(Author’s note: I wrote this a few months after the BP blowout in the Gulf. On the fifth anniversary of that tragedy, there is little to be hopeful about as we continue to deny the damage we cannot completely see and ignore the obvious evidence.)
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” – John Muir
They were fragile and appeared insignificant against the repetitive roar of rollers on the Gulf of Mexico. Oval and grayish in color, the turtle eggs looked as if a puff of wind might cause them to evaporate. Momentarily, as our television lens hovered above and focused on the nest made of sand, the eggs began to crack. Tiny green heads emerged from behind the opaque fragments of shell and snouts pointed at the air. Time and the genetics of survival had programmed the Kemps-Ridley hatchlings to scent the ocean and turn, instinctively, toward the water.
A clutch of the sea turtles had hatched within minutes of each other and they had all begun scratching at the sand to make their way to the unforgiving gulf where they were destined to live. They looked like olive silver dollars crossing an expanse of a hundred yards of beach on the Padre Island National Seashore. Our TV camera tracked them and the minute prints they made as their shells moved closer to the waves. Less than 20 minutes passed before each of them were pushing fins against the hard packed seam between the soft white beach and the drumming surf and they were picked up by withdrawing waves and curled into the sea. Survival seemed unlikely but some rose to the top of outgoing surges as if defiant of the odds that only a few of them were destined to live beyond these initial hours.
I first heard of the Kemps-Ridley sea turtle while working as a TV reporter in 1979 covering the blowout of the Ixtoc I drilling rig in the Bay of Campeche off the coast of Mexico. As the governor of Texas was calling public concerns about the oil in the gulf “much ado about nothing” and suggesting that we only needed to “pray for a hurricane,” a few people were already hard at work trying to prevent the extinction of a rare creature. The millions of gallons billowing into the sea at the Ixtoc site near Cancun were going to make saving the Kemps-Ridley a great challenge. Acutely instinctive, the endangered turtles nested only in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico near Tampico, and the oily ocean drifting northward was a threat. Eventually, the turtles were saved from extinction by a rescue effort that also moved north to South Padre, Island, Texas, and the dedication of Ila Loetscher, an accomplished woman who had been the first female licensed airplane pilot in Illinois but is remembered by history as “the turtle lady.”
The dedication of Loetscher and others brought back the population of Kemps-Ridley and they outlasted the tar balls that washed up on the Texas Gulf Coast for twenty years. The Ixtoc blowout continued for nine months and ended after a relief well hit a narrow target and the borehole was sealed. The wellhead was only 200 feet beneath the surface. The acerbic Texas governor, Bill Clements, was the founder of SEDCO, the company that owned the rig that was drilling the Bay of Campeche well. SEDCO, eventually, was acquired by Transocean, which operated the Deepwater Horizon platform that blew up over the Mississippi Canyon in a mile of water and has given us what may become history’s greatest environmental disaster.
Kemps-Ridley and other sea turtle species are again swimming in plumes of oil and coming to the surface to take the air from gaseous sheens floating on water. A few hundred sea turtles have been found dead and there will undoubtedly be numbers we will not be able to count. No one can be surprised when certain species disappear if the oil volcano on the bottom of the gulf continues to blast crude until the end of the summer or longer. We have all begun to turn our heads away from the pictures and videos of crude-covered birds and fish and are almost desperately grabbing at psychological threads offered by BP that claim a significant portion of the oil is being captured. A glimpse of the live camera dispels the PR spin. The four valves on the riser cap have not been closed and if they could have been safely shut that would have almost surely happened in 48 hours as BP had promised. The increased pressure of the shut valves is likely to blow it off the riser pipe or allow hydrates to freeze and halt the flow of oil to the collection ships but it is naïve for any of us to be optimistic until the oil has been completely stopped. We do not love oil more than creatures of the sea and other living things but we have allowed circumstances to develop and laws and policies to falter so that even those who care are also culpable.
When I lived near the gulf as a young man I thought it was as frightening as it was beautiful but now I am only afraid that it will die. Our house was a short drive from the water back then and when the summer south easterlies freshened in front of a storm we were able to smell the brine and fish in the tropical air of the lower Rio Grande Valley. Some times when we went to the beach we did not come home at night and unrolled sleeping bags on the sand and listened to the ceaseless sounding of the waves and watched stars sliding behind puffs of cloud and everything felt eternal. The gulf now seems as delicate and transient to me as those frail Kemps-Ridley hatchlings.
The first time I felt the power of the Gulf of Mexico I was hiding out on South Padre Island to avoid an evacuation order so that I could report on the landfall of Hurricane Anita. As I spoke on a pay phone to the Associated Press, the water rose over my knees near the jetties and I felt a fool for taking absurd chances to provide meaningless information and drama. Before the surge had arrived, the gulls had crouched on the sand and pointed their beaks at the approaching wind and I knew they knew more than I, and that made me fearful of the storm. In other years I was paid to chase after hurricanes named Andrew and Bonnie and Opal and our cameras recorded how nature destroyed and rejuvenated. The dying tended to be confined to humans who did not respect or understand what might rise up out of the great waters and their warmth.
I was once a crewmember on a 45-foot boat sailing out of the mouth of the Mississippi River and as we reached the open water a wall of black came up off our port bow and there was nowhere to hide. We were crossing to Corpus Christi and were about to begin our journey with ten and twelve foot waves on our first night. My initial turn at the helm came at midnight and I stared at the Loran screen trying to will the coast into view and force the wind and rain to stop but nothing changed. Because a man will encounter odd ideas and images when he is afraid, I began to think of those tiny turtles I had seen years earlier and how the sea that was threatening my life did not even disturb them as they moved beneath the waves. While we were hammering the hull and falling off crests and down hard on troughs, the Kemps-Ridley was having a routine day. Our boat passed along the western edge of the Mississippi Canyon that night as we moved toward the continental shelf and the blue water. Even without the Loran to provide course corrections, I would have been able to take bearings off the lights twinkling on the drilling rigs scattered across the water or the dim glows from the Vietnamese shrimp boats tied to the piers of the platforms as they waited for sunrise and another long day of dragging nets.
As the Gulf of Mexico becomes a lesser ecosystem, these will be my abiding memories. I will remember, too, standing on the bridge of a Coast Guard cutter and watching as two dolphins paced the boat off of our bow and led us quickly to Matagorda Island State Park, a barrier island where there are endlessly fascinating living things and none of them are humans. There was also the time when our group paid a charter captain to guide us to the fat-bellied redfish swimming around shipwrecks and when we pulled up the first ones he cleaned them as he talked and then spread white filets on paper plates, dotted them with pats of butter, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and popped them into a microwave for 90 seconds. I still have not tasted finer seafood.
I will carry also the images acquired while riding my motorcycle through Pass Christian and along the coast to Biloxi. The heat and humidity limited the mileage I was able to endure but there was a pier standing above the sugary sands and I walked out to find cold beer and a counter stacked with oysters, hot sauce, and crackers and I was better in an hour or two and rode further east with joy and ease. I will not forget the crowd at the end of the day on the docks at Key West as they applauded the sunset over the gulf or finding the cistern and railroad pilings at the former location of Indianola, Texas on Matagorda Bay. The 19th century city had 10,000 residents and was the largest settlement west of the Mississippi until wiped out by hurricanes. I find myself thinking of the shallow waters there and what might happen if an oil plume is swept in with a storm and covers the sand or nearby San Antonio Bay where the sweet spring waters of the Guadalupe River empty into the gulf. Immigrants, soldiers, camels, horses, and dreams landed on that low spot and made their way inland to construct our beginnings.
I know that people will insist that I am being maudlin and reactionary but no one can deny the gulf has been altered in a manner that will affect it for generations and recovery is not a certainty. Oil and microbes and dispersants eat oxygen from the water and sludge in marshes is toxic and cannot be flushed. No more knowledge is needed to understand this catastrophe. Death expands with the slick. Universities identify huge underwater plumes of oil and BP makes denials that ought to be scoffed at by the media and the public but while the oil drifts unseen beneath the surface the spin and perception can still be argued. The grainy sea floor video ought to be proof enough of disaster but our hearts wish to deny the holocaust our brains have only begun to register. We cannot even be confident the well can be plugged. Relief wells are not guarantees. What if this blowhole blasts oil unabated for years? Our leaders were too corrupt and lazy to prevent this from happening and they are as incompetent and powerless to stop it as the greedy industry they have so cheaply licensed.
The Gulf of Mexico is turning into a funereal place. Who can go there now without fear of encountering death? I do not wish to see the gulf lying in its casket. I prefer to remember the water as it was when it was vibrant and alive.