The last day of our expedition found us waking up at 5:30AM in a La Quinta in Gulf Shores, Alabama. We had returned for a final few hours on the beaches here after witnessing oil on the beach and water the previous day from the air. We didn’t have long—we had to be back at the airport in New Orleans just after lunch—but we wanted to see what things looked like from the ground.
We arrived right at high tide. That meant that the bulk of the oil on the beach that we saw the day before was covered. The sand all along the water line, however, was oil stained. You could look out to sea and see the sheen of oil. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you might mistake it for something else. But we’d seen it from the air and knew what we were looking at. It made us cringe to see tourists walking barefoot along the beach and out in the water. It horrified us when we spotted a family with a few children using nets to fish something out of the water. I couldn’t quite spot what was in their nets, but they took whatever it was with them.
At one point, we talked with one of the safety officers for the clean up crew. He had served in Iraq and as we talked about his service history, he said that he felt he was doing his country more of a service on the beaches in Alabama than he did oversees. He also said that he had seen the test results of the water and while most of the aromatics has evaporated from the oil by the time it reached the Alabama coast, there’s no way he’d go in the water or walk on the beach without foot protection. But, the local hotels and tourism boards were attempting to encourage a business as usual attitude and at least some people were buying it.
After spending a few hours scouting the beaches, we drove back to New Orleans and all took our separate flights home. We’ve all got thousands of photographs to sort through, stories to write about, and our own personal emotional states to tend to. This hasn’t been an easy week.
We’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish here on the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve seen the surface scope of this disaster and we’re going to bring our first hand account to TEDxOilSpill next Monday. It’s horrifying and terrible—all the more so since we know that we’re only seeing a fraction of the effects of this disaster. Most of the oil still lurks underwater. Most of the wildlife that’s being affected lives under the surface. It’s a sobering thought we continue to come back to.
Speaking for myself (Duncan), I can say that I want to go back to continue working this story. We’ve done an amazing amount of work in a week, but with that experience, I’m sure that we could do even more. As well, the effects of this disaster are not over. This story will be a long one and as the attention on it inevitably wanders elsewhere, it’ll need more coverage. I hope that the team, either together or individually, can return to document more of the effects here.
Photos credit: James Duncan Davidson