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September 5, 2010

Celebrities, oil sludge and sharks

BY: Xavier Pastor


© OCEANA / Soledad Esnaola


Many things happened before we started to measure oil and before my last entry in this blog. The last time we were in Gulfport, almost two weeks ago, we were paid a visit by some Oceana friends who wanted to support our expedition with their presence. Morgan Freeman, Ted Danson and top model Almudena Fernandez came on board to help us spread our message and explain our work to the U.S. press. The mayor of one of the most important cities in Belize, a coastal city threatened by the offshore oil industry, also came on board.

While we organised the loading of instruments in port, the divers took one of the Oceana Latitude’s dinghies to Ship Island, one of the barrier islands 15 miles in front of Gulfport. These islands were the first to receive the black tide after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Since then, and in many other Gulf coast areas, brigades of workers hired by BP have been trying to clean up the most obvious remnants of sludge. Even after three months, there is still a significant amount of oil on the shore. The damage suffered by populations of birds, turtles, cetaceans and fish no longer appears in the headlines. It will take a long time to evaluate the medium and long term impact on ecosystems. That’s why we’re here.

A few days after leaving Gulfport, we tried to begin another project we had planned for this phase of the campaign. It consisted of marking whale sharks. An important population of these giant fish lives in the Gulf of Mexico. They can reach up to 18 meters in length and feed by filtering huge amounts of water. It’s logical to suspect that the contamination of the Gulf, even amounts that the human eye cannot detect, may have a serious cumulative effect on these animals. Dr. Eric Hoffsmayer from the University of Southern Mississippi came on board to help us with this project, along with one of his assistants. Both are experts in marking sharks. Oceana rented a couple of small planes for observers Soledad Esnaola and Emily Fisher, from the organization’s European and North American offices.  We were only able to work on the project for two short days before the weather worsened and, from the air, we identified a group of 5 sharks roughly 15 miles from the Oceana Latitude. However, the rough seas made it impossible for us to deploy one of the dinghies to travel quickly to the area. Although whale sharks stay a relatively long time in one area and close to the surface, this group didn’t wait for us. When the Latitude reached the area, more than one hour later, the sharks had disappeared into the depths. And that was our first and only chance. The truth is that the result of this project was the first failure –the only one until now, let’s keep our fingers crossed- of the initiatives we have planned for this two-month expedition.

From these Louisiana waters, where ten days later another oil platform, the Vermilion Block 380, would explode, we had to quickly travel to the port of Gulfport where winches, generators, CTDs, buoys, lines, chains and anchors were waiting to be loaded. All of this equipment was meant to support the oil sensors we would deploy around the BP Deepwater Horizon oil platform. But I already wrote about that.