Photos by Brian Merchant
From hundreds of feet above, the massive oil slick -- yes, the one that's bigger than Maryland -- is, well, pretty unimpressive looking. That is, if you're oil spill conceptions are informed by the slimy birds of Prince William Sound, and you're harboring an acute anticipation to see horrors of the "unprecedented environmental catastrophe" of our time. It is indeed huge, but it's not dramatic. When I joined the US Coast Guard for a flyover the spill, I got a firsthand look at the bizarre mass. Here's what it looks like:
Yes, your initial reaction is probably going to be akin to my own -- it doesn't look like much. Even though it's now believed that the geyser underground may be spewing up to 70,000 barrels a day (up from the previous estimate of 5,000), there's still very little in the way of graphically disturbing scenery to be found. Even though you're looking at the source of the spill, you can still only see some light coloration and oily sheen.
This is due both to BP's aggressive use of chemical dispersants to break up the slick, and the depths from which the oil must travel to reach the surface, which changes the color of the crude. The majority of the observable oil is looks like a giant sheen -- imagine if someone left a hundred-mile long boat's outboard motor running way too long, and it might look something like this.
Other parts look coppery or orange -- these are extremely difficult to photograph from hundreds of feet in the air on a moving plane, especially considering my short-range camera (and limited photography skills).
You can see the boats and rigs that are aiding in the daily cleanup effort, surrounded by copper oil that doesn't photograph well ...
And here's some boom failing to contain the oil:
A German TV crew does a standup from the back of the plane.
In case you're curious to see what an operation on such a plane (this is the same one the Coast Guard used to respond to the rig when it first exploded) looks like (I can tell you I was), here's some quick footage I took with the Flip.
And then, from the hot seat:
Yup, that's the Gulf down there, and you can barely see the spill (if you can see it at all -- I recommend squinting). But I think that one of the most important things to keep in mind as coverage continues, and the public starts getting tired of an oil spill story that doesn't have hundreds of oiled marine mammals and birds or a black slick spreading for miles, is that the real story is going to be what's happening beyond what the eye can see? What's happening with those chemical dispersants, allegedly safe, according to BP and the EPA? How is all this oil affecting marine life, and what's going on in underwater ecosystems?
The cliche goes that appearances are deceiving. Well, looking out at hundreds of miles of an ocean coated in an innocuous-looking sheen, that truism has never before seemed more resonant.
More Gulf Oil Reportage:
14 Year-old Girl Confronts BP for Lack of Oil Spill Education (Video)
How Many Days Until the BP Deepwater Horizon Becomes the World's Worst Oil Spill?
US Army to Turn Gulf Spill Oil Into Asphalt With Experimental Chemical (Video)
Must See Aerial Footage of BP Oil Spill Shows 'The Gulf Bleeding' (Video)