Tonight, travelling with a local politician allows us to see Pensacola Beach. We’re told that the red lights affixed to the heads of the cleanup crew are to protect the returning turtles that will be laying their eggs soon. But these red lights don’t help workers to distinguish oil from seaweed or shells or dead fish. The red lights don’t illuminate the oil, period, and it seems ever more unlikely that turtles would swim their way through a choking skim of oil to lay their eggs on an oil-saturated beach reeking of petroleum and swarming with masked humans digging at globs of whatever they can guess might be oil.
The enormity, the weight, of the cleanup to come and the damage already done renders us silent. As if we needed any more proof that the environment isn’t a self-cleaning machine ready made for man-made injuries, one of us steps into the warm Gulf waters, steps out again, and asks Kirby to aim his ultraviolet light at his bare feet. This beach will be deemed clean and reopened by some other head honcho in only two days, but right now, the water is so polluted with particles of oil that our friend looks like he wears orange polka-dot socks. The science fiction nightmare has become reality.
As of Thursday, July 15, it appears a new cap on the well has succeeded in stopping the gush of oil. The flow apparently has been staunched. Indeed, Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, said on Saturday, July 18, “There is less and less oil to recover.”
One can only assume that he refers to the surface oil that has sluiced its way over thousands of square kilometres of the Gulf waters—the oil that can readily be seen. It can be sucked up and processed or burned off, to some extent. And with days for BP to play catch-up, of course there’s “less and less oil to recover.”
What, though, of the oil that can’t be seen, the oil that’s been treated with dispersants and moves in large snaking coils of gelatinous muck away from the various methods of containment? What about the oil that never even makes it to the surface to be treated?
Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the famous Jacques Cousteau and CEO of the non-profit organization EarthEcho International, whose mission is to “empower youth to take action that protects and restores our water planet,” has plenty to say on the matter. Earlier during our Gulf visit, we watch Cousteau speak with Robert Kennedy Jr. in Mobile, Ala., and clearly Cousteau’s an environmental rock star. He’s tall and handsome, and it’d be easy to write him off as yet another pretty face of the environmental movement. But he’s more active at a hands-on level than other mouthpieces. Beyond serving on the boards of important institutions and lecturing at the likes of Harvard, Cousteau happened to be with Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin when he was fatally wounded by a stingray barb to the heart. Cousteau obviously continues in his father’s and grandfather’s tradition of diving and exploring, investigating first-hand.
Addressing the question of what the oil is doing beneath the surface and its treatment with dispersants, Cousteau says, “We’re very concerned. The challenge—what’s happening in this situation—is this oil spill is very different than what happened in last U.S. memory with the Exxon Valdez because of the depth at which it’s occurring. Almost two kilometres beneath the surface. It’s never happened before. And it’s a situation that is essentially an uncontrolled experiment. With the application of dispersants, but even without the application of dispersants at this depth, it’s not as cut and dry, as the oil just rises to the surface. It can attach itself to sediment. With that temperature and pressure it can remain for long periods of time at that depth and cause very serious problems. The concern with this oil spill is not just what we can see, but what we can’t see.”
If what can’t be seen by the naked human eye except with the aid of an ultraviolet light is any indication, what remains slithering throughout the mile-deep valleys of the Gulf of Mexico is a science ﬁction monster of another genre altogether. Only robotic submersibles can reach the depth of the well. It’s truly hard to say just how much oil has yet to rise. And it’s likely BP prefers it that way.
What can be seen in the light of day, however, is the oil that has found a home at Fort Pickens in a national park that borders Pensacola Beach. It’s at the tip of one of a chain of Gulf islands that once held the imprisoned Geronimo. Normally the park squawks with fishing birds, and its warm surrounding waters teem with minnows and other young marine life. Today, the park has been left soiled and silent. Because it’s a national seashore sanctuary, it is, in all horrible irony, not allowed to be touched. Oil globules—their very existence designed for ease of cleanup—cover the national park like so many dead jellyfish, and at night, armed with our ultraviolet light, we see that free-floating oil coats the island in giant random patches. These nursery waters can’t be long for this world.