Bill Finch, the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, is blogging for Cool Green Science about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Conservancy’s efforts in Alabama to protect shellfish reef restoration projects there from the coming slick. Read all his posts.

BAYOU LA BATRE, ALABAMA, May 3, 2010 — There’s a run on seafood on the Gulf Coast. The crabbers have pulled their traps, the feds have halted commercial fishing in much of the Gulf. And everyone knows you can’t catch shrimp and fish in a sea of oil.

Some say they can smell the slick already, though it’s still offshore. They talk about this weekend’s seafood dinner as if it were a ceremonial last meal, the last chance to taste what living on the Gulf is about.

I skipped the seafood. I had to see it one more time, as if it were the last time, that dance of fish in the spring tide at Grand Bay.

On those rare spring days when the sun, moon and earth are aligned, as they were during this weekend’s full moon, tides are unusually strong. The tug of the great spring tide draws the Gulf higher and higher into Grand Bay’s miles of marsh, making shallow pools of the sun-baked salt pannes. More rarely still, persistent winds from the south egg the tide on, driving it into every nook and cranny of the bay.

It’s the time of year when the marsh revels in its connection to the Gulf, bathing in the unusually high tides, soaking up all of the energy and nutrients the ocean sends its way, open to all the waves can deliver.

Fish, crabs, insects, birds converge on the pools. In the bright sun of spring, in the clear pools of the flooded salt pannes, the fish are heedless, dancing around your feet. The sailfin mollies spread their big top-sails and tails, flutter around the females in a display of extraordinary colors, deep blues and iridescent orange.

I recognize the gulf killifish, flushed blue, silver and green like mother of pearl. It spawns, I’m told, only on the spring tides. The rare salt marsh topminnow is here. There are others, young redfish, tiny shrimp, so many other creatures I don’t recognize, have never been able to document.

I think of all the people I meant to bring here, to show them what living on the Gulf is all about.

Sergio Pierluissi joins me, as soon as he gets free of taking calls at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s spill response command center. He’d never seen it before. “Wow,” he said, when we stepped from the pine meadows and into the great expanse of marsh stretching to the horizon.

It was already late in the day, but Sergio chased the clatter of rail calls through the dense, prickly marsh of needlerush and out into the open salt-grass meadows of the pannes.

We drifted through the pannes, taking photos, taking it in, documenting all we could of the frenzy of life in one of the most diverse estuaries on the northern Gulf. We reached the edge of the great salt panne where it dipped into Grand Bay, and stood stunned as we watched it greedily scooping up whatever the Gulf sent its way.

A few hundred feet out, the waves were rolling over the submerged bar of sand and seagrasses that is Grand Bay’s only protection from the Gulf.

“It’s too bad you had to show me this place now,” Sergio said as we waded out of the bay and back into the marsh. I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye. Look.

Beneath a hood of dried grasses, just barely beyond the reach of the waves, a clutch of burgundy-spotted eggs. The rail.

“She’d better hatch those eggs in a hurry,” Sergio said.

Squadrons of ibis were turning just above our heads. There were cries of gulls and pelicans. A pair of scuffling male willets emitted their piercing falsetto calls. The ospreys stood still in the air, pointed into the stiff winds blowing steadily now from the heart of the Gulf.

(Image 1: A clutch of rail eggs hidden under the marsh grass, where the Gulf waters lap against Grand Bay. Image 2: A green river of salt grass marks the salt pannes of Grand Bay, where the mollies dance on the spring tide. Image credit: Bill Finch/TNC.)

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  1. Beautiful and tragic.

  2. Guess you made the right decision, huh, Serge ?
    Thanks for the blog – I can almost imagine being there.

  3. My heart is heavy. I try to think of all the things that are going to be impacted by this spill and it seems to be a never ending list. Thank you for sharing this beautiful place with us.

  4. Just as a story of one child affected by famine or war can somehow resonate more than hearing the statistics about the tens of thousands displaced, this beautiful story of a single place about to be lost hit me harder than any of the ubiquitous statistics in the news reports about the size of the spill, the miles of coast line potentially affected, etc.

  5. Thank you for this celebration of life in the moment. I’m reminded of the song of daily life:

    “This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein.” (Psalm 118:24)

    So sad.

  6. WOW…I felt like I was in the boat with you…I hope they can stop the bleeding so we can get started with the clean up.

  7. That’s technology without reverence and without justice. My, may we change our ways.

  8. Bill you are an artist as well as a scientist!

  9. Thank you for sharing here, Bill. Really powerful! I’m just hoping this kind of catastrophe will be impetus for change.

  10. This is so heartbreaking. These places, like the magical places we once connected to as children, and returned to so often in our dreams and in times of crisis and need, are so incomprehensibly precious, so much a part of what it means to be alive on this unbelievably wonderful earth. When we lose glorious places like this, places of overwhelming beauty, vibrancy, detail, subtlety, delicacy, we forfeit the same in our own humanity. We becoming less alive, less vibrant, less able to cope as human beings, as though we, by virtue of our absolute connection to the earth, literally reflect its losses.

  11. Thank you, Bill. You have captured a living magic of what life is at Grand Bay in the spring tide of May, 2010 before any oil (possibly?) penetrates its perfect balance. Through your eyes, your mind, and your heart, I feel I have experienced this wondrous place where the gulf’s fresh tides meet marsh and land… Thank you again. May your words echo this place of beauty… and haunt us all. The price for human greed is no longer acceptable.

  12. I am so sorry. But life will find a way. We need to use this anger from this destruction to stand up to our govt and corporations and ‘just say no’! To oil and coal. Greenpeace just got the green light on an offshore wind farm off of Cape Cod which will power over 150,000 homes. In NY, we are fighting for one off of Rockaway beach. I was so annoyed to see the front page of The NY Post, (owned by Fox news) which showed a bird that looked totally normal (after it had been wiped down by rescuers). They wouldn’t even show the bird with oil on it! The photo was not disturbing at all. Compared to the one I had seen on the net the previous day, when I searched for photos of the oil spill. I saw a bird totally black and covered with oil, while a rescue worker held out it s wings. This will be devastating for sure but this is just the tip of the iceberg if big business and Obama Admininstration get their way. It is time to stand up for nature. You cannot eat money.

  13. Bill, thank you for bringing into our hearts as well as our minds just how much we stand to lose. We cannot, in good conscience, pursue a technology that we cannot prevent from destroying so much life and livelihood.

  14. I grew up on the gulf coast.My heart is here.Today it is heavy. Last Sunday afternoon I took my 17 year old daughter and 10 year old son to Pensacola Beach to take one last look at the way I want to remember it. The gulf was angry,as if to say ‘what have you done?’ I am responsible-We all are. We watched terns feeding,dug sand fleas out of the surf,felt the salt spray,walked in breaking waves. While walking back toward the fishing pier a large gull was struggling out of surf. He was under considerable stress. His feathers were drenched with thick oil. My daughter wept, my heart ached, the cut on my son’s finger that was stinging from the salt water,didn’t bother him anymore. People gathered. nobody spoke. Words were not necessary. A lasting impression was forever carved into the soul of my children. I now understand the real reason I was called to the beach.

  15. Beautifully written and so very, very sad. Thanks for sharing this with all of us, Bill.

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