The Spill and Beyond

Man O'War Covered In Oil from the Deep Horizon Oil Disaster

The world is reeling with each day’s news of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Currently, estimates are that oil continues to gush at a rate of 2.5 million gallons a day, equaling the total from the Exxon Valdez flow every 4.4 days. Those figures will change but the cumulative effect is stunning.

And the consequences are unpredictable. Our greatest hope lies in an all-out effort to clean up whatever we can once the spill stops and to understand what natural processes can and cannot do to remediate the damage.

We now know the faces of this event—the fishermen, pelicans, dolphins, crabs, turtles, shop owners, tourists, rig operators, the blackened marshes and beaches. But what is the bigger picture? Where is there hope and how soon?

As in the past, my team and I are seeking answers. We are returning to the Gulf for the second time to contribute our unique perspective and to support all efforts that will protect the life of the Gulf.

Oil from the Deep Horizon oil spill as seen from below the surfaceOn our initial expedition there, we were the first to film under water and our footage became evidence that masses of oil were moving beneath the surface and couldn’t be ignored. That was just one aspect of what has become an unprecedented event—never before have we had to deal with such large volumes of oil throughout the water column, to such depths. Over the next few months and years, we will learn more and in the meantime, we will try to make sense of what we find.

Taking a step back, to the scale of ocean currents and the dynamic processes that drive our planet, we know that the Gulf of Mexico has been bathed in the southern waters and life of the Meso-American Barrier Reef System, the second longest barrier reef in the world and a center of diversity, historically radiating vitality to the Gulf, seeding it with legendary abundance. This is what we hope for the future. This is the image to hold once the geyser of oil is stopped and the Gulf limps back to life.

And while we fear the currents may spread the oil throughout the Caribbean through the Loop Current and then on to the Gulf Stream, these currents still surprise us. As of mid-June, the Loop Current had mercifully pinched off its southbound flow into a large, clockwise eddy, called Franklin Eddy, which might spare the transport of oil to the Florida Keys, at least temporarily. The OFS team will meet with both local and NOAA scientists for updates and to follow hurricane season predictions.

The team and I will be looking for the innovators in this sad story who are making this event a game-changer, one that will give us more and better options than our off-balance reliance on oil. Out of the Exxon Valdez fiasco we gained legislation requiring double-hulled ships, a measure of progress. What will come out of the Gulf that will make our world safer remains to be seen.

For now, this is still an exploration into unknown territory and unknown science as well. As my father and I have often stated, if we knew exactly what we would find, we wouldn’t have to go. This mission requires that attitude of exploration to go and see for ourselves and, as always, to share not only what we find, but to add our perspective and experience.

From shamans who are praying at water’s edge to engineers on the rigs, fishermen recruited to skim oil, hazmat workers on the beach, vets cleaning pelicans, Parish meetings, government hearings, beachgoers, tourists, we are all part of this event.

Everything is connected and this event connects and touches us all.

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Warm regards,

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First Photo: A Portuguese Man O'War covered in oil from the Deep Horizon oil disaster. Venice, LA © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society
Second Photo: Oil from the Deep Horizon disaster as seen from below the surface. © Matthew Ferraro, Ocean Futures Society