Posted by Krista Schlyer, a photographer for Enviro-pic.org and member of the International League of Conservation Photographers.
Eimhear Marvel slept in a beanbag on the floor of the boat as her dad, Captain Peace Marvel, and I bounced across the choppy Gulf out of Venice, LA, Saturday afternoon. Eimhear (pronounced ‘emer’) is a strawberry-blond youngster who decided to accompany Peace and I on a trip to assess the extent to which oil from the April explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig had reached the Chandeleur Islands. But Eimhear had reasons of her own for being there. Two of her favorite animals were often to be seen on boat rides with her father, and she wanted to get a chance to see some dolphins and sea turtles.
I hoped we would, but I feared that catching sight of wildlife would mean seeing them covered in oil, or washed up on the beaches of Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Peace had seen a struggling young sea turtle only days before, coated in oil from the BP spill. It was both my purpose and my nightmare to photograph the impact of the oil spill on wildlife. And it only made it worse that Eimhear might see it too.
The Gulf was growing ever more agitated by rising winds and, as we traveled over the water, the boat began to slam on the surface in a jarring rhythm with the waves. I looked out over the water in search of oil and wildlife and my mind returned to something Jamie Rappaport Clark, Executive Director of Defenders of Wildlife, had said a few days earlier as we were traveling by ferry across Mobile Bay. We had just passed a congregation of pelicans and terns in the shadow of an offshore drilling rig when Jamie looked out onto the water and commented that the whole situation left her with a profound sadness—the fact that this spill had reached the magnitude of a natural disaster, but that it was anything but natural.
For several days I had been fighting a thick cloud gathering in my mind, and suddenly I recognized just what Jamie had expressed—profound sadness. It became clear as the light of the afternoon sun shone on Eimhear’s dozing head, lulled by the waters of the restless Gulf. Here was this beautiful girl, making the choice to take a very rough boat ride into the sea with her dad just so she could see some of the animals she loved; and I was there to photograph those same animals swimming in a poisoned soup served up by hapless human industry, carelessness and greed.
Eimhear reminded me of my young niece, Gabriella. For Christmas a couple of years back she shyly handed me and her Uncle Bill, my fiancé, a framed print of a dolphin she herself had drawn. She gave it to us knowing all of my work as a writer and photographer is tied to a love of nature and that the same is true for Bill. She is the kind of thoughtful child, who writes poems and stories about animals, and makes pledges that when she grows up she is going to do everything she can to protect the Earth. For this past Christmas, I gave her a print of a humpback whale photo I had taken a few years back. Remembering the look on her face as she opened that present brought tears to my eyes as we neared Breton Island and the staging platform for the oil spill response came into view.
As the boat slowed, Eimhear began to stir. The staging platform had the look of an oil rig, but in fact it held all the equipment the response team hoped would help soak up or block the oil spreading rapidly over the Gulf from the Deepwater wreckage. In the space between the platform and Breton Island, we soon noticed dolphins were feeding. Eimhear came alive at the sight of them, as did I. This creature can chase even the darkest thoughts from my mind, for a while anyway. While we were watching them, Eimhear noticed a bottle floating in the water and went to grab the fishing net to scoop it out. Her dad positioned the boat while she reached to pick it up. All the while dolphins were diving and surfacing in the shimmering water, slipping through the surface like quicksilver needles through a luminescent cloth, feeding on the fish that swam invisibly below us. From there we floated slowly around the island, observing the dolphins, then edging nearer to the flock of noisy pelicans that were nesting on the tiny island, some roosting on rusted detritus from a former oil operation.
This spot bears the distinction of being the only national wildlife refuge ever visited by President Teddy Roosevelt, who established the system. He protected this spot for the very birds that were now nesting in a crowded heap on the island. So much of their habitat had been destroyed or taken over by people, Roosevelt knew that without adequate protection for critical migration stopovers and nesting grounds, these birds would disappear altogether.
Breton Island is a fragment of what it was when Roosevelt was here. And what remains is now threatened by a tide of oil and dispersant chemicals. I imagine Roosevelt would have shared the profound sorrow that now permeates the consciousness of all who love the Earth.
Roosevelt’s refuge system most likely saved the brown pelican, as it did so many other wild species. Brown pelicans were recently removed from the Endangered Species List, a success story much celebrated, but that now may have an unwelcome epilogue. Some of their most critical nesting sites are found here on the barrier islands of the Gulf. If oil destroys these beaches and kills the young that are nesting here now, the pelican’s future will once again be in jeopardy.
But the oil had not arrived yet and Peace, who has visited these islands to fish since he was a kid, was visibly relieved. It is a special place for him, and though he knows it is under threat, as is the rest of the Gulf coast, he hopes that somehow Breton will be spared.
From Breton, we attempted to travel to islands further south in the Chandeleur chain, where on a flight a day earlier I had seen oil washed on the beaches. Unfortunately, heavy winds and waves would not allow a more southerly trip so before heading back we took one last look around Breton. We rocked roughly on the churning water, talking about Peace’s memories of the place, and, just as we were about to head back to Venice, Peace looked out upon the water and then gasped quietly. The frontlines of an endless patch of oily muck had advanced upon the boat from the south, and were creeping quickly toward pelican-loud Breton Island.
“It’s here,” Peace said sadly.
A waxy froth that had seemed like an amorphous film from the air the night before, now moved upon water where dolphins were feeding an hour before. A disturbed silence fell over us. I knew photos would be useless. This toxic cloud could not be photographed, which meant I could not show it to others—seemingly the only hope of alerting the public and policymakers to the extent of this catastrophe.
“I really hoped Breton would be spared,” Peace lamented.
Our trip back to the coast was gloomy and when we reached the dock Peace’s wife Erin and his oldest daughter were there to greet us. Erin was due to give birth to her first child in August and the family planned to celebrate her first Mothers Day the next morning. I said goodnight and congratulations, trying to sound upbeat after the day we’d had.
As I drove to my hotel, my thoughts turned to that ultimate of mothers, the Earth, without whom none of us would be here. She is resilient and selfless, like many mothers, but even she has a breaking point, a point at which all the insults and abuses will pile up so high that she will snap. The day’s events made me fear that tipping point is closer than any of us imagine.