The Gulf oil disaster reminds me of that old Donald Rumsfeld chestnut, the one about known-knowns and known-unknowns. With a massive, ongoing gushing oil spill, and an enormous ecosystem at risk, we're in the realm of the "known unknown" – we know that there is a huge amount of oil moving through the Gulf, but no one’s quite sure exactly where it is or where it’s going.
A group of federal agencies, including NOAA, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service are trying to push us into the "known known" category with teams sent out on what are essentially reconnaissance missions. Two months into the oil disaster, they’re still grappling to understand the impacts on shorelines, turtles, mammals and more.
Last Thursday, for the first time, NOAA allowed a small group of ocean conservation activists to shadow a crew working on discovering the location and severity of subsurface oil. I joined our senior campaign director, Jackie Savitz, along with scientists and campaigners from Ocean Conservancy and the Gulf Restoration Network in a couple of skiffs that tailed the NOAA crew for a few hours on the water just east of Grand Isle, La.
Before we embarked, NOAA restoration specialist Sean Meehan gave us the rundown as we stood on the dock in Jean Lafitte, about 25 miles south of New Orleans. A jovial guy, Meehan is an experienced marine researcher, but even he acknowledged the unique difficulty of locating subsurface oil.
The technology Meehan uses isn't exactly state-of-the-art: it's pompoms, the stringy plastic puffs used at high school rallies. The oil adheres to the plastic readily and the large amount of surface area ensures that you'll catch some oil if it's in the water.
Meehan leads the only crew currently searching for subsurface oil. In a small speedboat, he traverses the coastal area off Grand Isle, Louisiana, planting pompoms weighted with chains or strung along PVC pipe in the bay, marked by a makeshift buoy cut from a colored pool noodle. A day later, he will collect the pompoms and record any oil.
It's a huge job for one crew, especially considering the oil is still escaping the Deepwater Horizon wellhead two months after the explosion and moving across a vast area. The relatively unsophisticated pompom technology leads Meehan to refer to his job as "baseball-bat science."
"If we had something more automated, we could do something more quickly," said Tom Brosnan, NOAA's Communications and External Affairs Branch Chief, who organized the tagalong for us. "That would be better, of course."
But for now, it's Meehan and his crew, which includes a representative from BP, setting and collecting pompoms.
We set off from Jean Lafitte around 7:30 a.m., with the Oceana, Ocean Conservancy and Gulf Restoration Network reps in small skiffs trailing the NOAA speedboat. Coursing down a long channel toward the Gulf, we passed numerous decades-old abandoned natural gas and oil pipelines as well shrimp processing facilities newly shuttered due to the oil spill, reminders of the longtime dual, and sometimes dueling, presences of the oil and fishing industries in this region.
By the time we reached Barataria Bay, just east of the hard-hit Grand Isle, the water was covered with a reflective film of oil. This sheen persists, 50 miles from the spill site, despite the constant action of skimmers that dot the horizon. These boats are shrimpers converted to pull booms instead of nets from the trawl doors.
Almost immediately, just past the skimmers clustered near a barge where they were trading in booms, we saw a pod of bottlenose dolphins. At least ten of the animals, including a couple of calves, were cresting just a few dozen yards from our boats. At the same time, bait fish were literally jumping. And I’d already seen more seabirds – pelicans, laughing gulls, terns – than ever in my life.
I was struck for the first time just how special and diverse the Gulf’s marine ecosystem really is. And here we were, just beginning the process of understanding how much oil lurked beneath the surface and how many animals were at risk.
For the next five hours, we trailed Meehan and his team as they set pompoms just offshore a couple of small barrier islands comprised of marshland. While most places were protected by hard orange booms as well as soft, absorbent booms, the oiliest marsh we saw had no visible offshore booms surrounding it – only the blackened remnants of booms affixed to the shoreline with bamboo canes.
Over half a day, Meehan's team visited about a half dozen sites in the Barataria Bay area. While they are an able crew, it's mind-boggling to consider that this small group is responsible to figuring out the scope of the subsurface oil in a disaster this size. They're still very much in the early phases of this part of the response. I'll be checking back in with Meehan in the coming weeks to learn how things are progressing.