Changing Planet

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.


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.


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.)




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.


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

Self-portrait by Christine Dell’Amore

Christine Dell'Amore photo.jpg

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

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David 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. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs 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. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Dewi

    TO PROMOTE THE GENERAL WELFARE from gloriana casey 6/23/2010Oh, Oily Corporate Welfare Kings,inscrutable anctunoicg!Your profits rise so very high,GIANT, your discountings.NET OPERATING LOSS CARRY,is such a quaint, sad term. Our Government runs out of cash,yet YOU have piles to burn.ExxoxMobil, paid no taxin year two thousand nine.A country’s loss their profits grew.They are no friend of mine.Now Congress gives them lots of cuts,yet PEOPLE, they bleed dry.So Congress, please explain yourself,or Nation, it will die.Jurassic time, oil’s birth began,in pressure all those plants.Then heat and time produce results,in Titusville’s first lance.The first oilwell upon our soilin 1859.One hundred fifty-one whole years,our money loss, a crime.If BUSINESS of America,is business just for THEM.How will we build ECONOMY,in which to share this win?An army on its belly moves,so does entire nation.When Business takes the biggest bite,we’re left with consternation!The effort you put forth for us,one BTU in strength,is equal to just one match tip,Yes, Congress, a short length!OIL’s prospered much, and it has grown,so exponentially!The PEOPLE cry, out loud to you,you misuse Land of FREE. RESOURCES are the Nation’s gift,to grow a nation strong.For Corporate welfare is a sham,and simply, simply wrong! The GENERAL WELFARE, yes those words,PREAMBLE gave it voice.So use RESOURCES for our GOOD,that is the PEOPLES’ Choice!

  • Pedro

    America and the rest of the world are addicted to prtoeleum oil. And politicians are addicted to oil money from the lobbyists in the oil industry. I don’t read many books, but the next book that I am going to read is the book titled Why We Hate The Oil Companies, by John Hoffmeister. It seems to me that the oil industry dictates that the conventional auto industry makes and uses dirty, inefficient, complicated, and expensive reciprocating infernal combustion engine powered, transmission driven vehicles, but in my opinion, automobiles need to start to be made as absolutely efficient as possible, and they also need to be made with modular parts and components too, with minimalism in mind, for ease of maintenance, as well as to reduce purchasing costs and minimizing maintenance costs too. I think that future automobiles need to be powered by modular microturbines to maximize efficiency, and that they should be hybrids with four wheel transmissionless electric drive. Apart from this issue, I support and commend Tesla Motors, in California, for creating probably the worlds most efficient vehicles on the road today. I just wish that the purchasing price could be brought way down, to help lift poor people out of poverty and desperation!And seperate oil and state, stop subsidizing oil, you dirty politicans out there..!

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