I had been calling people for the last few days trying to get onto a civilian or Coast Guard boat to visit outside the bay, but I was running into problems: just anybody can't take their boat out whenever and wherever they want. I'm not sure if it was mandated or not, but only BP or Coast Guard boats were out as far as I could tell. Those with boats of their own were likely either working for BP already, or just had no reason to go out to sea anymore at this unfortunately oily point. Ali Dutra, a marine biologist in Central Florida, turned out to be my one contact that could get me onto a boat. She was a friend from college in Rhode Island, who had come to Florida for her master's degree.
When I spoke with her she referred me to her roommate who was in Mobile working with a turtle rescue program. This organization would have turtle sightings in the affected area reported to them, and then respond by boating out to the location, and marking it with a GPS. They would then either collect the deceased turtle, or if it was still alive, attempt to rescue it. Another facet of their activities was to locate and mark where there were nests of turtle eggs. If any oil washed up on the beaches where these nests were, there would be flags to mark their locations so that at least some might be saved, transported, or at the very least preserved. Ali's roommate Katie gave me the number of her supervisor, Erik Marten, who lamented that extra people on the BP contracted boats were not allowed. (all programs like Erik's are facilitated by vessels of opportunity working with BP under coast guard 'supervision').
He did the best he could, by calling me back with the number of Ayla Kelley, a Coast Guard media relations specialist based out of the joint BP/Coast Guard staging area in Mobile. I had been playing phone tag with dead numbers, coast guard petty officers, and message machines for the last two days, and now late on my second to last day, I began thinking of more interviews I could do instead, but I finally got a call back from the elusive Ayla. She said she had been organizing many requests such as mine, and had been busy arranging imbedded media status for myself and several others like me on a coast guard vessel. Mrs Kelley told me that there was space on a boat tomorrow, Friday if I was interested. Yes, I assured her, I was interested.
I was the first to arrive at 'The Boat Shop' at the marina at 701 Myrick street, in Pensacola. There, I met the captain, his son, and Wes, our Coast Guard Liaison. I knew right away that we weren't going to get to the impactful, tragic areas of the spill farther off coast.
Wes was stationed up in Juneau, Alaska as a media relations officer working with the Discovery Channel program Deadliest Catch. He had arrived in Pensacola the previous day, and knew virtually nothing about the area or the spill. Already it was clear I was being babysat, but in no time at all it was evident that the Coast Guard had taken this opportunity to take care of nearly 10 persistent journalists, and had put us all on the same vessel of opportunity. At least we were promised ample time to try to catch a glimpse of something: a satisfactory 8 hours.
One of these journalists, an independent videographer, clumsily stepped on the raw nerves of the captain as soon as she arrived:
'Is this the vessel of convenience?'
The Captain spat a bit as he replied… 'Yeah, convenient for you maybe.'
He was formerly a charter boat captain who made the average for the area of $700-$1000 per group, including gratuities. These days he hauled oily cargo, laborers, government agency workers, and now journalists around to the various ships and work zones for BP.
BP's standard daily wage for a vessel less than 30 feet: $1500 per day. All operating and docking costs are also covered.
Needless to say, I was wary from the beginning. I doubted we were going to go where we all would have liked to go, a dozen or more miles out. But we got some of what we came for: we all were able to capture images of skimming, and not just a few oilfields, and islands of brown mucky sludge. However, the eight hour tour of operations we were promised, rapidly degraded into a 3 hour coastal sightseeing tour. We never made an attempt to head out to where the spill had reached in force. We weren't shown the burning patches of oil, the larger vessels, or any affected areas along the coast; only barren isolated brownish or rainbow patches of varying sizes a few hundred meters off shore, and a few small skimmers.
The scope and scale of the spill is difficult to capture with nothing to show its' relative size, and no way to see what BP may be doing to try to contain it. The frustration of all of us, the so-called 'imbedded journalists,' was openly discussed below the deck of the Snapper Trapper, our host's personal craft. Nobody was mad at the captain, nor at the coast guard rep, whose unfamiliarity with this precise area was really just being used as a means to block our access.
The journalists, including representatives from Bloomberg, the European Press Photo Agency, and other regional media, were more concerned with the conflict of interests between media access, and BP employed vessels of opportunity. It is more than a little bit morally reprehensible that BP expect its unwilling-but-desperate mercenary army of charter boat captains to restrict access to the site when it is precisely that access that might hold the company fully accountable. What may be worse is that the Coast Guard is helping to organize and supervise the song and dance.
We saw more than a handful of different types of surface oil: rainbow sheen, a thick, dark layer, light brown circle patches, beautifully layered and striped patterned patches, as well as reddish tar clumps which leak a steady trail of oil-sheen off of their down-current side.
Sadly, we saw the effect of all this oil on the marine life up close. We saw a pregnant crab swimming just under the oil-coated surface racing as quickly as she could swim towards shore, holding a claw-full of eggs under her belly. Not long after we witnessed a seagull, and a shark competing for access to a school of minnows, which may soon be few and far between.
As I said, we turned back after only 3 hours and headed for a decontamination site just outside of the bay entrance. We came in without any oil on the boat, which is a surprise, considering how much of the stuff we drove right through.
Photos that are being released by journalists in cooperation with BP are staggeringly pale in comparison to images that have been released of the spill from above. Only NASA, privately chartered planes, and helicopters have been able to illustrate the extent of the spill in the open ocean, where, several miles out in the Gulf, there are burning patches of oil, vast deadly surface pools of filth, and extensive, and random silvery sheens on the water, which have been and will continue to kill any wildlife they contact.