Eerie normalcy

Trees in Bon Secour NWR (Krista Schlyer)

Trees in Bon Secour NWR (Krista Schlyer)

Posted by Krista Schlyer, a photographer for Enviro-pic.org and member of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Alabama

On a late afternoon walk in Bon Secour NWR an eerie normalcy prevails in the upbeat melody of birds and frogs. This is the first day of a three day trip with Defenders of Wildlife to document the coastal wildlife habitats of the Gulf, before and after the impending resolution to the mass of oil accumulating from an exploded offshore oil rig.

I’m traveling with Defenders’ Executive Vice President Jamie Rappaport Clark and Cindy Hoffman, Vice President of Communications to try to get a sense of exactly what is at stake here for some very rare remnants of coastal habitat and their inhabitants. One of those remnants is Bon Secour—a French phrase that translates as “safe harbor.” Depending on Gulf currents, these brilliant white beaches may soon be anything but safe for the wildlife they were first protected for in 1980.

But at the moment, they remain bon secour. It’s just another day for wildlife here—searching for food and chatting with mates and rivals, the stuff of survival. They don’t know what lurks offshore and haven’t been monitoring the path of a blob of toxic sludge that an offshore oil operation unleashed upon the Gulf two weeks ago. They don’t know that the only “good news” on the issue since the spill is that another toxic substance that we have been pouring by the thousands of gallons onto the sludge is proving somewhat effective at breaking up the oil so that it can become an invisible toxin in the ocean rather than a visible one on land.

Palms at Bon Secour NWR (Krista Schlyer)

Palms at Bon Secour NWR (Krista Schlyer)

But I do know, sadly. I can imagine what this lively community of 370 species of birds, loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, alligators and even an endangered beach mouse may soon see become of their brilliant white beach habitat. Nobody knows at this point where this mess will travel, if or where it will make landfall, or if doused by megadoses of oil dispersing toxins it will dissipate into another pollutant in the Gulf. But walking this sandy path beneath ancient live oaks and towering pines, I can imagine sea turtles, dolphins and manatees that swim these waters coming up to breath only to find oil and other toxins coating their eyes and infecting their skin; and I can imagine seabirds covered in oil, helpless and grounded, and safe harbor for wildlife degraded for generations to come.

At the end of our walk we meet a gathering crowd of press that talked with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on the coastal shoulder of this refuge. Sec. Salazar struck a somber note, full of concern about how this disaster will play out for treasured wildlife refuges like Bon Secour. A tone quite unlike that of the surrounding sounds of the refuge. These creatures going about their lives, unaware of the potential doom that we have set in motion.

What they don’t know, will hurt them, and us.

-Krista Schlyer