Barataria Bay, Louisiana – 6:50 a.m.: We’d been on the water for more than two hours already and had seen a particularly haunting sunrise thanks to a partial lunar eclipse by the time we reached the edge of Cat Island.
Marsh grass covers the muddy island, located about fifteen miles west of Sulphur Grove in Plaquemine Parish. The island is nearly identical to a couple hundred other unoccupied islands in the bay, except for the thousands of birds that call it home these days, the height of breeding season. As we watch from the opposite side of a pair of orange and yellow booms that circle the island, attempting to keep the oil sloshing around the bay from reaching its edges, terns and egrets, herons and cranes fly on and off the island noisily.
Minus the ongoing oil-gusher this would have been an idyllic early-morning bird watching event. Instead, binoculars and cameras are trained on the birds, trying to identify just how oil-soaked they are. Chicks are just being born and the adults spend their days flying out to pick up food; every time they dive they are at risk of an oil soaking.
“See that egret balanced on the top of the grass?” asks P.J. Hahn. “The one that looks grey? That’s a white egret. It is supposed to be all-white, not muddy brown. That bird is oil soaked.” His sun-streaked blonde hair make Hahn look more California surfer than Louisiana politico, but every weekend since the gushing began he’s been out on and above the bays, collecting data and images. Director of the Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Management Department his deep tan has been earned from long days patrolling on the bay.
07:10 a.m.: We have been trolling around the island slowly, looking for evidence of oil on the island or birds when just behind us a scrawny looking bird emerges as if from the deep, his beak and feet clawing for purchase on the boom. He’s oil-soaked – the worst we’ve seen — and struggling to get to the other side of the boom and to the island.
07:20 a.m.: We manage to reach the bird before it can clear the boom and P.J. grips it behind the wings to keep it from flying off. A couple weeks before he’d been out with National Geographic photographer Joel Satore and had a similar wrestling match with an oil-soaked pelican, a much bigger and stronger bird.
This one – a young heron or crane, so badly oiled it’s impossible to tell for sure – is lucky that we got him. If he’d made to the other side of the boom he’d be a goner; there’d be no rescuing and he’d quickly die from oil suffocation. I ask P.J. what we can do with the frightened bird now that we’ve got him. Bird in one hand, cell phone in the other, he calls the personal number of a friend who works with the Louisiana Fish and Wildlife Department, the agency charged with overseeing oiled critters. No answer.
“It’s too early on a Saturday morning. I’ll wait until eight o’clock and try him again.”
08:05: P.J.’s not having any luck reaching his friend, so we motor up to a nearby boat full of workers laying boom. They shout out the toll free number they’d been given for wildlife rescue — 866.557.1401.
P.J. punches in the number and the phone rings for a full minute, answered by a woman … in Houston.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m P.J. Hahn, calling from the Plaquemines Parish government, to report that we’ve found an oil-soaked bird and would like to turn it over to the proper authorities.”
“Yes, P.J., like pajamas, yes, that’s right, ma’am.”
What ensues is a ten-minute long conversation; he fills us in on her side as she puts him repeatedly on hold to ask questions of a manager. He explains repeatedly that he’s calling from Louisiana, that we’re in the middle of a bay, in a boat, and that we’ve got a badly injured bird that needs help.
He repeats our GPS coordinates to her, two, three, four times.
“Yes ma’am, I’m calling from Louisiana.”
Covering the mouthpiece with his hand, he explains that she’s just asked him if there is a restaurant nearby that might serve as a meeting with wildlife experts. “Ma’am, there is no Burger King, no McDonald’s out here in the middle of the bay,” he explains, his frustration growing. Captain Sal Gagliano, who’s driving the boat this morning, says he was out a week earlier with officials from the National Wildlife Federation who placed a similar call and were asked for the closest “cross street.”
08:20 a.m.: “Now she’s advising me to note our location and put the bird back in the water. What is she thinking? That bird will be dead in a couple hours.”
08:25: Unconvinced the telephone operator has understood where we are, or even exactly what we’re calling about, P.J. suggests we head towards Grand Isle where an onshore rescue station is set up. He’s stunned by what he perceives to be the inefficiency of the reporting system. “I should be able to call a local number and get someone on the line who knows the area,” he says. “Can you believe she wanted to know the nearest restaurant? This is supposed to be a specific ‘oil spill’ response number. Maybe they need to buy some maps!”
We coax the scared bird into the boat’s empty cooler for the ride, propping it’s clear top open to give it fresh air.
08:55 a.m.: Just as we pull near shore north of the town of Grand Isle P.J. is able to reach his friend who works with LDFW, who gives him a local number to call.
Within five minutes from around the tip of the island we make out an official boat speeding towards us, the spray off its bow backlit by the climbing sun.
09:10 a.m.: The boat, captained by Fred Wirstrom, carries a pair of LDFW employees and a half-dozen empty cat boxes. Apparently the call to the toll-free number had eventually been forwarded to them; they knew we were out here somewhere with an injured bird but our GPS coordinates had proven evasive.
As he slides into a zippered white hazmat suit and blue latex gloves LDFW ranger Tim Kimmel lectures P.J., even though he’s identified himself as a representative of the local government. “Next time it would be best if you left the bird where you found it and called us in to do the rescue,” he explains, slipping on blue latex gloves (P.J.’d handled the bird bare-handed.)
“Yes sir, I understand,” says P.J., his southern politeness overcoming a burning desire to be less so. “But if we hadn’t picked that bird up when we did, if it had cleared the boom and headed into the marsh, it would have never survived.”
“I understand,” says Kimmel, as the two men pass the still-panicked bird from boat to boat. “But we really can’t have just anyone picking up injured animals. It’s not good for the animals.”
“Yes sir, next time, yes sir, I understand,” says P.J.
Once the bird is stuffed into the cat box and the official boat is zipping away towards Grand Isle, P.J. is still muttering. “Can you believe she wanted to know the name of the nearest restaurant?”
(For a video account of P.J.’s morning, go to nola.com)