The Nature Conservancy logo. Protecting nature. Preserving life.A half mile of bright orange boom twisting across the water is a magnificent sight, even when you’re not quite sure whether it will save the day.

It’s not much more than a giant string of floating vinyl pillows, with a short skirt dangling in the water below.

There’s not nearly enough of it. It doesn’t get the floating oil out of the water, doesn’t really even stop it in its tracks. If it works, and the water stays calm, it mostly slows the spill down and nudges it in another direction.

That buys time, we hope, for the tedious process of soaking the worst up with high-tech paper towels, siphoning it with equipment we don’t now have access to, or painfully scooping it up and onto a barge with a backhoe.

Whether we spend hours, days or weeks on that, we just won’t know until we discover firsthand what this spill is all about.

But the booms are the only things right now that stand between the things we hold precious and what may turn out to be the most massive oil spill the world has ever seen. Our boom is set and anchored, 3,000 feet of it, surrounding a significant portion of The Nature Conservancy’s oyster restoration project at Coffee Island.

Better yet, truckloads of boom are finally trickling in to response centers all along the Gulf. The most prickly question right now is where it will go.

A friend of mine has been fishing and setting crab pots in the marshes of Fowl River for decades. He was good enough, on pretty short notice, to give me a ride out to Coffee Island on Monday morning. His old wooden work boat rocked comfortably through the quiet waters of Fowl River as the remnants of a light shower dripped off the cockpit eaves.

He leaned out to clean the hazy windshield with his wiper — a sponge on a long stick — and pointed to strings of boom anchored in a narrow neck at the tidal river’s mouth. A fast moving tide, he warned, would take them out.

But it was the pictures of military brigades planting boom and fence-like oil traps along the resort beaches that irritated him most.

“Don’t much grow on sand,” he said. “And the beaches, they’re easy to clean up.”

They ought to put more effort into protecting the marshes and oyster beds, where the fish and shellfish come from, was his thought. If it gets in this marsh — he nods toward needlerush stands so thick they look black — how do you clean that without tearing up the very thing you’re trying to save?

I didn’t know.

The sudden break in the stormy weekend had unleashed an armada in Mississippi Sound. There were barges and boats of every description, every where we looked. I directed my friend to the one that stood out: A big barge circled by a dozen other boats, reeling off rolls of bright orange boom, decks crawling with workers in hard hats and bright emergency response uniforms. I leapt aboard and was waving my friend off when the captain of the tug leaned down.

“What you doing here. You can’t come on.”

Our operation, I should have known, was the less auspicious one at the other end of Coffee Island: A barge, a single smaller boat, and a drenched spinkle of Dauphin Island Sea Lab scientists, Conservancy staff, and crew, bobbing in the water next to a cantankerous length of boom.

The original plan — to tug the entire length of boom off the barge with a small, fast boat — posed some unanticipated difficulties. But with his usual ingenuity, the Conservancy’s oyster restoration project manager, Jeff Dequattro, solved the problem. He ordered us in the water.

We did it the old-fashioned way, walking and yanking a half mile of resistant boom through mud and chest-high surf. We stopped every few feet to anchor rope or hitch up our sagging pants or swat at the greenhead flies dropping in to take a plug.

It was good. We missed most of a day of uncertain news. We talked about the things we felt safe predicting: How well various anchors hold, the mysterious ecological role of the tiny biting gnats we call no-see-ums, whether marsh periwinkle snails are really edible.

And in the end, we were positive we’d done all we knew to do to protect this restored reef. It was a relief to be certain about something.

— Text by Bill FinchCool Green Science Blog

Alabama: Putting out the first line of defense against the oil spill
A Nature Conservancy crew is finally able to set booms to protect our oyster reef restoration project at Coffee Island -- but it's only a thin line of defense.