure this catastrophe for years to come. We traveled to Louisiana by van and planes, carbon off-setting our entire expedition - doing what one team can do, knowing we are not going to wean ourselves off of fossil fuel anytime soon, but hoping to inspire those following us that every action counts.
We spent days on the water. We were not only some of the first divers under the surface, documenting the dispersed oil throughout the entire water column, but we also came face to face with the animals and their marshland homes destroyed by oil mixed with toxic dispersants.

On many mornings, we departed from harbors all around the Louisiana coast at the crack of dawn alongside shrimp boats hired by British Petroleum to help contain and clean up the oil spill. But what we painstakingly witnessed from water level was how ineffective many of these attempts were. We found booms encircling critical nesting habitats for nesting sea birds. These birds flew over the booms to feed out at sea and consequently brought the oil back to their nests, back to their hungry chicks.

Oil soaked crab in the Louisiana marshesFrom the air, we saw miles and miles of surface oil, areas of convergence current zones where the oil would concentrate. We could only imagine all the animals that not only depend on currents for transportation, but also all those animals that feed along these convergence current lines that are now ingesting oil.

As the national media portrayed the heart-wrenching images of animals being directly impacted by the oil spill, we spent days with individual people doing everything they could to save them. We filmed the dedication and hard work of the Audubon Nature Institute and Michele Kelley, who is in charge of the team who cleans and cares for sea turtles that come into their facility just south of New Orleans. When we visited in mid July, they had 123 sea turtles of 4 different species, and they were busy building more tanks to house more victims of this hideous crime. To date 588 sea turtles have been rescued and cleaned and are awaiting their release when the biologists feel it safe for them to go home.

Holly Lohuis and International Bird Rescue Research Center release laughing gulls who were rehabilitated after the Gulf oil spillWe spent time with the veterinarians and caretakers from the International Bird Rescue Research Center who worked around the clock ensuring a high survival rate of thirty-five different species of shore birds and sea birds that came into their Fort Jackson facility. We watched the birds being meticulously cleaned, one feather at a time, in what must be a fairly stressful cleaning process for them.

These devoted caretakers knew cleaning and saving these birds was only a band-aid for the much larger insult taking place in the Gulf of Mexico. These birds were only a fraction of birds and other wildlife being impacted by the oil spill. A billion migratory birds are still due to arrive in the Gulf region over the next few months during the fall and winter migration, connecting entire continents to the Gulf region.

With the realization that the impacts of this one spill will be felt for decades to come, my team enjoyed a memorable moment of filming the release of 32 laughing gulls. As we helped open the door to their cages, we felt we too were doing what we could to give back to an ecosystem that has given us so much!

With global attention focused on the Gulf and its economic and conservation importance, it is our hope that this disaster serves as a wake-up call and as a catalyst for bringing more focus and funding to these waters, which are the lifeblood of both the Gulf’s many communities and its rich biological diversity. With my exploration of this region, my goals are to motivate us all to move from disaster to hope, from oil and oil spill to sun and wind and new technologies and new jobs.

At OFS we understand what humans are capable of when faced with a crisis, but what we are trying to instill in future generations is to be more proactive and not deal with crisis management but instead prevent crises altogether. We must learn of ways to be better Ambassadors of the Environment, using our hearts as much as our heads in making the best environmental choices and inspiring us all to move towards a more sustainable future! It is what we owe to ourselves and to all those who are yet to follow in our footsteps.

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Warm regards,


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First Photo: Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

Second Photo: Coral Spawning in the Gulf of Mexico. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

Third Photo: Goliath Groupers make the mangroves their home during the first years of their lives. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

Fourth Photo: Shrimp Boat at Sunrise. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

Fifth Photo: Ocean Futures Society Director of Photography Matthew Ferraro with an oil soaked boom from the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

Sixth Photo: An oil soaked crab in the Louisiana marshes. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

Seventh Photo: Ocean Futures Society research associate Holly Lohuis and the International Bird Rescue Research Center release laughing gulls who were rehabilitated after the Gulf oil spill. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society