Report from the TEDxOilSpill Expedition, Day 1

The TEDxOilSpill Expedition is a week-long project to document the current situation in the Gulf of Mexico and bring a first-hand report back to the TEDxOilSpill event in Washington DC on June 28th. A team comprised of photographers and videographers will be working on land, air, and maybe even on boat. Visit the expedition website for more details.

Protest Signs

Protest signs on the road to Grand Isle, LA.

It’s been ten days since my last trip to Grand Isle, Louisiana and over that span of time the anger on the Island has been fermenting. The most visible signs of this anger are the homemade posters and signs telling drivers-by that BP has destroyed their way of life.

Some were straight forward: “BP Destroyed the Lives of Three Generations of Fishermen that Once Lived Happily in this House.” Others were more creative: “Sponge Bob is Missing Patrick. BP Killed Patrick.” And still others were much more practical: “We Do Catering for Spill Cleanup Crews and Wildlife Rescue Teams.”

Duncan Davidson, a photographer on the TEDxOilSpill Expedition, and I decided to quickly scope out Grand Isle and take advantage of the last hours of sunlight before joining the other members of the team back at the New Orleans airport and launching full force into this week-long expedition.

Beach Booms

Containment devices along a freshly cleaned section of beach at Grand Isle, LA. Tarballs were rapidly washing up on the sand again as we walked the beach.

We pulled up to what looked like a reasonable place to access the closed beach in Grand Isle. I opened the car door and was met by a wall of wet heat permeated with the stench of oil. The cleanup crews had gone home for the day but their tents, tools and booms littered the entire seven-mile stretch of beach. An official looking vehicle approached but paid us no mind. Unlike ten days ago when President Obama had to hunt for a few specks of oil on this beach, today oil globules covered the entire high-tide line.

Seeing the sun falling quickly behind us, we made a bee-line to the shrimp-shed where I had met Joseph the ex-shrimper and flat-bottomed boat Captain on my first trip down here. The shed was deserted. A small sign read “Come see the truth. I will take you there. Boat trips for photographers and journalists. Call Al at …” I called Al.


An oil-stained boat at Grand Isle, LA.

“I switched to the other side. I work for BP now. Sorry, I can’t take you out or talk to you.”

Apparently this isn’t an isolated incident. BP’s buying up every boat and every boat captain they can lay their hands on. It makes our jobs a lot harder.

But after poking around the homes set high on pylons and dropping into Cisco’s Hideaway, the local bar, we found Joseph. Another testament of passing time: Joseph’s skin. Joseph had gone from what you might call a good base tan to something approaching the darkest shades of burnt sienna — he’d obviously spent a lot of time shuttling folks around on the open water. I’d missed his sloppy 18 foot boat and the scraps of his life that accumulated in and among the coolers, gas cans and floor boards. It was good to be back.

In the final minutes before the sun took its final plunge through the horizon we were treated to an amazing display of lightning and a symphony of squawking pelicans, laughing gulls and black skimmers. They’d managed to boom off what the locals call Bird Island, but the booms hadn’t kept the oil from washing ashore and staining the rocks and sea grass that sinister orange. And everything was bathed in a peculiar light — reflections thrown from water covered with the finest film of oil. It was beautiful and horrible all at once.

Bird Island

Words by Darron Collins
Photos/captions by James Duncan Davidson

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