I snatched up the net with its ten-foot duct-taped extension of a handle and plunged it into the water, scooping the arrow inside.
The whale spewed out one last exhalation of misty water from its blowhole, as if offended by a pinch on the ass. Its tail rose out of the water and it plunged downward, a small piece of its priceless genetic code and all the light it could shed on the story of the Gulf now the possession of Wise Laboratory.
Beautiful Oil Rigs and Ugly Ports
The Deepwater Horizon drilling platform was no longer visible. It rested 5,000 feet below the surface following that burst of methane that claimed the rig and the lives of eleven workers. The two gargantuan rigs responsible for relief wells sat anchored approximately in its place. Several boats milled in the nearby ocean but otherwise the swarm of naval and aerial activity that played out on live television just a few months previous had dissipated to a dull buzz.
Captain Bob decided to take the Odyssey within a couple hundred yards of the rigs. After all, it's not every day you get the chance at an up close look at the site of the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Digital cameras sizzled as picture after picture got the proper zoom. Silence fell over the thirteen of us, a sense of magic and dread settling in.
Kait and another student named Monique exchanged cameras and took turns posing with the rigs in the background. Monique leaned back against the railing, grinning broadly in her sunglasses. Kait gave a goofy smile and a thumbs-up.
"Deepwater Horizon Spring Break 2010!" I called out to them.
There were evenings eating dinner on deck, watching the sun set and telling dirty jokes. I worked and wrote and watched the water for whales. I got pretty good at climbing to the mid-level platform. I became fast friends with the undergrads and the sailors. There was a long conversation with first mate Ian about his years working for the oil companies in the Gulf, servicing rigs like Deepwater. There was my crush on Kait of the endless blue hair. We stayed up late one night in the kitchen having the kind of meandering, any-excuse-to-stay-up conversations at which young people with crushes excel. There was the engine, which broke down, forcing us to sail into a hideous industrial strip of Louisiana called Port Fourchon with a pod of dolphins chasing us in. There was a night where I stood at the bow alone for an hour and watched the horizon as gold intimations of lightning flickered behind the clouds.
On our last night at sea, I stepped onto the deck and watched the oil and natural gas rigs glowing quietly in the night. When you see these things, you're sometimes fooled into thinking you're looking at land. As Wise put it, "Even out in the middle of nowhere, the Gulf of Mexico has its own skyline."
I took a pair of binoculars with me into the warm night and studied the muscular industrial flotillas. We passed within twenty yards of a pipe jutting straight out of the water burning off excess natural gas. The flame spewed skyward, blue with sparks of pink and orange siphoning into the dark.
As a journalist, I was supposed to be on this trip to learn about the Gulf's whale population. I was supposed to be in awe of the natural world and man's insignificant place against it. Yet the sight that would live on in my imagination was manmade: a utilitarian mash-up of cement and glass and steel in the middle of the marine wilds. There were so many rigs—lit up like a seaside Jersey town in the '70s—I didn't even try to count them. This alternate skyline shone so vividly, the lights spilling over the black waters, beacons of the stampeding hydrocarbons flowing from the recalcitrant earth.
And Jesus, was the blaze of those lights just so weirdly beautiful.
Mankind and Ocean Beasts
I drove twenty hours from Ohio to the Gulf to write about whales and the BP oil spill, but in the process I had to remind myself what is happening to the world's oceans. An oil spill is shocking. It makes for good television. But there is so much more, and one night toward the end of the trip I joined Dr. Wise on helm watch. By the glow of the instruments and the hiss of static on the sonar, we had it out over all of this stuff that had been piling in my notes for weeks: the hypoxic dead zone off the coast off Louisiana and Texas—at times as big as Massachusetts; the oxygen sucked out of the water by algal and attendant zooplankton growth—spurred by the nitrogen pouring down the Mississippi River as a result of industrial farming. Coral the world over bleached and dying due to the hottest summer on record.
And ocean acidification—one of the most frightening doomsday scenarios. As humankind continues to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, part of it dissolves into the oceans to make carbonic acid, which damages calcifying organisms at the bottom of the food chain. If such creatures were to begin a widespread die-off, it's conceivable that larger animals could follow.
During the conversation, Wise refused to admit that the sky is falling. "I just don't like to talk that way," he said from the captain's chair. "You take events like that, about the end of things as we know it, and people tune it out. They are not going to face up to a problem like that, so we have to break it up into smaller things that people can do."
"You sound like such an optimist," I told him.
"You gotta be, right?"
By the time we finished our freewheeling discussion midnight had come and gone. I crawled into my bunk and lashed to the ceiling the canvas supporter that keeps occupants from rolling out in the middle of the night.
And all that stuff was in my head now, keeping me awake and making an itty-bitty oil spill look like chump change in the grand picture. Ninety percent of the world's large ocean predators gone. A third of the world's fisheries depleted. The Atlantic bluefin tuna, dangerously overexploited and now one of its breeding grounds—the Gulf of Mexico—adrift in poison. The oceans as a machine—a sprawling automaton with several components now simultaneously breaking down. The sheer daunting scale of reversing that disruption in a meaningful way.
With the boat resting on those Gulf waters like a bobbing cork in a bottomless pool, I fell asleep eventually. My last waking thought came and went before the opening reel of a dream—something with tones of orange fire, collapsing buildings and an ash cloud that blots out the sky—and that thought felt of leviathans making their way through the depths below, collecting the residue of humanity's fleeting victory over nature.
Stephen Markley is the author of Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book. He writes a column for Chicago's RedEye and a blog for the Chicago Tribune called "Off the Markley." His journalism and fiction have appeared in The Week, the Chicago Reader, Cars.com's KickingTires, and 10,000 Tons of Black Ink. He is now hard at work on the great American novel.
Showdown at the West Esplanade Canal by Darrin DuFord
Bringing Coral Reefs Back From the Dead by Jeff Greenwald
Message en una Botella by Lea Aschkenas
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