From the Shores of Louisiana — Turtle rescue!

Along the beaches of the Florida panhandle and Alabama there is a massive rescue effort underway involving butter knives and forks, tricked-out Styrofoam coolers and specially-rigged FedEx trucks.

The job is to scoop 70,000 mostly loggerhead sea turtle eggs out of the sand (very carefully, using kitchen utensils among other tools) before the hatchlings can swim out into the Gulf where they will either suffocate or be poisoned when they start floating with the current and munching on oil-soaked seaweed.

It is an unusual example of across-the-board cooperation among the federal government (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and local environmentalists, who are usually loudly against any such intervention. No matter the threat, relocating turtles nests is rarely done. Here it’s being regarded as essential.

Early this morning I talked with J. Nichols, a research associate with the California Academy of Sciences who was just leaving the dock in Grand Isle for a day observing the impact of the oil gusher on local wildlife. His Grupo Tortuga has for years been dedicated to restoring Pacific Ocean sea turtles. His response to the unorthodox rescue plan? “I wouldn’t want to put any turtle into that oil if there’s another option.”

The turtle rescue echoes a theme I heard in voiced across the Gulf as the gushing continued – 2.5 million gallons a day, or roughly 200 million gallons – like those defending the unorthodox building of berms and dikes to try and stem the oil tide, that doing something is better than doing nothing, even if the efforts may seem Quixotic.

%Gallery-98231%Carl Safina is the president of the Blue Ocean Institute. Among his many books on ocean wildlife he’s written “Voyage of the Turtle.” Regarding the nest relocating he says, “For the hatchlings it’s a tiny sliver of a gain. It helps draw attention and that’s good.” He adds that of course it is already too late for the juveniles and adults already aswim in the Gulf.

One reason sea turtles lay so many eggs – about 100 per nest – is because the chance of surviving is so low. The probability that a sea turtle hatchling will survive ranges from one in 1,000 to one in 10,000. Even in the best of times tracking them is tricky, including statistics like how many eggs are laid, how many turtles are successfully hatched and how many survive the first month.

The process of trying to save the 700 nests is painstaking: 1,500 Styrofoam coolers have been turned into surrogate nests, each holding just half a nest. Once the coolers are filled with sand and the eggs carefully laid inside they are loaded into specially padded FedEx 18-wheelers and driven to the NASA-controlled Kennedy Space Center where an air-conditioned warehouse has been readied. Within seven to eight weeks the eggs should hatch and the tiny turtles will be carted to the eastern side of Florida to be released into the Atlantic.

Everyone involved has fingers, toes, etc., firmly crossed.

Like most wildlife in the Gulf, sea turtles have not fared very well. To-date a little more than 600 have been found washed ashore or floating injured near the site of the gushing oil well, 447 dead and 116 with visible oil on them. Others have been accidentally burned to death in some of the “controlled” fires aimed at reducing oil gathered on the sea’s surface.

BP is concerned about those numbers because ultimately it will have to pay damages for every dead creature counted, just as it will have to pay a penalty for each gallon spilled.

From the Shores of Louisiana: Dredging

Chandeleur Islands, Louisiana — The French-born helicopter pilot zooming low over the Gulf is focused on two things: Whether he can find more fuel in Venice and whether or not the brown streaking we’re seeing north of the Chandeleur Islands is oil or just the transition of muddy Mississippi River water mixing with salt water.

It’s his first day flying out of Plaquemines Parish and, with maps piled on his lap, he admits to being a bit confused by both the landscape zipping past below at 100 mph – over solitary oil rigs, marsh and sand islands and a half-dozen shrimp boats trailing skimmers — and just how deeply the oil has penetrated up the mouth of the Mississippi.

From five hundred feet above sea level, with a mid-afternoon sun streaking in the window, it is admittedly hard to distinguish oil from muddy water. But when veteran Gulf photographer Gerald Herbert, riding shotgun, points worriedly below, it’s clear we are seeing a new stain heading inland, which we estimate to be about 12 miles long.

Everywhere you look in this area where Gulf waters meet fresh water, looking west towards the town of Grand Isle and the entry to Barataria Bay, you see oil.

My goal though is the Chandeleur Islands, about 50 miles off the coast. I want to parallel the length of the small island chain to see just how much oil has surrounded its 50-mile length. The Chandeleurs are the only bits of land standing between the still-gushing oil and landfall and for the past decade, thanks to storms and erosion, have been disappearing at a rate of about 300 feet a year. Now, thanks to the BP spill, the long-ignored islands have become a kind of secondary ground zero in the fight between locals and the federal government over how best to slow the spread of oil.

%Gallery-98231%It’s not a great leap to think that if energy had been put into building the islands up over the years to act as better barriers against big storms they’d also be better prepared to act as blockades to all this oil.

Governor Bobby Jindal, Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nunsegger and several other top Louisiana politicos have sent cranes to the islands – which are federally protected wildlife habitats – and not the kind that swoop and soar but the kind that trench and roar.

The federal government has already stopped the plan a couple times, concerned that any hasty digging, sucking and relocating of sand has the potential to do far more harm than good; the locals, led by an increasingly vociferous governor, argue that doing something – anything!! — Is better than doing nothing.

The local’s plan, to be paid for initially with state funds since neither the fed nor BP is backing it, is to suck sand off the bottom of the Gulf and pile it at the ends of the islands, extending their blocking ability. But the Interior Department, as well as several Louisiana environmentalists, contends the work is being done at overly sensitive sections of the island and that building up one end of the island will only weaken the spot where the sand is being taken.

My instinct as we fly over the islands at 2,000 feet – we’ve had to climb since this is federally protected air space – is that with evidence of oil having arrived yesterday on Lake Ponchatrain in New Orleans (80 miles up the Mississippi River) it seems that the oil has already evaded the barrier islands. Louisiana government statistics suggest that 337 miles of its coastline are now oil-inflicted. Maybe the hundreds of millions Louisiana is attempting to spend to try and block the oil could be better spent on coordinating its clean up.

But Bobby Jindal and team seem to be in a building frenzy; the fed has yesterday stymied another effort to build rock jetties or dikes in the shallow ocean in front of Grand Isle; 75 barges piled high with boulders sit parked on the Mississippi River, waiting the outcome of another squabble. The concern regarding the dike building is what will happen to them once the spill dissipates. If it ever does.

From the Shores of Louisiana — Call in the navy!

Cat Island, Louisiana — During the past eleven weeks I’ve been on and around the edges of Barataria Bay for many days. This is ground-zero for the oil mess clean-up in southern Louisiana, a 650-square-mile jigsaw puzzle of marshes and wetlands where hundreds of workers have been sweating for weeks, valiantly attempting to wipe, absorb and suck up the oil which has penetrated it deeply.

If you haven’t been there in person, it’s hard to describe just how convoluted the place is. Imagine it this way, using that puzzle analogy: Think of a 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzle spread out on a table. Now randomly take half those pieces away, the pieces that remain resemble the bay.

It is a jagged, unformed piece of shallow water and low-lying land with no straight lines and thousands of corners, inlets, shallows and loosely connecting waterways. Today, oil has seeped into nearly every corner. Policing it – trying to stop it from entering, with booms – proved impossible. Skimming oil off the surface has worked to a degree, but even the dozens of fishing boats armed with skimmers can only make a dent. Cleaning it up once the oil has invaded the edges of the marshes is, well, a nightmare. Imagine trying to scrub individual pieces of sea grass by hand or vacuum out bubbly brown crude that has penetrated several feet into the wetlands.

During a recent weekend on the bay I was able to see the efforts being coordinated by a variety of local and non-local contractors, who have each hired workers, some from the area, some from other states. While there appears to be lots of activity on the bay – boats zooming here and there, floating villages set up as way stations – there seems to be little authority or control.

Many of the oil-soaked booms ringing, or partly ringing, wetland islands need to be changed but instead have been ignored and pushed onshore by currents and tides. The giant barge communes that have been floated in the heart of the bay to serve as central drop-offs for oil vacuumed up – some of it by shop-vacs purchased at nearby box stores, others by sophisticated pumping systems – are often surrounded by small boats filled with men who seem to be constantly on break.

%Gallery-98231%Every boat that heads out to help in the clean-up, many filled with fishermen whose livelihood is now and perhaps forever on hold, get a safety briefing from the Coast Guard, which is nominally in charge here.

But from sea level, judging by the work going on, the incredible amount of work still to be done, and a fair amount of workers adrift who clearly need some direction, one thing is clear: No one is really in charge of this clean-up.

While there are lots of workers toiling hard under the hot sun, there are also more than a few who are out there to collect a day’s pay with as little sweat as possible. On a political level, it’s clearly hard for some of the local elected officials to crack down when they see such abuse; many of these are their voters, after all, and they need jobs.

In retrospect, it makes me wish one thing President Obama had done just weeks into the gusher, was to call out the Navy and the Marines (whatever is left of them in this country, given their other current obligations).

This ongoing mess seems a perfect setting for an orderly, disciplined, ceaseless, military attack rather than a chaotic, independent, freelance approach. Granted, some of those jobs for needy locals would be diminished. But my gut says the oil would be better contained.

From the Shores of Louisiana — Crane Rescue

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

From the Shores of Louisiana: Morning in Sulphur Grove

Sulphur Grove, Louisiana – At 4:30 a.m. a pair of sport fishing boats being launched on the edge of Barataria Bay on a humid morning – where fishing has been banned for more than two months — is made more odd thanks to the backlighting of a partial lunar eclipse.

P.J. Hahn, a one-time Texas cop turned Louisiana politician, steps down out of his pick-up truck lugging a waterproof box filled with camera gear and a plastic bag full of clothes to protect against sun and wet, but not oil.

Before his feet hit the ground, he’s storytelling. “I dove into the sea just days after the spill began,” he starts, “and was cleaning oil out my ears for three days afterwards. The wetsuit I wore that day? I took it home and soaked it in my bathtub for a day trying to get the oil out of it, but ended up throwing it out. I would never have gotten the oil out and it smelled like hell.”

The very hands-on Director of Coastal Restoration for Plaquemines Parish – the 80-mile long peninsula jutting into the Gulf south of New Orleans — has no hesitancy plunging hands, feet, even his head into the oily mess that continues to grow in the complexity of marshes that stretch for miles to the Gulf. He only wishes there was more he could do.

“Why are we the only people out here at this time of morning, when the seas are calm?” he wonders out loud as we motor down a canal towards the sprawling bay. “Most of these workers wait until the sun is high before they come out to work.” Citing a lack of federal government leadership, he insists the clean-up is going as well as it can “but I’ve never seen as much incompetency as I’ve seen on the federal side here.”
As the fishing boat slides quietly through no-wake zones, its massive 250 hp engine overkill for the kind of floating inspection we are planning for the day, P.J. is on a roll. We pass barges laden with piles of brand new orange and yellow boom, absorbents and waste bins ready to receive plastic bags filled with dirty versions brought in by clean-up crews. A line of a dozen airboats are parked at the edge of the marsh grass; normally used for tourists and fishing, like every boat on the bay these days they are being used in the clean-up effort.

His early morning tirade is in part motivated by the fact that just the day before the federal government had shut down the tens of millions of dollars dredging project Governor Bobby Jindal, a favorite here in Plaquemines Parish, had launched in spite of its opposition in the Chandeleur Islands.

The fed – specifically the Fish and Wildlife Department and the Army Corps of Engineers – had discouraged the dredging project since it was first proposed, as too little too late and potentially more harmful to wildlife than oil. Jindal proceeded anyway, making him a folk hero in conservative circles across the south for standing up to the national government.

While Jindal has been the most outspoken of the four Gulf State Republican governors in his criticisms of the fed’s response to the oil gusher, his state has not exactly made spill prevention or clean-up a priority … until April 20. In the past decade the staff of the state’s oil spill coordinator’s office has been cut in half and in the past year Jindal had cut the unit’s budget in half.

Still, P.J. and many others in Plaquemines Parish feel trying something is better than sitting around doing nothing.

“Billy (Nunsegger, Plaquemines Parish president who has become the go-to guy for Anderson Cooper and other national media talking when they need a local voice of outrage) seems to think Obama really cares. I’m not as convinced,” says P.J., but when pressed he admits there’s no precedent for this mess, thus no clear path.

His real concern this early morning is the lack of activity. “If this is really a war, us against the oil, where is everybody? Now is the time to start working, when it’s calm, before the winds pick up. Why are we the only people out here on the bay?

“With this kind of attitude, the oil will definitely win.”