Gulf icon

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

Yesterday was bookended with images of a Gulf icon, the brown pelican, in gruesomely contrasting circumstances. I arrived yesterday with Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and Cindy Hoffman, the organization’s vice president for Communications. This is our second trip as a trio to the Gulf to assess and document firsthand the extent of the impact of the oil spill and the effectiveness of the response. We started out the day driving to Houma, Louisiana, the nexus of the response in this state, which has come to be known as the incident command center.

watermarked license plateOn the drive there, Cindy noticed the Louisiana license plate in front of us. “They have a brown pelican on their license plates,” she’d said. The image of the pelican on the license is a good one, capturing the comic but regal appearance of the bird. They look like their genetic code is missing a few key elements, but the grace with which they glide just inches above the surface of the ocean clarifies things: they are perfect, and perfectly adapted into the natural world in which they evolved.

Our morning drive ended in a place we were not expecting to go: a BP office complex. What was once a rural outpost for an oil company is now the center of operations for an enormous gathering of government and corporate forces trying to contain the oil gusher unleashed upon the Gulf.

Jamie had set up a meeting with Rowan W. Gould, the acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is helping to direct the response to wildlife impacts from the gushing well. In the past seven weeks, the number of wildlife species impacted by the oil has steadily grown, a trend that will almost certainly continue for years, as the oil and chemical dispersants poured by BP on the oil make their way into the habitats of all creatures in the Gulf, and perhaps beyond. To date, more than 1,000 birds have been collected, more than 300 sea turtles, and about 40 mammals. Mr. Gould showed us the wildlife response system they have set up, which includes more than 50 boats staffed with wildlife handlers trained by state and federal wildlife agencies, helicopters and hotline staff waiting by the phone for calls about wildlife in distress. He said he was pleased with the response effort.

So far of the birds collected, 40 have been re-released into the wild. Their longterm survival after such a traumatic and toxic event is by no means guaranteed, and some of them will be tagged to help study the viability of birds after cleaning. Many hundreds more are still in pens and treatment centers, and they will in the coming months be joined by thousands more. This is just the beginning. As Mr. Gould pointed out, “You’ve got bluefin tuna spawning, you’ve got sperm whales. We have a food web here.” And since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, toxic sludge has been infiltrating every strand of that food web.

We had the opportunity to see some of that sludge later in the day on a boat trip with a wildlife rescue boat.

Orange slicks streak through the waters of Barataria Bay, and have washed upon islands of critical, critical significance to birds. One such island was the location for my second encounter with an iconic image of a pelican. Bird Island in Barataria Bay is this time of year carpeted with nesting birds, mostly brown pelicans but also terns and pastel pink roseate spoonbills. We followed the rescue boat around the island  and through waters dappled with globs of orange muck, as they searched for oiled birds for capture and cleaning.

This is an especially vulnerable time for birds, because they are trying to care for their young. Bird Island was filled with the awkward looking pelicans bringing food from the surrounding waters, back to their helpless white chicks. Before long we spotted some strange looking chicks at the edge of the small island. Rather than downy white, they were orange from beak to foot. They had become separated from their mother, and were struggling to keep their grasp on the tree branches above the surface of the oil. I knew the rescue boat was searching, so I called out the location. The boat continued around the island, ignoring the birds. “Aren’t they going to go get them?” I said, accidentally out loud. A voice from the boat behind me, a man from Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said, “No, let me explain to you why we cant.”

watermarked oily baby birdsI knew before he started what he would say, but upon seeing the chicks covered with oil that would almost surely kill them, all pragmatic sense had left me. Of course they couldn’t go get them. The response teams here take every precaution to do the least possible harm while trying rescue wildlife from the oil. They have to decide between taking boats up to the islands, which would scare many of the birds off their nests and put their chicks in jeopardy, or waiting for an opportunity to approach an isolated spot on the island that would be less intrusive. They run the risk, in trying to save the birds from the oil, of threatening a whole generation of brown pelicans, a species only recently taken off the endangered species list. It is an impossible situation. And it became clear as we pulled away from the terrified chicks, that the number of birds impacted or already dead from the oil is merely an estimate, likely a very low estimate that will rise dramatically when researchers count the bodies that remain on these islands after nesting birds have left.

I spent the ride back to our hotel sorting through photos taken from a distance of those birds, too far to make a good photo, too close to ever forget this new iconic image of Gulf pelicans.

32 Responses to “Gulf icon”

  1. John Schlyer

    Thanks for the report Krista, this is a very sad tragedy that will have devestation to the Gulf’s wild creatures. Keep up the good work.

  2. MK

    Thanks Krista, for your reports. I am heartbroken and nearly stunned into silence, but I really want to speak up and thank you so much for doing this work, and focusing your able lens on the brown pelicans. I’m looking forward to seeing your pictures, and praying that some kind of clean up miracle emerges as people really LOOK at what is happening.

  3. katherine

    Thank you so much for the update. I have heard how the media is not allowed to show the diaster as far as what is happening to sea and wild life. What is so disgusting that they never had a plan in place to stop a leak.

    More over I am so angered when BP PR comes on the TV. How dare they. them oney they ar spending on those spots could go to help the fisherman, and sea and wild life.

    • Sandra

      You are so right… it’s time the American public takes a stand and lets those, that we’ve elected, know that we are not going to let them do this ever again! Post these pictures on Facebook and and other website that get’s alot of coverage. We have to start paying attention to what these politicians and big corporations are doing before it’s too late!

  4. Sara

    Dear god, how can anyone witness this horrific disaster firsthand and not get Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome? I wish you good luck. Thanks so much for all you do to get the news to us.

    • cindy h

      heartbreaking poem. Thanks for sharing. Really hits home for me after seeing these poor defenseless birds in person.

  5. betty murphy

    Ok, let’s get them back on the ENDANGERED LIST before it is really too late….I live in Southern California and am fortunate to have seen the survival of the BROWN when DDT hit them so hard…..let’s all hope Louisiana’s State bird is allowed the same!

  6. Robert Schroeder

    Dear Ktista;

    Words cannot describe the sorry that I feel for the loss of wildlife due to this terrible tragedy. It is people like you who are making the difference between life or death for these defenseless creatures. Thank you for your dedication, perseverence and love for wildlife. You are truly a special creation yourself!

  7. Diana

    We moved to Houma Louisiana 3 yrs ago, I have spent all that time trying to get someone to clean up the huge litter problem in this area. Drive along the back roads of Houma to Morgan city.
    It is a careless dump !!!!

    Please believe me- when I say it is not due to Hurricans, LAZY !!!
    I have seen people trash mattresses, countless TV’s black tar from roof tops, gas tanks, tires, ride their motor boats in the bayou no better than BP.
    I know there are good peolpe that do care here, but we are out nmbered.

    Come here when they have dead pit bulls on the side of the roads after a pit bull fights-(9)dead pit bulls in 1 yr, or a cock fights.
    How about boar hunting with pit bulls, when the pit bull is dead throw it to the side of the road or better yet – skin the boar and leave the rest on the side of the road .
    My heart bleeds for the animals Mother Earth ( yes I am Native), children and those that have tried to be a voice for change

    I am in fear for the furture !!!!!!!????????

  8. Johanna Brams

    I am so saddened by this tragedy. Thanks for your reports. I feel so frustrated. What can we do? The impact will be so devastating — and I fear we haven’t see all the effects yet on the biosystem.

    • Krista

      Thanks for your comment Johanna,
      Yes, we are only seeing the beginning of the impacts I’m afraid. The US Fish and Wildlife is putting in place a system that could facilitate volunteers helping with cleanup and wildlife rescue. Unfortunately, it will take them some time to get this in place. In the meantime, the best thing we can all do is stay informed about the ongoing situation, write letters to the editor, and above all, support a climate bill that moves away from fossil fuels and towards reducing overall energy consumption. This is the only way we can ensure that a disaster like this does not happen again.

  9. KATHY

    Thanks for all the reporting. PLEASE keep this kind of work at the forefront. Everyone needs to see what this is doing to our precious resources, God’s beautiful creation – it needs to be thrust in peoples faces so they have to see – people need to stop putting their own comfort levels first – wildlife is at our mercy, we are suppose to be the *good stewards.* Don’t let up, don’t stop speaking up for those that cannot speak for themselves.

  10. Judy M

    Do they need more people to help in cleaning the birds? I would fly down there but don’t know who to contact or where to go.

  11. David J Trask

    Thank you so much for the “beautiful pictures” of this sad and inexcusable sight. Truly a tribute to human beings and their greed and an anything goes, all in pursuit of the almighty dollar(or in this case, the pound!) I will not iterate the words my mind is thinking but, suffice it to say, I want ALL THOSE RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS, to be held accountable, whether they be Americns, Brits, or whomever. I want people in jail. According to a friend of mine, who is an American as well as a subject of the Crown, the Brits don’t understand what all the fuss is about, or words to that effect and what do we expect so we can have our $2/gal gas. Well, when, as the result of this disaster, the Brits whose retirements are vested in BP, are gone as the result of litigation, bankruptcy, and anything else we can do, maybe they will understand what the fuss is all about. And let us take whatever steps necessary to insure that this never happens again. I shudder to think what God thinks of what we are doing to this beautiful planet and the magnificent creatures he gave us to enjoy. Believe me, I am being extremely restrained in what I’ve said because I would not disgrace this organization with the profanity that I feel like espousing towards those who are responsible for this. Thanks again for the reports and pictures and may we never have to do this again.

  12. Beth Weisleder

    I am sickened by the loss of wildlife due to the greed of Mega-Millionaire CEO’s in the oil industry. They had already been FINED $87 MILLION dollars because of their ‘safety violations”. Wouldn’t that be enough reason to SHUT them down? Evidently not. These ‘brilliant’ CEO’s did not even bother to have an “EMERGENCY BACK-UP PLAN”. Oh well, here a few million, there a few billion -in fines = no big deal.
    Well, guess what? Due to your negligence: millions of birds,turtle,fish, crustaceans are dead or dying.HEY, CEO’s this will impact your lobster & oyster pig-outs?! Not likely.
    This tragedy effects workers who fish/workers that clean, restaurant staff, & so & so on down the line. Their livelihoods equal mere ‘pocket change’ to their mega-businesses. They’ll just buy their goods elsewhere.
    Personally, I won’t be satisfied until every CEO is living in their car under the bridges with the other workers.

    • Krista

      Thanks for your comment Beth. You make an important point that hasn’t been made much in the media–for the second time in about a year we are facing devastating impacts of a society where corporate power takes precedence over people and the environment. First it was the banks driving our economy to its knees, now this. The situation highlights the perils of having the dynamics of society determined by corporations rather than people.

  13. Roger I'Dell

    This is another big tragedy that could have been prevented. Lastnight while laying awake I came up with this in support….

    I can see clearly now the black sandy beaches of Florida thanks to the coal industrys removel of the mountain tops. Take that big energy companys………

  14. MaryWitzl

    I’m American, but I live in the U.K. The British people I know are every bit as upset about this as I am. Maybe I just know good people, but I find that heartening.

    I visited Pensacola back in 1972, then again almost thirty years later, when I was horrified to see how overdeveloped the coast had become. I thought the beaches had been drastically changed for the worse then; I could cry just thinking about what they must be like now.

  15. Jane Walsh

    The Brown Pelican most certainly will again be classified as an Endangered Species as a direct result of this oil spill. I pray for that more can be done to save them and all animals and plants affected by this disaster.

  16. Krista

    Hi Judy, Thanks for your note. As of right now, wildlife response teams don’t have the facilities set up to handle more birds or more volunteers. They will have to get this arranged soon, because the number of birds and other wildlife impacted will be increasing day by day. US Fish and Wildlife has said that they plan an expansion, and expect they will need volunteers, but they are not ready at this time.

    It is sad, preparing before hand for a disaster like this should have been the very least that BP was required to do in order to obtain permission to extract oil from the Gulf. But there was apparently nothing in place to deal with the devastation a spill of this magnitude would cause to wildlife–now everyone is scrambling trying to make up for this enormous lack of planning.

  17. Leslie

    Thanks for sharing this story and photos. This just makes me sick………………..I am so worried about the wildlife and I fear that this disaster will destroy the ecosystem for many, many years to come.
    The poor animals that will die will never get to come back.
    This is horrible, tears.

  18. Leslie

    I have also heard that there are entire areas where birds and wildlife are that are covered with oil and NO ONE is there. NO ONE is cleaning, no reporters, nothing. I am hearing that organizations want to help but that they are not being allowed to help at this time.
    This is horrible. I think things are moving to slow and anyone that wants to help should be able to help as the poors marine life is dying while everyone is waiting.

    • Krista

      Thank you for your comment Leslie.

      I don’t doubt that there are locations that are receiving no attention where wildlife are in trouble–most certainly this is true underwater, where very little attention is being focused. We hope to continue making trips to the Gulf in search of these places.

      BP and the federal government have promised that they will clean up every drop and mitigate every damage–this is an empty, impossible promise and it is important to refute it. There are some things that cannot be mitigated, some wrongs that cannot be undone. To say otherwise is a disservice to the public and a detriment to wildlife and the environment we all share.

  19. Thea Nelson Fogg

    Please inform me how I can help ……My heart bleeds for all the creatures covered in this sticky mess….is there a site that coordinates needed support for the volenteers that are helping to clean the multitude of amimals and birds…..I know there are many of us out there that want to help in some way…What can you suggest? Who can I contact to be of service? I want to feel that I can help in some way.
    Thea Nelson Fogg

    • Krista Schlyer

      Dear Thea,

      I have asked every person I could during my trip with Defenders this same question, because I know there are so many people who are eager to the help wildlife and habitats that are suffering most from this disaster. The answer every time was, ‘we just don’t have the infrastructure right now to accommodate volunteers’. The government and the oil industry were so completely unprepared to meet this disaster that even though people are willing to fly or drive there at their own expense, there is no system in place to support more help. BUT, sadly, this is going to be a continuing disaster for years and years to come. And in addition to government and industry setting up meaningful ways for volunteers to help, I know wildlife and environmental organizations are also making plans for harnessing all the good will and volunteerism for the benefit of wild creatures. This will take some time, but stay tuned, because there will come a time when opportunities to help on the ground with wildlife will come. It could be months away, but it will happen I believe. However, in the meantime and for the long term, the absolute best thing we can do is support a major change in our energy policy and the way we regulate the oil industry. We have to demand that we move toward cleaner forms of energy, and that we do so thoughtfully, because simply substituting corporate solar power for corporate oil will not end the impact that our enormous demands for energy does to wild things.

      Please stay tuned to this blog. We will alert everyone when opportunities open up and until then perhaps we can all think about a couple of things we can do to push the government in the right direction, and to reduce our own energy consumption.


  20. Angie Minsal

    Keep up the Blog and make sure , IT NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN !!!! In memory of all the creatures whose life this will end, care and defend the animals of the world , in whatever way you can.

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