Jacqui Goddard, Catfish Pass
Fish are leaping, a dolphin is cruising behind the boat and six brown pelicans have just flown overhead in a perfect V-formation like a display team. When Captain Sam Elliott cuts the engine, the only sound is the water lapping against the hull and the cry of gulls.
On the outer reaches of Louisiana’s marshlands, a 75-minute high-speed boat ride from the last inhabited community, it appears that the only powers at work are the forces of Nature. Yet just a few miles away, the forces of Man are leaving their mark.
Now gushing from the seabed at what BP admits may be as much as 210,000 gallons a day, crude oil is slicking its way through an area described by President Obama after a flyover last weekend as “one of the richest and most beautiful ecosystems on the planet”.
This corner of the ecosystem has its future pinned on protective booms being assembled here — a thin orange line of plastic barriers that snakes through the waters of Catfish Pass on the edge of Breton Sound, across hummocks of grass and earthy outcrops, into the distance.
If the line holds, thousands of acres of wetlands, valuable fishing grounds and oyster beds may be spared. But progress is unavoidably slow, the area yet to be covered is vast, the booms may be overlapped by the waves or pushed away by the winds, and thousands of square miles of ocean beyond are already contaminated.
“A needle in a haystack, that’s all this is,” says Captain Elliott, as Champion, his 21ft sports fishing vessel rocks gently beside the boom. “It still hasn’t sunk in yet that what’s happening out there is real. All that oil coming at us. If it gets through here, we won’t be able to fish here again for a few years. It’s like going to a funeral.”
All morning a fleet of vessels has been working to lay the barriers. First a length is dropped from one of the 12 oyster-dredging boats that BP has hired from fishermen; then helpers on smaller vessels anchor it in place.
On Tuesday conditions were challenging — 25mph (40km/h) winds, lashing rain and strong currents — and the frustrated cursing of the boom teams, led by professional oil spill handlers, could be heard over the radio.
Yesterday, weather and tempers were calmer, and progress was swift enough that by early afternoon there was no more boom left to lay, and the flotilla was wending its way back through the bayous to home base in Hopedale, on a sliver of land one hour east of New Orleans.
Captain C. T. Williams, a charter fishing skipper based at Hopedale, has known these backwaters for 30 years.
“It’s a waterman’s paradise. If you are here long enough, it’s very hard not to become addicted to it,” he says. “We have something very rare here — it’s not just like a mom saying, ‘My baby is pretty’. There’s something about it that’s just unique and compelling and humbling.”
Resident animals include racoons, rabbits, deer, feral hogs, coyotes, snakes, alligators, grey heron, blue heron, osprey and nutria — a semi-aquatic rodent known as a pest because of its destructive burrowing habits.
“The nutria is an outlaw, it’s a kill-on-sight thing, and yet I swear we’re going to see it at some animal rescue place getting a bath if that oil comes in,” Captain Williams jokes.
The slick, now believed to have overtaken the scale of the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska 21 years ago, has been meandering around the Gulf of Mexico for two weeks, growing bigger by the day, after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are all in emergency mode, laying defences and planning for a coastal catastrophe as changing winds and currents make the slick’s path uncertain.
Captain Williams refuses to let the gloom set in as the world’s worst oil disaster threatens this treasured wilderness. “There’s a lot at stake here and everyone talks about the potential devastation: being put out of business; not having an oyster industry for ten years.
“But as it is today, we have a prayer. I’ll roll the dice if I think there’s a good chance of something, and in this case I believe we can make things happen, I really do.
“I am an optimist. I still have great hope even though it’s a monster that’s still being born out there.”