Dispatch from the Gulf Oil Spill: The Slippery Fate of Bird Island

cousteau family photo

Image credit: Philippe Cousteau

My sister Alexandra's flight was delayed last night so she didn't get in until after midnight. We were all sorry she couldn't join us for dinner and a toast to my grandfather for what would have been his 100 birthday. Despite the late night we got moving around 8:30 for the two hour drive to Grand Isle. Neither my sister nor my mother had been down to witness this disaster with their own eyes and as environmental leaders it was important for them to do so. It was fixing to be another hot day as the thermometer in the car was reading almost 90 degrees and it was not even 9AM. Typical for this time of year in Louisiana the humidity was climbing as fast as the temperature and it was going to be a long day out on the water.On the drive down to Grand Isle we saw more and more signs proclaiming the impacts of this disaster, closed for business signs and sarcastic 'thank you BP signs' were cropping up everywhere and helped to set the tone for my companions.

philippe crouching in a boat photo
My sister had visited Grand Isle briefly last year as part of her series of expeditions exploring the global water crisis and I remember her speaking of spending evenings with groups of fisherman as they sang songs and shared stories of the generations of heritage and culture that ran deep and strong in their community. Now I could see the trepidation on my sister's face as she returned knowing that a very different experience awaited her.

Environmentalists raise concerns about shrimping and the environmental destruction it causes but our goal has always been to find ways to work with industry to be more sustainable. No one ever wanted these people to lose everything and suffer the injustice of having their livelihoods robbed. Now, as the sweltering summer heat descends on this part of the country, all of us who either worked in or on the Gulf to are watching helplessly as the fruits of our labor and dedication slowly suffocate under this cloak of black death.

When we arrived in Grand Isle, Captain Ben was there to meet us at Bridgeside marina and we quickly loaded the boat and headed out onto the Bay. Good news is hard to come by these days and the good news was that compared to last week the skimmers and booms are being more effectively employed. Unfortunately that only means that they are probably collected the 20% of the oil that is the norm, however anything would be better than last week's mess. After over a month to get their act together, the boats are starting out early to skim the water before the oil gets too far into the Bay. We also saw that most of the islands are surrounded by booms—a welcome sign.

oily brown pelican photo

Image credit: Philippe Cousteau

Our first destination was Queen Bess—or as the locals call it, Bird Island—about half way out into the Bay. It's the symbolic home of Brown Pelican conservation and the site where these birds were reintroduced in the 1970's. Thousands of birds nest on the island, a short, squat, place covered by shrubs and occupying an area of only a few acres. Queen Bess is packed with nests and everywhere you look, bone white baby pelicans stick there heads above the branches unaware of the fate that man has condemned them to. While protected by booms we still saw oiled birds and even old oily booms that had washed up on shore at points throughout the island. I could see the horror on my mother's face as her maternal instinct automatically responded to the helpless mother's who will shortly have to witness their off-spring venture out into a world more toxic and deadly than they one they knew as chicks. From there we moved on to other islands all of which are suffering a similar fate. Ben grimly explained that all it will take is a storm, or worse, a hurricane to cover these islands in oil and undo decades of successful conservation.

walrus crossing photo

Image credit: Philippe Cousteau

The sun was high in the sky as we headed back towards the marina passing oil slicks and broken boom along wetlands and marsh that had become brown with a fresh coating of oil, oil that would only disappear when the grasses it clings to die and sink, only to continue poisoning the environment from beneath the waves. As we pulled up to the marina we looked around at each other and felt a collective sense of helplessness that I think is shared by the rest of the country. Our collective humanity demands of us to do more than document: We want to act, to somehow help this beautiful place, to take up every creature in our arms and make the oil go away, all the while apologizing for the arrogance and stupidity of our species. Instead we could only silently, shamefully, watch as Ben pulled up alongside the marina, the sides of the boat covered in oil and then one by one climb ashore to continue our journey.

grand isle cemetery photo
We had a long drive ahead of us to Mobile, Alabama, but our work was still not done. We started on the road to explore the island itself. We walked to the beach but this week far more workers were on hand (thank goodness) and by now most of the night's deposit of oil had been cleaned up. We drove past more signs thanking BP for destroying the heritage and livelihood of the residents and even one sign that warned of a walrus crossing, an obvious mockery of BP's emergency preparedness plan that listed the arctic mammal as one of the species at risk of a spill in the Gulf.

Before we left I had one more thing to do. Last Friday when I visited Grand Isle, I had heard rumors of a cemetery on the island with crosses paying symbolic tribute to the silent casualties of this tragedy. We found it halfway down the island and one by one read the victims aloud: walks on the beach, redfish, brown pelican, fishing, sand in between my toes, shrimp etouffe, beach sunrises, and more.

Of course these are not only things that the residents have lost, they are things we have all lost, as a nation and as a people whose children will never know the richness and diversity that we have squandered.

Read more dispatches from the Gulf:
Dispatch from the Gulf Oil Spill: Damage Getting Worse Before It Gets Better
Dispatch from the Gulf Oil Spill: Philippe Cousteau Tours the Wetlands, Oil Refineries (Photos and Video)
Philippe Cousteau: Oil Spill Heartache (Video)

Dispatch from the Gulf Oil Spill: The Slippery Fate of Bird Island
My sister Alexandra's flight was delayed last night so she didn't get in until after midnight. We were all sorry she couldn't join us for dinner and a toast to my grandfather for what would have been his 100 birthday.