Behind the Scenes With First Divers To Descend Beneath the Surface of Gulf Oil Spill (Exclusive)


Philippe Cousteau emerging from a dive in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. All photo and video courtesy of Philippe Cousteau except where noted.
Yesterday, along with ABC's Sam Champion, Philippe Cousteau dove in the oil spill to film a segment for Good Morning America; they were the first to do so. Cousteau is chief ocean correspondent for Planet Green, and will host the network's feature Blue August.
Diving in Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill
The morning started early...5:30AM and didn't stop all day. While I am not much of a fan of early mornings, I don't mind it so much when the reason is an adventure like the one we are headed towards today. It all started three weeks ago when we called the producers at ABC's Good Morning America and said, "I don't think anyone has ever filmed a dive in an oil spill...we should do it." Three weeks of logistical planning, risk assessment and even postponement due to weather, and we got a window to head out to dive in the oil. Our goal was to find the thickest oil/chemical dispersant mixture we could and then get in the water.

Descending into the water in heavy gear.

We had full hazmat outfits which included full dry suits, Kirby Morgan hard helmets and air hoses and in water communications. All of the gear was designed to protect us from chemical exposure and it ended up being one of the most grueling days I have ever had diving. We did two dives, one in clear water to test the gear and the next on in the thickest nastiest oil we could find. The helmet weighed 30 pounds by itself and it was 90 degrees out.

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The 30-pound helmet worn by the divers.

Wearing a dry suit it was sweltering and all of us were exhausted and dehydrated within minutes. By the time we got in the water we quickly forgot about the discomfort as the gravity of the situation hit us. All around us was a thick soup of orange particles floating in the water column to a depth of about 15 feet. On the surface a sheen of oil covered the water. The dive lasted about 30 minutes and after wave after wave of oil/chemical dispersant mix washed over us it was time to head back to the surface.

Philippe Cousteau explains the precautions he must take in order to dive into the oil-filled water.

This was one of the most terrible experiences of my life seeing first had what this oil spill looks like under the water and knowing that this contamination is spreading over hundreds of miles. Even if they do manage to cut off the oil tomorrow, the oil that has escaped will spread, following currents as far as the Arctic Circle via the Gulf Stream, wreaking havoc along the way.

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The oily water that the divers descended into.

We made it back to the harbor around midnight, exhausted and ready for a few hours of sleep before we start a round of press the next day. I know that my father and grandfather would have been doing this if they were alive and that they would have been just as horrified by what they saw as I was. I can only hope that we learn from this and start to truly take the kind of drastic action necessary to begin the decades long road to recovery for history will not only judge us by our mistakes but by what we do to fix them and so far...I fear history will judge us harshly.

Cousteau, devastated after emerging from the water. "This is one of the most disgusting, terrible things I've ever seen."

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