Ten years ago I flew out to a BP Deepwater platform in the Gulf of Mexico to report on offshore drilling and was amazed I could see oil rigs all the way to the horizon. Now I’m appalled that from 2,000 feet up I can see heavy oil slicks all the way to the horizon. 

On Monday, June 21, I flew out of Sonny Callahan Airport in Fairhope, Ala., with pilot Tom Hutchings of SouthWing, a nonprofit group whose T-shirt logo reads “Conservation through Aviation.”

Tom is an angular biologist with an MBA who loves to fly. John Wathan, who joined us, shooting photos and video through the open luggage door, is the Hurricane Creek Keeper, a member of Bobby Kennedy Jr.’s environmental group. An ex-construction contractor, John looks more like a former Hells Angel than a tree-hugger with his full white beard and red, white and blue headscarf.

John’s been flying with Tom since the third day after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig sank and the Gulf of Mexico erupted with tens of thousands of barrels of oil per day, creating one of the most devastating eco-disasters in recent history. 

In the days since I’d cut my “Saved by the Sea” book tour short to return to the Gulf, I’d been visiting oiled beaches, oiled pelicans, oil-soaked wetlands and the Louisiana Incident Command Center at a BP facility outside Houma where private security guards made me erase a digital photo of the building (I re-shot it from a public road). Scientists I know in Mississippi and Alabama both had the same reaction when I called them, laughing and saying they heard from me only during disasters (I’d last visited them after Hurricane Katrina).

We take off behind a Coast Guard Sentry aircraft and are quickly 1,000 feet over Mobile Bay.

“I’ve got some color, I got red in the bay,” John reports from the back of the plane, looking down where some oil appears to have floated in despite the bay’s freshwater outflow that has kept most oil at bay and off the state’s beaches until this week. Two miles out we spot our first wind-drift streaks of oil. 12 miles out the oil becomes more pronounced like the speckled fat in marbled meat. 

“The water looks so unnatural the way the light comes off it now. It’s a dull yellow rather than shiny and sparkly reflections,” Tom notes.  He’s been flying these waters for 30 years. 

“It’s flattened out the white caps [small waves],” John points out. “It’s like someone stretched Saran Wrap down on top of the water.”

Oil everywhere

We spot a school of fish splashing and breaking the surface in the oil. “We’re in heavy now,” John says 17 miles offshore, though in fact the orange oil streaks and coppery patches will grow thicker. By 30 miles off the coast, oil is everywhere. There are dozens of shimmers of purple oil that seem to sink downward into the sea, a possible effect from the millions of gallons of Corexit dispersant that have been sprayed over this stretch of ocean.

“I get more and more pissed off every time you bring me out here,” John says to Tom. “Check it out!” 

“And we’re still 60 miles from the source,” Tom responds on his mike.

There are serpentine rivers of flat rainbow colors and ribbons of thick syrupy orange/black “product.” The dull purple-colored oil looks like bruised water. We pass our first rigs and a plane flies too close underneath us.

“Most rotary wing traffic [helicopters] stay below 1,000 [feet]” Tom tells me. For most of the flight we see no skimmer boats or “vessels of opportunity,” as they call the shrimp boats, workboats, recreational cabin cruisers and other vessels that have been hired by BP and re-outfitted for oil skimming.

We soon spot pillars of dark smoke to the northwest around the same time I see a pair of shrimp trawlers towing a line of yellow boom strung in a crescent bow between them. 

A few minutes later we’re watching the three smoky burns on one side of the plane and sargassum streaked with oil on the other side. This free-floating seaweed acts as habitat for small fish and attracts larger predators and endangered sea turtles as well. There have been reports that BP has set off “burn boxes” that have killed sea turtles and other critters that they failed to clear before torching the oil. Right now they’re conducting 10-16 burns a day, including three more we now see being lit off and beginning to burn with heavy oily smoke and orange flame on the water. 

Dolphins, bigger creatures swim, die in the muck 

I’m staring at a canal of green water through the big jigsaw pieces of coppery oil thinking the clearing must have been produced by skimmers. Just then John reports seeing something breach below. “That was bigger than any dolphin.”   

Then we spot a pod of dolphins in the middle of the oil.  “They’re right off the wingtip,” Tom says.

John is hunched in back shooting stills through his big lens. “I got a dead one. Godda*n it!” 

I count nine dolphins before the plane banks off to the left. Through the pillars of dark smoke, fire and gray haze on the water I spot a complex of workboats, ships and rigs with two torches of fire flaming off them. It’s “the source.” 

“Got another one,” Tom announces. “Too big to be a dolphin.” Later, looking at John’s photos we’ll confirm it’s a sperm whale swimming through the slick.   

From the front right seat I spot orange flames where another fire is being set on the water.

We get closer to the ships and rigs, including the Enterprise that’s collecting 15,000 barrels of oil a day and the Q-4000 rig that’s burning 9,000-10,000 barrels a day, putting massive amounts of soot and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, skipping the middle man, the autos and trucks we drive. A diesel smell infiltrates our aircraft 1,000 feet up.  

“Dolphins on the left.  Get out of here Godda*n it!” Tom shouts.

I count over 30 this time.  

Fires on the ocean

We do a photo run over the dolphins and then circle the source with its relief well rigs and big ships and helicopters taking off from the Enterprise and fireboats directing torrents of water at the burning flares, and as we circle, the flat sea gives off strange reflections of flame, smoke and sky distortions I’ve never seen before, like a funhouse mirror and a rainbow haze drained of all color. 

We pass over a dozen more dolphins in thick oil only 9 miles from the source. Like the last dolphins they seem to be lolling at the surface rather then leaping forward together as you’d normally spot them.   

“There’s more on the left. It’s like Jonestown, man!” Tom exclaims.

“It’s like they don’t know,” John says. 

“Their home’s dying and they’ve decided to check out. They’re drinking the water like those people in the jungle,” Tom explains his Jonestown reference. “They’re dying.” 

“When I was a little boy I’d watch the dolphins in our bow wake on the way to Ship Island [in Mississippi].  They were my friends. It’s heartbreaking,” John says, needing to verbalize what we’re all feeling.

“That’s the most dramatic thing I’ve seen flying out here for 60 days” Tom adds. “Just seeing the death.  I mean we lost 11 people out here [on the BP Deepwater Horizon when it exploded] but those humans who died made a choice. They assumed the risks of their work. These boys [the dolphins] have no choice.”   

Birds and booms

We fly on to the Chandeleur Islands that were shredded by Katrina and were then the first landmass to be hit by BP’s oil. We spot more shrimpers with booms but no collecting barges for the oil they gather. We fly over lots of birds on the wildlife refuge and random booms placed around the islands without any discernable order — there’s yellow boom on parts of the green and sand islands, then a few hundred yards of red boom, then oiled sand at the end of one island, then guys in hard hats on the beach.

“BP,” John says like a curse.

Just north of the natural islands we spot a dark mud island maybe 4 acres in total with half a dozen bulldozers pushing more mud around and a big dredging barge nearby. This is the beginning of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s big (if not credible) idea to build hundreds of miles of artificial barrier islands to protect the state. 

“That don’t make sense,” John says, looking down at the dredge spoil island likely to wash away in the next storm.   

“Tell me what you’ve seen today that makes sense,”  Tom responds.

We fly on past Horn Island and see bull sharks chasing fish in the shallows just off the beach, and also some rays. News reports suggest that as oil eating bacteria begin to suck the dissolved oxygen out of the offshore waters, more fish are moving inshore where the oxygen levels can still sustain them.

We fly over a few more islands, and then on our return to Mobile spot an oil slick 1 mile off the eastern shoreline with its upscale private homes and jutting wooden piers before making our final approach to the airport runway.

“Uh oh,” Tom says as we’re about to land. We jibe right and left before the 1,800-pound plane makes a smooth landing on the asphalt. “Tail winds,” Tom says with a sheepish grin. Small planes are kind of risky and that’s understandable.

What’s not understandable is the risks we continue to take trusting our energy choices and our public seas to oil companies like BP.

David Helvarg is an author and president of the Blue Frontier Campaign (www.bluefront.org), a marine conservation group. His latest book is "Saved by the Sea – A Love Story with Fish.’" (St. Martin’s, 2010).