Text and photos by Carl Safina, with additional images by Jeffrey Dubinski as indicated. Click here to view a video interview of Carl Safina after this boat trip.
“This is what we call The Junk,” our boat captain Keith Kennedy says derisively as he steers us from Venice, Louisiana through the Industrial Canal. It’s hard to imagine a more industrialized waterfront, and the whole place smells like petroleum.
There is no single Mississippi rivermouth. The mighty, muddy, Mississippi speaks in tongues. Her Delta is a polyglot of channels. We’re gonna run down via the channel called the Grand Pass, and from there through the Coast Guard Cut to East Bay, directly confronting the open Gulf of Mexico.
Along the way I’m thinking that if oil comes into any of these channels, there is no way people can clean it from the intricate intimacy of these marshes. We pass a gator on a log. An otter pops its head up briefly.
At the moment, most of its Delta and marshes are utterly undefended against oil. Where booms have been placed along the outer beach, many have already washed up on shore, already useless.
One area with many resting birds is boomed.
But birds fly. Pelicans, gulls, and terns are diving. A Peregrine Falcon comes high over the distant marsh. Any shorebirds even slightly slowed by oiled feathers will be first on its menu, to its detriment.
We see a slick near the diving birds. It could be natural. I don’t see or smell any oil. There’s no rainbow sheen or scent. It’s very thin on the water, and at first Kennedy and I both think it’s a slick from a school of fish below.
But then he and Jonathan Henderson and the Gulf Restoration Network spot some floating flecks that don’t look familiar. Using a bait net, Captain Kennedy collects one, then a larger blob. The stuff’s a bit gooey, the consistency of peanut butter but stickier. It smells like petroleum. It doesn’t dissolve in water. It’s hard to get it off our hands. It’s our first encounter with the actual crude oil.
There are booms along some of the marshes. But another slick has washed right up along the shore nearby, and in it, mullet are jumping. The song comes to mind: Summertime. Fish are jumping and the river is high. But the livin’s no longer easy.
We pass a shack called Paradise, and another called Happy Ending. But now everything seems laden with portent; every sight and sign seems ominously like some metaphor of the all-too-real.