The New York Whale and Dolphin Action League

The Gulf of Mexico: Will It Ever Be The Same?

By Taffy Lee Williams

It has been 84 days since BP's oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded, killing 11 workers and sending an as yet unstoppable torrent of black oil through the gulf. The extensive damage done to the coastal region, environment, and the marine life, is stifling and in many ways irreversible. At this writing, the US government and independent scientists respectively estimate that from from 72 to 140 million gallons of oil have already gushed into the water. (The Exxon Valdez spilled a mere 11 million gallons.) The slick has spread over 6,500 sq. kilometers (2,500 sq. miles), sending tar balls and oil onto the shorelines of all 5 gulf states, shutting down fisheries and decimating local economies, fouling the estuaries and nesting grounds for literally millions of birds and turtles and the legions of species that inhabit this rich biologically productive region. Over 400 species of birds and animals who inhabit the gulf, including 28 species of cetacean, are now threatened with the annihilation of their local populations while indigenous, non-migrating species face almost certain extinction. This is the largest environmental disaster in US history.

One of the best video descriptions of the sights of the oil spill comes from Louisiana conservationist John L. Wathan. "From 1.2 miles off the gulf shores of Alabama to the ground zero site some 90 miles away we haven't flown over a single square inch of clean water." (1)

A range of emotions, from shock and anger to frustration and grief, grips the nation as we follow the progress of the thickening onslaught and watch the bungled attempts of BP to plug the leak. As each day passes, we tearfully view images of oiled birds, dying turtles and expect the worst for the elusive cetaceans. In our grief it soon becomes clear that the nefarious collusion of industry, corporate greed, the US government and inexcusable human error conspired to bring about this disaster; and this collusion has yet to be broken.

In a shocking courtroom revelation, the public learned that the government agency in charge of oil exploration oversight, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), was literally sleeping with Big Oil. Oil company inspection reports were filled out in pencil so that MMS officials could later ink them in and file them. MMS personnel received gifts, including sports game tickets, posh restaurant meals and even vacation cruises from the oil companies they were regulating.

In 2008, reports made out by the inspector-general, interior department, had implicated a dozen MMS officials for 'unethical and criminal conduct' in discharge of their duties. They were having cocaine and porn parties in offices. They were alleged to have had sex with oil company representatives. They received gifts and paid holidays from the very companies that they were supposed to be regulating.
The result of all this lubrication was that the regulators became part of the process of bypassing the laws. BP was allowed to drill the oil-well, which later blew up, without installing an acoustically-controlled shut-off valve that could automatically close in case of an accident. MMS had also waived the regulation for BP to file a full environmental impact assessment report. Filing this report would have delayed operations on the rig, which was costing BP $500,000 in rent per day. So they cut through the 'red tape' - and the results are there for us to see. (2)

With respect to oil and this spill, BP, the fourth largest corporation in the world, without an army, has taken control of the US government. Demanding and achieving a tight grip, BP has determined what numbers and data are released, who can volunteer or help with wildlife, whose boats can skim the waters, who is "permitted" to take pictures, and even who can fly above the burning, rainbow-colored waters. Desperate local fishermen now employed by BP are told they aren't allowed to speak to the media or report on what they see, or they'll be fired.

"From 17 miles out it is obvious the entire gulf was covered at this point. There was no more clean water. Heavy layers of oil now cover the entire horizon." (3)

BP has garnered such power that US officials still have not stopped the application of a toxic dispersant, Corexit, that submerges the surface oil into the water column, making it harder to skim off, in effect hiding the crude from the public. Although less toxic dispersants are available, BP's choice is so dangerous - more toxic and less effective - that it has been banned in the UK.

Corexit was used during the Exxon Valdez oil spill and has been linked to illness and death.... BP was allowed to choose what dispersant to use. BP was stockpiled with Corexit and continued ordering it. When the EPA told BP to use something else, BP did not stop using Corexit. The EPA has yet to enforce that BP stop using Corexit. (4)

Toxicologists tell us that Corexit "ruptures red blood cells, causes internal bleeding... allows crude oil to penetrate into the cells and every organ system" resulting in rectal bleeding, liver and kidney damage and death.(5) 6.6 million litres have already been dumped into the water. How will this further harm everything - from plankton to whales - that can't avoid swimming through it? What will the effects be on the various ecosystems, the water column, or the toxicity of the oil? No one really knows, for applied in this manner, underwater and in these amounts, the chemical hasn't been tested!

BP has even thwarted the public's ability to find accurate information on the spill. By buying search engine words, such as "Corexit," on Google and Yahoo, BP is directing the public to BP-friendly sites and articles. This accounts for the many alternative and foreign sources the public must often use to find out what's really going on. It took almost two months after the spill for BP to finally release the chemical composition of Corexit. How can Obama, the EPA and the rest allow this charade of "government oversight" to continue?

While being hit with lawsuits from the devastated fishing and tourism industries, BP has played down the spill, trying to hide the real numbers of impacted wildlife. There are accounts of dead dolphins found by cleanup workers or skimmers disappearing, never being necropsied, or counted in the tally of dead. Not until a court ordered BP to remove endangered sea turtles before burning corralled oil did they allow rescuers in - after hundreds had already been burned alive!

Government agencies allegedly trying to coordinate cleanup efforts, the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA, the Coast Guard, US Fish and Wildlife, even the White House, appear to cower before BP's rule. The cleanup, under BP's direction, is hampered by red tape, federal restrictions and a painfully slow response, despite the emergency of more oil washing up and wrecking more pristine marshes and beaches each day. The US's impotence in the face of this disaster has become a source of public outrage and dismay.

"23 miles out we encountered heaviest sheen yet. The waters there were deep purple, maroon, blue, it looked almost like a rainbow. The scope of this is beyond belief. It will take years at this rate to gather up even a portion of the oil that is on the surface today. Some of it looks more like bruised internal organs of the human body than the surface of the ocean." (6)

BP continues to enrage the public with its disdain for transparency and for thwarting work that would aid wildlife and the cleanup efforts.

BP and the government are working hand in hand to suppress the media and others from telling the truth about the nature and extent of the catastrophic damage caused by BP's criminal negligence.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the oil spill, announced that reporters and journalists may be fined $40,000 and face potential Class D felony charges if they come within a 20-meter [65 ft.] `safety zone' around any response vessels or booms on the water or on beaches. This outrageous effort to shut down independent reporting comes on the heels of weeks of false statements issued by BP and dutifully repeated by government officials. (7)

At the water's edge in South Pass, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, one CBS film crew was threatened with arrest.

When we tried to reach the beach, seen here and covered with oil, a boat of BP contractors with two Coast Guard officers on board told us to turn around under threat of arrest. `This is BP's rules, not ours.' ...Federal officials admit they have no idea what's happening in the deeper waters because they can't watch it. (8)
"When we found this dolphin it was filled with oil. Oil was just pouring out of it. It was the saddest darn thing to look at," said a BP contract worker who took the Daily News on a surreptitious tour of the wildlife disaster unfolding in Louisiana.
His motive: simple outrage.
"There is a lot of coverup for BP. They specifically informed us that they don't want these pictures of the dead animals. They know the ocean will wipe away most of the evidence. It's important to me that people know the truth about what's going on here," the contractor said.
"The things I've seen: They just aren't right. All the life out here is just full of oil. I'm going to show you what BP never showed the President."
...He motored out to Queen Bess barrier island, known to the locals as Bird Island.
The grasses by the shore were littered with tarred marine life, some dead and others struggling under a thick coating of crude.
"When you see some of the things I've seen, it would make you sick," the contractor said. "No living creature should endure that kind of suffering." (9)

While "Seize BP" protests mount around the country, skimmers sit idly and wildlife rehabilitators and volunteers beg to be let in to help. Federal officials take weeks to approve urgent equipment requests and the Coast Guard protects and enforces BP's "no-access" policies. It's a bizarro world of incompetence and government-industry collusion, exposed by what has become a war against an environmental seize by massive mile-long globs of dispersant stained oil.

There were seven fires - from the size of these fires it seems as though we're not only trying to kill everything in the Gulf of Mexico but everything that flies over it as well. Certainly nothing can live in these rainbows of death that cover the entire horizon. These rainbows stretch for miles in every direction. You can't see a clear place on the gulf anywhere around this. (10)

In the early days and weeks after the April 20 oil rig explosion, during the height of breeding season, the National Audubon Society, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, the National Wildlife Federation and the Barataria Terrebonne National Estuary Program united to help coordinate the tens of thousands of individuals willing to come and help. However, it was soon understood that BP again was controlling who would volunteer, placing the highest training restrictions on everyone, requiring 40-hour safety classes before one would even be allowed near the oil or wildlife. This move made it impossible for many to follow their hearts and go help out.

Then there was this pod of [approximately 22] dolphins found later. Some already dead, some in their death throes. It seemed to be that they were raising their head and looking at the fires wondering why is my world burning down all around me? Why would humans do this to me? (11)

To complicate matters, the expected masses of birds, marine mammals and other wildlife trickled in dozens at a time. Coordinators told volunteers heading for the gulf that they weren't needed, and that if they were inundated with wildlife, the qualified living locally would be called. Many wondered what happened to the thousands of expected birds and marine mammals, and of course, feared the worst.

As we headed out toward Louisiana it was mile after mile of rainbow, heavy slick oil, and then a circle appears. Could there possibly be life under all of this? In the shadow of all that smoke could there actually be something alive? ...As we looked closer we saw this pod of [36] dolphins obviously struggling just to breathe. Another pod of 18 dolphins.
Then we found this guy. A sperm whale swimming in the oil had just breached. Along his back we could see red patches of crude as if he'd been basted for broiling. (12)

Tragically, it will be impossible to determine how many whales and dolphins have been lost in the spill. There has never been a baseline population study on cetaceans in the gulf, as they are so difficult to count. Dolphins and whales spend their lives mostly submerged and coastal waters are murky. One thing is certain: cetaceans are being severely affected, as the "unofficial" videos reveal.

As of July 11, the US Fish and Wildlife Collective is reporting 1,731 dead birds, 1,071 live-oiled, and 473 released birds. There have been 454 dead sea turtles, 134 live-oiled, and 11 released. 58 dead mammals, 2 live-oiled and one cleaned and released (a dolphin). (13) These numbers seem strangely low, considering the expanse of this catastrophe. We know some of the effects of oil.

At least some killer whales in Alaska were suspected to have inhaled fumes emitted by spilled Exxon Valdez oil, causing them to lose consciousness and drown. Oil can burn the mucous membranes around the eyes and mouth, says Fougeres. Inhaled fumes can cause pneumonia, ulcers and liver and kidney failure. (14)

We can only hope that some can escape, finding breaks in the slick through which they can breathe. But we recognize the grim reality.

Looking ahead, official observations show a small portion of the slick has already reached the loop current which moves water around the coast of So. Florida. (15) Just how far-reaching will this marine nightmare prove to be? We grieve the losses and hope for the mercy and wisdom to take a new direction, one in which humanity will act with responsibility and strength while sharing this blue planet with every other living creature.


1. Wathen, John.

2. BP Plays Down Oil Leak. July 10, 2010. The Times of India.

3. Wathen, John.

4. The Dirty Truth About BP Gulf Oil Spill Dipersant: Nalco Corexit.

5. Toxicologists: Corexit "Ruptures Red Blood Cells..."

6. Wathen.


8. CBS Evening News. May 19, 2010.

9. Dead, dying marine wildlife. New York Daily News.

10. Wathen, John.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Deepwater Horizon Response Consolidated Fish and Wildlife Collection Report. July 11, 2010.

14. Oil Spill Update From The Field. Audubon Magazine.

15. Bloomberg News. May 20, 2010.

The New York Whale and Dolphin Action League
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Phone: 914-793-9186
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