Getting High With Captain Coon-Ass

May 13th, 2010 | 4 Comments
Climate Change, Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Gulf of Mexico Oil Blow-Out, News

Text and photos by Carl Safina

“My name’s Dicky Toups,” says the pilot before he starts the engine of the sea plane I’m climbing into.  “But they call me Captain Coon-ass.”

Pic 1

We overfly the emerald maze of the vast Mississippi Delta. Capt. Coon-ass points, “There’s a big ole ‘gator.” The marshes are diced by long, straight artificial channels and man-made meanders, all aids to access and shipping. But for the eroding marshes, they are literally death by a thousand cuts.

Pic 2

As we near the coast, two boats are tending booms around an island densely dotted with nesting pelicans. As I’ve noticed from the ground—but even more striking from up here at 3,500 feet—most of the coast is bare and undefended.

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Only slowly does the muddy Mississippi lose itself to the oceanic blue of the open Gulf, a melting of identities, a meeting of watery minds. And also the drain for sediments, agricultural fertilizers, and dead-zone-generating pollutants from the entire Midwest and most of the Plains. Even before the oil blowout, a troubled place; a troubled place whose troubles have now escalated to a whole new level.

“There’s oil,” says Capt. Coon-ass. “Up ahead.” The sea-surface breeze pattern is interrupted by a marbling of slicks. Often such a pattern is perfectly natural, so I look carefully. It’s brown; it’s oil. One of those slicks has nuzzled against the shore. There’s a boat there and some people are walking along the beach, inspecting a long boom that the wind has washed ashore, leaving the beach exposed. I’ve seen a lot of this in the last few days, booms rendered inoperative by a little onshore wind.

Pic 6

The nearshore waters and beyond are peppered with drilling rigs for oil and gas, some abandoned. Like bringing coals to Newcastle, many of the rigs stand surrounded by floating oil.

Offshore, longer slicks ribbon their way out into the blue Gulf. As we follow them, the light slicks thicken with dark streaks that look from the air like wind-driven orange fingers, then like chocolate pudding. An ocean streaked with chocolate pudding.

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A few miles out, the streaks grow darker still. Yet there remains far more open water than oil slick. But that changes.

Pic 9

As the water darkens and the slicks widen, Capt. Coon-ass points to a small plane below us, saying it’s scouting for the C-130s that will follow to spray dispersants. More chemicals on a sea of chemicals, new chemicals to dissolve the first chemicals into the sea. Dissolved, the oil becomes less visible, but studies show dispersants make oil more toxic to fish.

Yet plenty of the oil—and I mean plenty—is not dissolved. Nor could it be, because it’s still welling up out of the sea at the same rate it’s been gushing since the explosion.

“This is some pretty thick stuff right here,” Capt. Coon-ass says. The crude is now drifting in broad wide bands that stretch to the horizon. “We’re lookin’ at twenty miles of oil right here.”

Pic 10

Right here turns out to be directly over the site of the blowout. Below, two ships are drilling the relief wells that we’re told will take months. A dozen ships drift nearby, most with helicopter landing pads on them, doing something, perhaps.

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A fresh breeze puts white caps on the non-oiled patches of the black-and-blue sea. As the C-130 comes out, we turn northeast.

We’re headed toward the Chandeleur Islands, the line of sandy islands that’s been much in the news for its at-risk bird rookeries. Soon we come over Breton Sound, where a couple of days ago, from a boat, I saw no oil.

But now there is plenty of oil, moving in between the main coast and the islands.

Out to intercept the oil is a fleet of shrimp boats towing booms from the outriggers that would normally tow their nets. The idea appears to be that they will catch the oil at the surface, the way they catch shrimp at the seafloor.

Pic 13 shrimpers

Dozens of boats tow booms through the oil, but as they do so, water and oil simply flows over the booms. Far from corralling it, they’re barely stirring it. As they pass, the oil—all of it—remains.

Pic 14

So pray for fishmen. And everything else.

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(I’d like to thank Jonathan Henderson and the Gulf Restoration Network and especially singer-activist Jo Hyer [http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/hyer] for making the flight possible.)

4 Responses to “Getting High With Captain Coon-Ass”

  1. Over 20 years ago, I was dispatched to Prince William Sound for the Exxon Valdez festivities.
    What we found was almost no equipment in place, no plan to deal with a major spill, reluctance on the part of Exxon executives to use available resources, lawyers and execs trying to pass the blame, USCG and other regulators completely dumfounded, and just to top it all off nicely in the town of Cordova, pot-bellied oil company dorks wearing cowboy boots and big belt buckles expounding “Ol is a nacheral substince so it don’t hurt nothin’.” (One of those cretins made the mistake of running his mouth in a local fisherman’s bar and had subsequent medical issues involving trauma.) No one went to jail, Exxon recovered its costs within a few months, bought a few more Congresscritters and later the Supreme Court, threw a few bucks to escort boats and booms.

    Prince William Sound still has oil just below the gravel and the herring have never recovered. Back to business as usual.

    Sound familiar? Nothing learned in 20 years? “Disgusting” is far too mild a term for these attitudes and the people who hold them. Carl, what would be a better, more pungent synonym? Keep up the fine observing and reporting.

  2. barbara says:

    Thank you Carl Safina for keeping us abreast of this beastly situation — barbara

  3. Judy Bergsma says:

    Carl, as always, your words combined with your photos bring this disaster to life. To read your story breaks my heart. The photo of the shrimp boats trying to fight this massive oil slick puts this whole event in perspective. I feel sad, I feel angry for all the creatures lost and for those that will be lost. As human beings we can so easily create disasters, but, when they happen, we are so ill prepared to deal with the consequences of our decisions. With all of our experience with oil spills, why has not someone created, for example, a fabric that can be laid on top of the sea that sucks up oil and a boat that can shovel it into a hold when it has lost further ability to absorb. We are novice inventors in this 21st century and have not learned to look ahead.

  4. Jimmy Daspit says:

    Wow Great Photos ! Nice Job my friend !

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