Laura Geselbracht is a senior marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy in Florida.

“Oh no, this could be a big one!” That was my first thought when I heard about the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico. I worked for Washington state 17 years ago on natural resource damage assessment following major oil spills. So I know what havoc and destruction a spill that size can cause.

The news of the spill’s size and where it is headed hasn’t been getting any better. I was recollecting a few months ago how lucky Florida has been with respect to big oil spills, especially given the amount of oil transported around our coast.

In the few years I worked for Washington state, several large oil spills occurred in state waters. It was also the time of the Exxon Valdez. Sea birds, marine mammals and other species that spend time on the sea surface or must come to it for air are the most vulnerable. Oil spills can quickly change a species from common to in need of special management attention.

In addition, large oil spills into marine waters particularly hammered highly vulnerable seabird populations. As many as 19,000 common murres may have perished in one incident when the Tenyo Maru sank and released more than 400,000 gallons of fuel oil. Adding to the loss was the fact that the young birds come off their nests and spend time swimming with their male parent learning to fish before learning to fly.

I am always incredulous when I hear on the news that marine life will be able to avoid the spill area and therefore escape harm. How does anything avoid hundreds of square miles of floating and subsurface oil?

Then I recalled the images after both the Washington state oil spills and the Exxon Valdez — images of seabirds, shorebirds and otters being cleaned of oil. The sad news is that although some of these animals may be successfully cleaned of oil, it doesn’t mean they are good to go and will live long and prosperous lives. Most of the animals cleaned of oil have been highly stressed and will not live long in the wild, and it is usually not practical to keep them in captivity indefinitely.

There are other dangers to consider as well. Unwittingly, the sea otters cleaned of Exxon Valdez oil who were released into un-oiled areas of Prince William Sound carried a serious virus with them and infected the resident population.

Florida is home to several highly vulnerable marine species on the brink, many that must come to the surface to breathe. Oiling their homes could push them closer to the edge of extinction. Much of Florida’s vulnerability rests on whether the spill is picked up by the Loop Current, a Gulf of Mexico current that gets its name because it heads north from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico into the Gulf, then loops south before reaching the coast of Louisiana toward Florida.

The Loop Current then merges into the Florida Current that flows east just of the Florida Keys and merges into the Gulf Stream that heads north up the east coast of Florida. In other words, if the oil slick is picked up by these major currents, much of Florida’s coast and coastal resources could be impacted.

Vulnerable species include the 5 species of sea turtles that forage in state waters; the Florida manatee; American crocodile; smalltooth sawfish; several species of terrapin (an estuarine turtle that frequents mangrove areas); and several species of wading birds, such as Florida’s big pink bird, the spoonbill.

My marine scientist husband and I have seen some amazing things while underwater in Florida, like a manta ray swimming within reach, sailfish on the hunt, corals and giant barrel sponges spawning, manatees frolicking in a group, and schools of fish racing around in cyclonic formation to avoid being eaten. We have looked eye to eye at predatory species like sharks and barracudas in awe of their power and speed.

We both hope our 10-year-old daughter will be able to see these things as well.

(Image: Roseate spoonbill in Florida. Image credit: Pete Zarria/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. Laura enjoyed reading your blog… Lots of good information.
    Being a Florida resident, I too hope for the best with regards to the unknown damage this might cause!

  2. Laura, this tragedy must make your business of conservation very frustrating. It is a real travesty. I too am very concerned with the future for our children. We would like to volunteer in some way. Something positive should come of this.

  3. Just so very sorry. This is like a nightmare that won’t end. The tragedy is still unfolding and I just pray the leak is stopped NOW. Taking it hard here in the desert of west Texas. Feeling connected to that water and life, Alli

  4. Thanks for your blog Laura! Hoping and praying this thing will be plugged before August!

  5. Great article Laura! You really highlight some very important issues related to the oil spill and marine life in general. I especially agree with the phrase “How does anything avoid hundreds of square miles of floating and subsurface oil?” We really need to learn from this disaster and try to prevent any such thing from happening again. Thanks for the article and all the work you do.

  6. Thank you for your insightful article, Laura, and thanks to members who have shown their concern for our environmental gifts. This tragic ecological disaster should cause concern around the entire world because I believe every nook and cranny may be affected by it even if the spill is completely stopped NOW. Of course, the effects may not be felt immediately or even in the next few years, but EVERY LIVING THING in/on this world is connected and will eventually feel this tragedy. Oh, I do SO HOPE I am wrong!! I, too, want my grandchildren to be able to see and enjoy this bounteous beauty called Earth where we live.

  7. I am trying to figure out why the Nature Conservancy would take money from BP. It makes no sense to me if your ethics tell you that drilling for oil in the sea is wrong, then you take money from oil companies. I find this shocking and I think you may have posters who want to hear from you.

    1. Gael,
      My name is Dave Connell, I’m an employee for The Nature Conservancy and I would like to address your concerns.

      The money donated by BP to the Conservancy has been used to further our conservation goals around the world. Examples of the work the BP donations have funded include the following:

      • Noel Kempff forest protection project in Bolivia, which protects 1.5 million acres of tropical forest and benefits both people and wildlife.
      • A joint project between the Conservancy and nine Indonesian and international organizations to establish the Conservation Training & Resource Center, which builds local capacity fort conservation in Indonesia.
      • A Three-million-dollar, square mile of forested wetlands for Chesapeake Bay wildlife, which is is being transferred to the Commonwealth of Virginia as a state wildlife management area, open to the public

      Although the BP oil spill has caused us to re-examine our position of offshore drilling, the Conservancy has not taken a blanket position on offshore oil and gas drilling.

      Oil and gas production anywhere creates environmental risks. Our focus has been on addressing potential impacts of energy development in specific places. With the best available science, including that developed by our own experts, we identify the places where drilling is most risky for critical habitat. Based on that analysis, we make policy recommendations on specific projects or tracts. Sometimes we oppose drilling in areas that we consider too sensitive. In other cases we recommend safeguards and best practices to minimize and mitigate environmental harm.

      We have heard from lots of members and supporters on this issue and have responded to them via the comments field here and on our facebook page whenever we can.

      Our CEO Mark Tercek also hosted an online chat with our members and supporters on this issue two weeks ago. You can see the transcript of that chat here:

      If you have further questions about this relationship after reading the transcript of the chat, we invite you to leave them here.

      Thanks for giving us the opportunity to answer your questions.

  8. I’ll politely disagree with the prior posting. I am in favor of taking all the money BP is willing to donate. Perhaps because of this they will be especially generous and that money can be put to use protecting wildlife and cleaning up damaged habitat. I expect no one at BP wanted this to happen any more than the rest of us. Let’s all take a lesson and use less oil! Less demand = less drilling.

  9. im so 🙁 of oil spill

  10. This is a grim time for the Gulf ecosystem. I wonder if we will learn anything from it?

  11. Because of outdate laws and regulations, US goverment and affected states in the gulf were unwilling to let 4 dutch oil-skimming ships to operate in the Gulf because of union and maritime regs. US-0nly registered ships to operate in US waters only? What a mistake not to use the help from other nations willing to help us out. We still hinder ourselves in the cleanup. EPA & commerce dept. should step in and waive this outdate rule. There are other countries boundering the Gulf of Mexico, I wonder what they would say if we didn’t do the utmost in recovery and cleanup.

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