Text and photos by Carl Safina
In Casey Keiff’s very fast, overpowered outboard we blast through a sliver of the astonishingly vast and intricate wetlands of Louisiana. The skeletons of oak forests stand starkly on marsh islands now subsiding as oil and gas has been pumped from under them and the Army Corps of Engineers’ channels have starved them of sediment. Years of cutting channels have taken a toll, helping boating and shipping at the expense of the marshes themselves. The land is now too low and too inundated to sustain those forests. They’re dying back and the marshes themselves are eroding away. All the old-timers tell of their youth in a very different place.
But still, there are miles and miles of marshes before one gets to the open waters of Breton Sound. As we head toward the open Gulf, I notice a few Bottlenose Dolphins rolling as they come for air in the mud-murked channels.
When we reach open water, the horizon is dotted with gas rigs and a few boats that have piled their decks with booms.
Our captain steers us through a stiff chop to one of the inner islands, Freemason, a barely emergent ridge of sand and shell about a mile long. It’s the innermost of the Chandeleur chain. The island is little more than a ridge of shell maybe a mile long. (Katrina erased several miles of these islands.)
The island isn’t well known to people. But it is to birds. Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, Herring Gulls, Black Skimmers, and Least, Sandwich, and Royal Terns rest by the dozens. They’re joined by a few itinerant Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, and Black-bellied Plovers migrating toward Arctic nesting grounds.
A Magnificent Frigatebird patrols overhead. It shares the airspace with a couple of helicopters and a C-130 military cargo plane.
Booms have been placed along one side of Freemason Island. But they don’t run the whole length of even one side of the island. And on the side where they were placed, the wind and chop have already washed them ashore in places, and partly buried them in sand and shell. In other words, segments of the boom have already been rendered ineffective, just by a couple-days’ wave action.
We’d had some news that part of the oil slick was 8 miles southeast of the islands in the open Gulf. We’re told that much of the slick is orange, and that the heavier crude looks clumpy, “like raw sewage.” But the water is too rough for us to continue on to the main Chandeleur Islands, or beyond. Indeed, some of the fishing boats carrying booms are headed back in. They say they were sent back due to rough water.
So far I see oil only on the heads and bellies of a few Sandwich Terns. Just a little brown smudge on only a few; but it’s unmistakably oil.
I fear much worse is coming. Even if the booms were perfect—and they are far from perfect—there is no way to keep these birds out of the water. Diving into water—that’s how they eat.