Posted by Krista Schlyer, a photographer for Enviro-pic.org 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.
On 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.”
I 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.