Gulf Oil Spill: The Slick We Didn’t See

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.

Nothing could be uglier and more immediately gut-wrenching than a slick onshore. It would be a godsend for the evening news: There’d be hours of eye-catching footage of a black tide drifting over blue water, birds coated in oil, black goo clinging to the beaches and marshes. The spill would be most visible right where most of us ankle-deep sea lovers can see it best.

You get the sense that a lot of the folks out trying to tame the spill know that, and they seem to be doing everything they can to spare us such a spectacle.

The fact that the oil has to bubble up through a mile of water before it hits the surface has helped, but it appears the dispersants are working exactly as advertised: They’re burying this slick under the waves where none of us on shore can see it, where measuring it and predicting its path will be extremely difficult, where all the oil-catching booms and Dawn detergent in the world will be beside the point.

By nearly every reckoning now, the oil that didn’t go ashore has been stirred into the Gulf, until the waters are dark as black tea thousands of feet below the surface. Because it hasn’t been exposed to the air, as it would have been had it risen to the surface, it hasn’t lost its most volatile and toxic compounds. Somehow kitchen metaphors come to mind when describing it: One scientist refers to giant plumes with the consistency of salad dressing, miles long, miles wide, several hundred feet thick.

Finally, it’s becoming obvious to all of us, scientists, fishermen, lovers of the Gulf: We should have worried first about the slick we didn’t see. Because what matters in the Gulf isn’t what you can see standing on the balcony of a beach condo. What matters is what’s happening in the deep space where few of us ever go — that plunging realm of seawater that supports the life of the Gulf and the livelihood of all of us who depend on those waters.

By dispersing this oil so efficiently, we have in effect multiplied the contact zones, assuring that all life at every level of the Gulf will feel the impact.

Consider the flea-sized creatures that would have been your crab supper, your blackened redfish, your fresh Gulf shrimp platter a year or two from now. It’s the big spring rush of reproduction in the Gulf. Fish and shellfish in the marshes are sending off tiny eggs and fry for the long journey offshore; fish and shellfish in the depths of the continental shelf are giving up their young to the currents, hoping they’ll make it back to the marsh.

These helpless creatures don’t swim: They trust the motions of the Gulf to take them where they need to go. Those are the same motions that carry clouds of what we now like to describe as the toxic salad dressing of the spill. A dolphin might have the fins and sense to swim the other way. The new generations of Gulf Coast sea life can only move where the Gulf and all it carries takes them.

Here’s a picture for the evening news: Imagine milky clouds of eggs and larvae, from crabs, shrimp, redfish, from virtually every sea creature you’ve ever heard of and then a thousand species more, floating suspended in the deep waters of the Gulf. On the wind-like currents that rise and fall in the open seas, they drift like dandelion seeds.

Then imagine another cloud, 10 or 15 miles long, several hundred feet from top to bottom, and 3 to 4 miles wide, a rusty emulsion of oil that clings to everything it touches. Now imagine these two clouds merging in the currents of the Gulf. A good photographer, if he didn’t mind swimming through toxic salad dressing, could even capture the poetry in the way they meet, those big-eyed young of crabs, shrimp and fish, quietly dispatched with each kiss of oil.

Frame that picture in your mind, because it will explain a lot about what you won’t see over the next few years — the crab cakes that won’t be on the menu in your favorite restaurant, the redfish, mackerel and snapper sports fishermen won’t be bringing home, the jobs and businesses that won’t be there because they depended on the bounty of the Gulf, the shore birds that simply starve because they can’t find food to eat.

(Image: Shrimp boat on the Gulf of Mexico off Biloxi, Mississippi. Image credit: Casino Jones/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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


  1. BP didn’t want us to know, the claims will go on forever, but there isn’t enough money in the world to bring back what we have lost. This is a disaster of untold proportions. It makes me angry and sad. Mankind will ruin the earth with it’s greed.

  2. Your blog is some of the most powerful commentary I’ve read on this subject. It is utterly compelling and moving. I hope people are reading and thinking about changes they can make in their own lives to never allow this to happen again. I am.

  3. I am sick, physically sick when I hear, read or see information on the oil disaster. It is man’s greed, plain and simple, that has caused this catastrophe. Our gotta have it attitude of SUV’s, big trucks, NASCAR races, all you can eat buffets, cheap products from China supporting the likes of Walmart and their kind, tractor pulls, AC down to 65 degrees, drive throughs with cars idling waiting for cheap food to stick down our already obese throats and too may people.

    This will haunt us for YEARS if not decades; the destruction of our beloved wetlands in the gulf with all of their beauty and serenity and the fantastic creatures that live/lived there. We have plenty of oil but now less food, thank you BP, Halliburton, MMS agency of the Federal Government and those who did not blow the whistle on what they knew was not right.

    This is why my first thoughts always go to animals over humans, as humans are the most inhuman and greedy thing on this planet.

  4. I have posted your blog on facebook and twitter and encourage readers to do the same. We’ve got to get word out! So many people are either ignorant or oblivious to what is going on and have no idea the immediate and long term affects that this disaster has created. It makes me so sad and angry that human greed will be the ultimate downfall for this planet. What else can we do to bring attention to this matter?

  5. There is a pleasure in the pathless woods


    THERE is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
    There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
    There is society, where none intrudes,
    By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
    I love not man the less, but Nature more,
    From these our interviews, in which I steal
    From all I may be, or have been before,
    To mingle with the Universe, and feel
    What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

    I am truly sickened by this catastrophy, not just by it’s catastrophic impact on the environment, but by the greed of man that caused it and by all the megaphones with a political agenda who speak up NOW about what SHOULD have been done to prevent it. Isn’t it a bit too late?! We need to WAKE UP, someone is trying to tell us something and we are not listening. Nature gives us so many wonderful gifts why don’t we treat it better?

  6. Exactly what I have told my friends and family for weeks. The dispersants were going to be a regret. All the booms and stuff to keep the oil in the Gulf was the first inkling I had of the powers worrying about tourism and not the ecosystem. Little do they know the two are locked together in that with a dead ecosystem the tourism will die too.

  7. Powerful imagery, Bill. Thank you for opening my eyes!

  8. Bill,
    First, I love your writing — you are quite well spoken. Just wanted to tell you.
    Second, do you think that calling it a “spill” at this point is a misnomer? I have started using the word “disaster” to describe it.
    It is a catastrophic event and should be labeled as such.
    I look forward, if not to the subject matter, at least to the writing of your next piece.

  9. I am sick, physically sick when I hear, read or see information on the oil disaster. It is man’s greed, plain and simple, that has caused this catastrophe. Our gotta have it attitude of SUV’s, big trucks, NASCAR races, all you can eat buffets, cheap products from China supporting the likes of Walmart and their kind, tractor pulls, AC down to 65 degrees, drive throughs with cars idling waiting for cheap food to stick down our already obese throats and too may people.

  10. I agree that this is an environmental disaster of tremendous proportions. But I am more pragmatic about it. It is imperative that we do not overreact to the oil spill in the gulf of Mexico and realize how important hydrocarbons are to our future welfare as individuals and as a nation. Let us use this event as a catalyst to refocus our efforts and technology on safety, environmental protection and mitigation of damages in our effort to discover and exploit energy resources.

  11. As if the damage to the Gulf isn’t enough, I am sickened to have to ask if there is any chance the oil will become part of the Gulf Stream?

    Also, are there any consequences to the oil company? I don’t think fines will be sufficient considering their incredibly deep pockets. Could they lose their Gulf oil leases? THAT would definitely send a message, although it would hurt all that depend on the oil rigs for their livelihood…

  12. It is wonderful that we have created these excellent methods of communication that allow us to be heard in a volume only recently imagined, but not apparently sufficient. The toxicity of our society would seem to be increasing in an unabated fashion regardless of our having a greater collective voice than ever before in history.

    We can observe that the Exon Valdez debacle wrecked what now looks to be an unknown period of long term damage, and wonder how we will be discussing this current event two decades from now.

  13. I was using my Doctor Bronner’s unscented baby mild soap on my chihuahua giving her a bath when a thought came to me. Maybe it would be good to clean up oil. So I took some motor oil and put it in a cup of water. I pour only one small drop and stirred it up and it dissolved completely. This is a totally eco friendly solution. They could use the same apparatus that is used to plug up the spill and dump it down that tube to the bottom of the ocean in several different places. It is affordable and the soap is concentrated which also keeps it more affordable. I look at all the damage and it breaks my heart. I sat all night trying to think of ways to save the precious life in the gulf ecosystem. It is heartbreaking. I have sent in this information to CNN, Fox News and also BP. I have heard of many other incredible ideals to clean up the spill but have heard nothing about it on the news. Why don’t they listen to the public?

  14. We should be asking, “Is BP’s greed to recover oil hampering efforts to stop the leak buy entombing it with concrete and agregate until it’s plugged?”

  15. I remain astonished how few people mention the blowout and continous flow of oil from Ixtoc from June 1979 through March 1980 (290 days) during which 475,000 metric tons of sweet crude was lost in the Gulf of Mexico. The blowout remains the world’s largest oil spill by several magnitudes…over the following years we Texans continued to frequent our beaches…yes….oil and tar came in with the tide and storms….but the mass extinction of sea life did not occur…..Texas remains the largest fishery in coastal waters…..despite the HEARTLAND’s attempt to wipe us out with the polution flooding the Gulf each year… creating a dead zone stretching over 600 miles long and at times over 5o miles wide….so where is the outcry?????

    Not in your backyard! If drilling should be shut down in the Gulf…why will you continue to sponsor “BIG OIL” drilling and despoiling the ocean fronts of other countries???

  16. Obama where are you now? Is this what you promised us GOOD LUCK!

  17. This is the cost of America; The Worth While Endeavor. The struggle; the Freedom. Nature is a resource; not our ruler. There is no greater source than humans. Humans are God; nature is not.


    No blue ocean, orange sunsets or birds that fly
    aboove.But oceans blacken with crude.So what should
    we do with this crude? That people watch and sicken
    by this crude.The answer to this is what we must do
    not what we cann’t do.

  19. And how’s that seat on the International Leadership Council for BP and the $10 million in contributions from BP looking, Nature Conservancy?

  20. To each of you who ever filled your tank with gasoline or diesel: Why did you know foresee the BP disaster? Why did you not prevent this?

    Why did you not boycott the Shells, Exxons, BPs, Citgos, Conocos that extract oil? Why did you not take action two weeks ago against Chevez, the Argentinean strong man, when his huge Citgo drilling platform sank near the Antilles?

    The BP spill occurred on your watch, our watch. We did nothing to prevent this. Obama did nothing. TNC did nothing.

    The BP disaster is the shared responsibility of global petroleum consumers. Neither you nor TNC nor Obama foresaw this disaster or had the technical expertise to have foreseen it.

    Unless you ride a bicycle and live in an unheated house and raise your own food, you are as culpable as the next person for not having put a stop to oil production decades ago.

    So, drop the indignation.

  21. A very moving post, and I notice that you did not mention BP. Is that because BP, along with Chevron and ExxonMobil, are on you ILC? Could you tell us how much money you got in the last year from BP?

    1. Tom, Robert Lalasz from the Conservancy here.

      To answer your second question first, the Conservancy received $243,580 from BP last year in corporate gifts.

      About not mentioning BP in the post: We have been mentioning BP throughout our blogging about the Gulf spill disaster. You can read all our posts from the Gulf here.

      Glenn Prickett, the Conservancy’s director of external affairs, dealt with the ILC question head-on yesterday during our chat. Here was his response:

      “Our International Leadership Council allows us to talk to companies, and the companies to talk with each other, about what they can do to support conservation in their businesses. They do have a chance to speak to our CEO and other Conservancy leaders, but they do not influence our policies. We set our policies based on our science and what we think is needed to achieve our conservation mission. We’re proud of our corporate partnerships because they help us achieve that mission.”

      Thanks for your questions.

  22. Unfortunately, there is a slick, and this slick can be seen from horizon to horizon. I guess more people could see this if BP hadn’t told our government to create a massive no fly zone over the ‘spill’ area…and yes, ‘spill’ is an OK term, as the oil is spilling from the earth in volumes BP has tried to minimize since day one.
    You are right on the money regarding the use of dispersants in efforts to minimize the appearance of the magnitude of this spill. However the true cost of using these dispersants and their application in waters where whales, dolphins, and sea turtles are regularly seen, along with an unbelievable number of manta rays, sharks, other rays, and fish of every size, shape, and variety- arguably one of the most ‘alive’ bodies of sea water on Earth- may not be realized until we see the creation of the “Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone”.
    It is astounding that the use of these toxic dispersants in such a mass quantity has been allowed, especially with the lack of understanding of their effects on photic zone plankton, let alone the effects of pumping them a mile down into the waters of the slope? Out of sight, out of mind? What we don’t see won’t bother us? What we don’t see doesn’t exist? Perhaps BP wanted to share this oil with the rest of the planet-they’ve insured that by creating this nearly mile high, God knows how wide blob of subsea toxic death. I don’t think anyone anywhere will ever be able to fully grasp the magnitude of this spill, given its incredibly deep point of origin. Even if a massive slick were seen all the time above the spill, it would only be the tip of this black oilberg.
    God built into this planet ways of reclaiming our mistakes. After the oil stops flowing, the cameras are turned off, and BP has bussed home the last of its presidential ‘show crews’, the Gulf of Mexico system will slowly reach a new equilibrium. Hopefully this balance will be something we can all recognize; I’m afraid it will not, at least not in any of our lifetimes. Given ‘civilized man’s’ track record with the environment, it probably will never ‘come back’.
    Even though you’ve been less than forthcoming with good information and believe you are trying to hide some of what’s really going on out there to save your bottom line, I believe it is you, BP, running the show and calling the shots; I am pulling for you BP. Shame on us all for creating this oily monster.

  23. As tax payers whose dollars have gone to support NOAA we should be asking why they did not to their job in alerting the Nation of the dangers and risks of offshore drilling. The head of marine sanctuaries should have to answer to this

  24. This scares me… really makes me want to do something about it. Doing my persuasive speech for school has sort of opened a new gate for my perspective on the gulf.

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