Thursday, April 21, 2011

Remembering last year in the Gulf of Mexico

Black smoke billows up from the silver surface of the sea. Firefighters on ships send water cannons high. Eleven men are dead. Oil gushes into the Gulf as eons of pressure release. Deepwater drilling disaster.

As ocean dwellers we must do something, we must bear witness. Open our eyes to what could be lost, to the beauty we had. We need to be there, to take the pulse of the Gulf. To feel it beating and embrace what is still alive, look with new eyes at our third sea, our much-insulted coast.

Finding a berth and a ship is not easy, when half the fleet is tied up for safety and the other half is on contract to BP. Hired hands are towing booms, ferrying tyvek-covered workers to the scene of the crime. Finally we find our ship, donated in part and brought in from afar like the clean-up vessels on offer from around the world to the US government.

Chaos reigns and each day the news and rules of engagement change. We apply for permits, ID cards, and study small engine repair. Now you must sign here, pay here, report for official cleaning, and now you must clean your own ship, fill out more forms, produce passports and documentation. Like a war zone, security is in place though the officers turn over weekly and their high-tech equipment seems somehow inadequate to the task. Both the government and BP are out in force and yet clearly not in charge, not in control.

Across the water we meet cleaning vessels, coast guard ships, fellow witnesses, passing with the briefest of communications, unable to ask the question, why are we here? What can we do? Most strangely, most overwhelmingly, we encounter business as usual. We are astonished by the quiet normalcy, the vastness of the Gulf and how quietly it assumes this latest in a relentless tide of insults. There is a need, a survivor’s instinct to muffle the sounds, to continue moving forward.

We are surrounded by a skeleton city of steel rigs, tended by drones who shuttle between them like Soviet-era space ships. The sea feels hollow here, merely a container for oil and yet when we drop divers, our robot, a camera, the sea stars skitter by. Feathery worms reach up from the sand to catch their supper and corals sway, rocking the fish to sleep in the night lit by flames.

All is well and yet, not quite right. In the vastness, in the quiet, beneath the jumping dolphins that appear daily at our bow, lies a brown slime, lie ghosts of the animals who sink to the bottom when they die. Like missing children, they can not be counted but we go through the motions anyway.

Buffeted by weather and logistics, we work our way through each room of this Gulf of Mexico home, counting heads among the fish, birds, dolphins, manatees, workers and homemakers, citizens of this place. We comb the sky with binoculars and post letters from this other world, reporting on its beauty. We visit marshes, reefs, fields of seagrass and open water. Healthy tarpon and hogfish swim among us. Glittering sea fans and glowing sponges reach out with soft tendrils.

When we dock in port we buy batteries and soda, magazines for the crew. We fill up on the same fuel that fills the Gulf. We pass the empty office of the BP customer service center. We talk to shopkeepers, bartenders, marina owners, fishermen. Their anger is reserved, this is not their first war. Most seem to be waiting for an unknown. For compensation? For answers? For time to pass? For the full impacts to be known?

We immerse special strips that are microscopic sponges, to absorb the oil we can not see and track its advance across unfathomable depths. We find evidence of oil persisting in the Gulf despite early claims that there’s nothing to see, that we should call off the search. We bring cameras and notepads, nets and tags, ears and eyes. We record everything, the survivors and the life untouched. We bring in others to bear witness.

From South Florida around the rim of the Gulf to Tampa, Pensacola, Gulfport, New Orleans and then back. At the beach when we arrive sunbathers lie on vacation. They buy trinkets and read the news and sigh over their drinks. It’s a shame but really, what is to be done? In a way they have a point, these events unfolded long ago when greed pushed the drills deeper and deeper. Addicted, we pushed blindly beyond mistakes, beyond our rescuers, until April 20, when the whole thing blew.

Now we stand looking, asking why, asking who and what was it all for. Again a year later, the question is asked. What is right? Is it time to drill again? Who can say? We can say no and we remember. The largest oil spill in US history happened in the Gulf. It’s not the first time, nor is it the last time until we say no, until we take on the work of change, of clean energy, of the future.

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