Seeing and smelling the oil approaching Louisiana’s shore

By Christine Dell’Amore

Chandeleur Sound, Louisiana–After about five days of reporting on the Gulf oil spill here in Louisiana, today I actually had the opportunity to see it.

National Geographic magazine photographer Tyrone Turner invited me to join him on a helicopter ride over Chandeleur Sound, which is pretty much ground zero for the slow-moving catastrophe. (See a map of Louisiana’s barrier islands.)

Leaving from Jesuit Bend (about a half-hour south of New Orleans), we flew over wetlands not yet impacted by the spill but still heavily taxed by fishers, hunters, and even oil companies, which have carved out long, runway-like channels through the marshes to lay their pipelines.

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A wetland close to the Mississippi River that’s still untouched by oil.

Photo by Christine Dell’Amore

We hit the open expanse of the sound, spotting some shiny-backed dolphins but nothing else awry. Then faint, russet-colored wisps began to emerge, streaking across the surface. As we headed for them, the oil streaks became wider and more vibrant, ranging from a deep, almost brick red to a weak-coffee color.

 
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Shrimping boats tug boom–buoyant tubes–to capture the oil in Chandeleur Sound..

Photo by Christine Dell’Amore

Cutting through the oil was a group of shrimping boats tugging boom–a buoyant tubing that can round up oil for collection. The boats were working in possibly the worst part of the slick that we, as regular people, are allowed to see. That’s because there’s an invisible “box” that private aircraft can’t fly through, the pilot told us–presumably right over and around the spill. (See pictures of the Gulf oil spill’s evolution.)

 

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Photos by Christine Dell’Amore

Taking pictures from the open helicopter, we circled for several minutes above the boats, which looked like water bugs with their riggings sticking out like little legs. The pilot also took us over some of the bird rookeries in the Chandeleur Islands, which are some of the most important bird breeding grounds in the world.

(See: “Gulf Oil Spill a ‘Dead Zone in the Making’“?)

Workers had boomed off at least three of the islands most inhabited by birds–but booms, as has been noted, can be easily displaced by strong storms. I could smell the oil intermittently–a strong, varnish-like smell that’s emitted as oil evaporates from the surface and gets broken up by sunlight.

gulf-oil-spill-photo-1.jpgFaint traces of orange boom circle two of the Chandeleur Islands, which are rookeries for birds such as brown pelicans. There are brown strands of oil to the right of the picture.

Photo by Christine Dell’Amore

As we zoomed back above the clouds, people radioed in steady reports of oil sightings in the area. I realized that the holding pattern that most of us have been locked in for the past week, waiting for the oil, is sadly over.

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Christine Dell’Amore on the helicopter above the Gulf of Mexico.

Self-portrait by Christine Dell’Amore

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Christine Dell’Amore is the environment writer/editor for National Geographic Daily News. Her assignments–and addiction to travel–have taken her to places in more than 35 countries, including Thailand, Jamaica, and the tundra of the Arctic Circle. She has a masters degree in science journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

 

 

Christine Dell’Amore’s coverage of the Gulf oil spill:

Hurricane Could Push Spilled Gulf Oil Into New Orleans

Gulf Oil Spill to Create Dead Zone?

Gulf Oil Spill May Reach East Coast

Related photographic coverage of the Gulf oil spill:

Ten Oil-Threatened Animals

Huge “Domes” for Oil Spill?

Oil Spill’s Evolution

Oil Spill Hits Land, Birds

Gulf Spill From Above

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn