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June 20th, 2010

Day 6: Our Second Flight Over the Gulf Coast

Yesterday, we had five people on our team. Today, we’re down to four. Darron had to make it home for the weekend and some much deserved downtime leaving the rest of us one more full day in the Gulf States. We used it to arrange another flight over the Gulf of Mexico with Pinar, Kris, and Duncan.

We debated intensely over our routing. Should we head back out to the source? Should we spend more time over the wetlands of Louisiana? Or, should we follow a tip we’d heard from somebody that had flown over Orange Beach that indicated oil was just offshore? In the end, we decided to fly a triangle route from New Orleans out to the source and then up to Gulf Shores. It was a risk, especially at $570/hour of airtime, but we figured it was a risk worth taking.

With a last check of the weather—which showed storms over the Gulf, but based on the patterns, we figured we could time things to miss them—we set out. As we approached the source, we spotted the fires burning off gas from about 20 miles out and saw oil in the water at about the same distance.

Flying over the source, we saw amazing amounts of heavy oil in the water and spent a few orbits over both the main site as well as a few other boats in the area. The smell of oil and gas over the source is intense. It’s like standing next to a bucket of gasoline sitting next to a leaky propane tank. Flying around it—and knowing that the true source of the oil is a mile underwater—is like flying over the gates of a watery hell.

Flying north from the source to Gulf Shores, we saw oil ranging from sheen to much heavier all the way to the coast and as far as the eye can see in both directions. It’s over a hundred miles from the spill site to the coast of Alabama. There’s no good way to describe how huge an area is impacted.

A ship in the oil. (Photo: Kris Krüg)

When we arrived at Gulf Shores, we saw the oil coming up on the beach. Beaches that had been relatively clean a few days ago, when we were last there, now were stained with oil. Skimmers were operating right off the shore.

Oil in the water and on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama (Photo: Pinar Özger)

Amazingly enough, a few miles down shore where oil wasn’t yet on the beach, but within hundreds of yards, we spotted swimmers in the water. We were flabbergasted. If they could see what we saw, there’d be no way they would be in that water.

Once we returned to New Orleans, we huddled for a bit and decided to return by land to Gulf Shores so that we can document the oil coming on shore from the beachside. That will be tomorrow morning’s task.

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June 28, 2010
Washington, DC