The Fragile State of Our Environment

By Daniel Beltra

The fragile state of our environment has been a continuous thread throughout my work. For this series of photographs, I spent two months in the Gulf on assignment for Greenpeace photographing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. These photographs explore the tenseness of the situation in the Gulf of Mexico as the oil seeps into an already challenged and complex ocean ecosystem. Though tragic, it is a fitting example of the vast scale of transformation our world is under from man-made stresses.

On April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing eleven crewmen and injuring seventeen. The platform sank 50 miles off shore, 1 mile deep, and weighed 58,000 tons. Oil from the wellhead rises up to the surface near a different offshore platform.

In 2010, approximately 4.9 million barrels of crude oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of three months. BP, leaser of the Deepwater Horizon, and the U.S. government tried a litany of mitigation techniques to stem the spread of the spill – corexit, controlled burns, booms around vulnerable wetlands, skimming – but the scale and geographical scope of the spill made those efforts much more akin to the cleaning of an Olympic pool full of oil with a box of q-tips. More than a year after its conclusion, collateral damage from the spill is still being tallied; the full extent of it will likely never be known.

I have found it is often best to work from the air, which more easily allows for the juxtaposition of nature with the destruction wrought by industrial accidents. Aerial photography gives us a wider context to the beauty and destruction happening on the Earth. At the same time, it reveals a sense of scale and a unique perspective that allows the viewer to understand that the planet and its resources are finite.

A plume of smoke rises from a burn of collected oil. A total of 411 controlled burns were used to try rid the Gulf of the most visible surface oil.

It is in nature’s beauty and complexity that I find my inspiration. I hope to create images that spur a greater respect and conservation for the natural world. Hidden within these images is the stark reality about the state of our environment and the legacy that we are leaving behind.”

About Daniel Beltrá

Daniel Beltrá lives in Seattle and is a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. These photos are in Beltrá’s exhibit “SPILL,” which is touring around the world. More information on this can be found on Facebook and more of his work can be seen on Daniel’s Website.

Daniel will be presenting this body of work at WildPhotos 2011 October 21-22 at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) covered in crude oil from BP's Deepwater Horizon wellhead spill wait to be cleaned at the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Fort Jackson, Louisiana. By November 2010, around 8,000 birds had been collected, 6,100 of those were dead, with 632 miles of coastline oiled.

The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of the International League of Conservation Photographers and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are welcome to exchange ideas or comments, but National Geographic reserves the right to edit or delete abusive or objectionable content.

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