Stench of death on a Louisiana beach

National Geographic News photo editor Chris Combs is on the Gulf Coast, looking at the impact of the oil spill on the lives of people and animals and the habitats that sustain them.

By Chris Combs

Grand Isle, Louisiana–The smell wasn’t much different, at first: the sea, moist and a little sweet.

But as I drove over one of Grand Isle’s many bridges and causeways, the air took on a copper note, and the fluorescent booms in the water explained why: oil. Just a tinge, a little bit of eau de garage, a sheen visible on the water.

I rode along the Grand Isle beach with two oil-spotters, Randy and Kane, from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries; they were also fresh into town, having driven down from their regular duties six hours north. We drove the length of the beach in an off-road vehicle, looking for washed-up oil or injured wildlife.

Clean-up workers on the Grand Isle beach.jpgRandy, at left, and Kane of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries ride in an all-terrain vehicle looking for signs of oil or injured wildlife on the Grand Isle Beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana. “Tiger dams” are visible at left.

Photo by Chris Combs

Tiger dams.jpgClean-up workers on the Grand Isle beach.

Photo by Chris Combs

The beach was well-populated with heavy machinery and tents of clean-up workers. A continuous line of “tiger dam” booms–named for its orange and black coloration, perhaps–ran on top of the sand from nearly one end to the other, though the booms were absent when rock barriers would do. The booms seemed to be filled with seawater; I saw one being drained.

seagulls on Grand Isle beach.jpg
Gulls fly over a remote section of the Grand Isle coast.

Photo by Chris Combs

oily rocks.jpg
Rocks on the Grand Isle beach/coast are stained with chocolate-brown oil.

Photo by Chris Combs

Between the tiger dams and other barriers was a veritable highway for ATVers and Jeeps, Humvees and 18-wheelers, all from various agencies. Later, I was told that during the first days of the clean-up, workers were driving ATVs through the nesting grounds of the endangered terns on the beach; the vehicle highway was a means of keeping the oil from indirectly claiming more feathered victims.

At one point, Randy eased up on the throttle and shot Kane a knowing look. They scanned the beach from our side of the boom, preferring to cross it only if necessary because “the Coast Guard will get mad at us,” and looked for something I couldn’t see. I asked, and Kane said, “Smells like something dead.” We looked a while longer but couldn’t spot it. On we went.

oil and booms.jpg

On a remote section of the Grand Isle beach, oil sits, surrounded by absorbent booms.

Photo by Chris Combs

Tiger dam barricade.jpg

“Tiger dams” provide a short barricade to the oil on the beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana. The pile of sand behind the barricade is contaminated and will be removed by truck.

Photo by Chris Combs

The beach was largely clear of visible oil. Workers had scraped the top surface of the beach into huge piles, which were bagged and trucked away. I could see a tinge in the water at points, or thought I could, but the thing about spotting an iridescent substance is that your mind can play tricks on you. Much like tracking the oil from satellite images, it’s tough to get the light exactly right, unless it’s rolling on shore in great sheets.

A few remote stretches had more signs of oil. Absorbent booms kept a small pool of weathered oil and garbage corralled at one end of the beach; rock barriers had chocolate-brown stains from the stuff.

We spotted no oiled wildlife and no new tarballs: only the sickly-sweet smell of crude.



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