Large slicks of oil from the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill approach barrier islands and marshlands near Grand Isle along the Louisiana coast. Photo ©Bridget Besaw.

Seeing the Oil: A First-Hand Report

I traveled to Louisiana yesterday to begin the painful task of assessing how the oil spill will hit the coastal and marine areas the Conservancy has worked for years to protect.

As I flew over the Gulf waters in a five-seater plane with the Conservancy’s Louisiana state director Keith Ouchley, our lead scientist Sanjayan and Brian McPeek, who heads our North America conservation team, I was overwhelmed by the size of the spill we saw below us — and the knowledge of the damage it will bring in the coming days.

We flew over North Island, one of the Chandeleur barrier islands that lie about 70 miles away from “ground zero,” where an oil rig leased by BP exploded last month killing 11 workers and creating the spill that is now spreading across the Gulf.

Massive orange ribbons of oil snaked around the island, penetrating every nook of grassland and marsh. A wooden shack that weeks before provided fishermen a resting place nearby the island now sat in a field of brown muck.

Not far from the island, where the oil had not yet reached, two dolphins swam unaware, heading straight toward the slick.

We soon came across a flotilla of 30 shrimp boats racing full speed into the spreading oil. With a moratorium on fishing in the region, these boat captains were now deployed to help with clean up efforts, trying to scoop up oil from the waters that provide them their livelihoods.

While the small boats looked powerless against the slick that now stretches hundreds of miles wide, the passion and dedication these local fishermen showed toward saving the Gulf and its resources gave me a glimmer of hope.

I felt that same hope later in the day when we traveled to Alabama to meet Conservancy Alabama State Director Chris Oberholster to see an oyster reef restoration project the Conservancy is conducting along the coast of Coffee Island.

Partnering with Dauphin Island Sea Lab, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Nature Conservancy staff are helping build a “living shoreline” along the eastern side of the island where erosion has eaten away at the coast.

Collecting tens of thousands of shucked oyster shells, staff have create giant “reef balls” – each about the size of a bath tub – dropping them in the coastal water where oyster colonies will grow and ultimately create a natural sea wall that will protect against surf and further erosion. As the oysters grow, and their shells fall to the ocean floor, they will also create the material needed to rebuild the shore and create breeding grounds of fish.

Projects like these can help rebuild the Gulf of Mexico, which has faced numerous threats from overdevelopment even before the devastating oil spill.

In an effort to protect the oyster reefs from the spill, Conservancy staff have circled Coffee Island with booms to divert the oil. We won’t know for several days, however, whether these booms will keep the oil from destroying the restoration that is now underway.

But just like the shrimp boat captains who charged into the slick, the Conservancy staff showed hope: Hope that they would be able to save Coffee Island and hope that they would be able to do even more in the future to restore the Gulf Coast.

I felt incredibly proud to be part of this dedicated team. And I also felt hope that this disaster would be a wake-up call, prompting citizens, businesses and our elected officials to do more to protect the Gulf and other natural treasures across the country.

The spill clearly demonstrates the need to enact energy and climate policy that will spark a new clean energy industry in the United States and move us away from our dependence on oil.

To achieve such a goal, we must work together across diverse sectors to reach agreement on policy language that can be passed by Congress and signed into law.

The Nature Conservancy has engaged with a wide variety of stakeholders – including oil companies – in order to find solutions that can both meet the needs of our communities and nature.

The oil industry is a major player in the Gulf. It would be naïve to ignore them. Anyone serious about doing conservation in this region must engage these companies, so they are not just part of the problem but so they can be part of the effort to restore this incredible ecosystem.

By working together, policy can be enacted that bolsters clean energy and establishes safety measures that can prevent catastrophes like this in the future.

As a member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) coalition of energy companies, manufacturers and environmental groups, the Conservancy is working to develop effective national energy and climate policy that can keep our communities and natural resources strong and productive.

Such efforts, combined with innovative conservation work — including the oyster restoration project in Alabama — gives me hope that we can emerge from this catastrophe and help nature restore itself in the Gulf.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. It’s Mow-beel’. Not Mowb’-ul

  2. I applaude The Nature Conservancy for getting specialized teams on the scene so quickly. I agree it is time for all of us to do what it takes to become less dependent on both foreign and domestic oil. We have stopped driving except for once or twice each week and only once a month if we need to travel more than 20 miles. Our car gets 35 miles per gallon and we have stopped using our SUV. It is very sad the loss of fish and wildlife this latest spill will cause. It is equally sad for the wetlands, habitats, fishermen’s source of income and the damage to the shorelines and oceans. When Big Oil messes up everyone and everything pays, but they don’t care. Oh, they’ll pretend to be concerned while their lawyers attempt to reduce their fines and other costs to them from this latest spill. Then they will raise the price of oil so we pay again. I think we need to let them know we have had enough. We need to value the few treasures left on this planet and one way to protect them is to keep Big Oil and their drilling machines away from The Artic National Wildlife Sanctuary and all natural sanctuaries.

  3. This just breaks my heart – especially the part where you saw the dolphins swimming towards the oil slick – what happens to them? As a bird lover, I am so concerned about the birds and the impact this will have on them. This is so sad, and we are so unprepared for a disaster such as this. I pray that we will learn from this crisis and prevent this from ever happening again. We must take care of what God gave us, and so far, we’re doing a terrible job.
    I will continue to pray that the containment dome will work and that this oil slick can be cleaned up as fast as possible. Keep up the good work, it gives me hope that there are people like you who are out there helping and sharing resources. God Bless you!

  4. It is NOT Big Oil that’s damaged the Gulf for decades, with an 800 sq.mi. dead zone, and caused the loss of land area the size of Delaware. It is the Army Corps of Engineers, an arm of our(yours and mine) government, by channelizing the Mississippi so its silt is dumped into the deep Gulf, instead of depositing it in the always-eroding shallows of a normal big river delta. Marine life loves the oil rigs; they are mini-reefs.

    We in the USA have done a much better and much bigger job of nature protection than any other country. Why, right now, we are refusing to water the orchards and fields of central CA in order to “save” an endangered minnow. This will financially ruin many landowner farmers and raise the cost of CA vegetables for us all, but hey, the minnow is worth it.

  5. This case just breaks my heart and makes me mad at the same time. Let’s put aside the fact that it happened. Unexpected things are happening in our daily life as it is well known. I would love to ask the federal government about how could these “oil factories” get the nessesary paperwork done without any needing of an emergency plan. Even when a contractor makes a building, the building has to have an emergency plan. How come they don’t….. One thing is for sure, unfortunately our amazing wildlife has to deal with the mess, and many innocent animal is going to die. I’m just hoping that their plan is going to work, and they can stop the oil leak ASAP. Sincerely, Diana Liktor

  6. I am very saddened and angered by this whole situation. The people who lost their lives, greiving families, peoples livelyhoods and the precious animals who have/will lose their homes and lives for nothing they did. The companies responsible pointing fingers and acting like they care by being present in the area and asking “how can we help?” I hope what is being done can at least help everyone and everything effected by this tragedy.

  7. Appreciate the Nature Conservancy’s first hand reports. I wonder how the oil companies were able to proceed with deep water drilling without the backup systems to control undersea valves to cut off oil flow. New York Times reports regulators warned of this need a decade ago.

  8. It is horrifying thinking what will happen to those innocent dolphins, and so many more we don’t even know abt.
    I have volunteered at a bird sanctuary in FL., which is run
    totally on donations. We washed and cared for birds caught in an oil spill. They are relatively calm, only because they know this is their only hope. It takes alot to rehab. a single bird from a spill : washing with kitchen soap 3 times, eye ointment in their eyes, in case of damage, Pepto Bismol in their “stomaches”, less they ingested some oil. A special ground food to give them, as they are so sick they are extremely fragile. It is very rewarding work, which although I LOVE birds, and being around them, I had hoped to never have to do this again. They cannot be released right after their cleansing, we must wait untill their habitat is clean enough. I will do this again in a heartbeat if necessary. Yes as Michelle, I am saddened and also very angry. As far as “blame” is issued, I beleive it is BP’s ALONE….Should not EVERYONE check their equipment prior to useage, to see if it is faulty? NOW, it is in the news that a small amnt. of “carbon monoxide” caused the explosion???—is this just a ploy to keep from being responsible? and, will we EVER know? Too many ppl., animals, fragile ecosystems have been damaged. The Exxon Valdeez was 10 or 20 years ago, oil pockets on land are STILL being found, and some fish species no longer live there except in very minute numbers. This can’t happen to us!–if the oil gets into Gulf stream, the whole Eastern seaboard could be in danger. We all need to help however we can!

  9. Chandeleur is a multi layered ecosystem with huge diversity of wildlife and estuarine value…Roosevelt recognized it as a treasure the minute he saw it, it’s the second oldest Refuge area in the country… I hope the best and brightest can find what works to make recovery as speedy as possible..resilience. Praying for resilience here.

  10. I worked in the Gulf some 34 years ago. Back then deep water drilling was considerably more shallow. What is particularly disturbing is to realize that, but for ROVs, the technology for blowout prevention is essentially the same. The mudlike slurry used to counteract gas and oil pressure, the cement, the saltwater pumped down the drill pipes, the BOP, a last resort, at the wellhead. As best as I can tell not much has changed. Only difference is the depth, with its intense pressure, at which we drill. Deepwater Horizon was working at 5,000 feet. I’ve read of one rig that recently drilled at 10,000 feet. It has never been a question of ‘if,’ only ‘when.’ Second item. Locally, in LA, I hear anecdotal reports of shore birds getting cleaned already. Maybe in the Chandeleur Islands, possibly in Plaquemines Parish. I find scant media coverage, if at all, of this. The point being the marshlands are no longer merely threatened.

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