Spilled oil, ocean winds, diving camels and Dr. Dolphin
November 12, 2007
By David Helvarg
Oil covered birds like you’ve seen on TV look even worse in real life. Not the dead ones so much, except when a gull’s ripped a small floating grebe open in the water and is pulling at its toxic guts. In the war on oil all the bodies are booby-trapped and even the scavengers die.
The same can’t be said for Hong Kong based shipping company executives who order new ships built that still burn heavy bunker fuel, the dregs of the petroleum process, rather than invest in cleaner propulsion systems.
Besides, with modern navigation, radar, Vessel Traffic Systems, trained bridge crews and experienced pilots, its not like a large container ship is going to ram into the San Francisco Bay Bridge in the fog and spill 58,000 gallons of that nasty stuff into the water. Which of course is exactly what happened on Wednesday morning November 7th. Coast Guard investigators are still shaking their heads in amazement as they track the ‘human error’ involved.
There’s also the question of scale, “Ships are so large now that you don’t need a (oil) tanker for a major spill. Fuel can be a major spill,” says Coast Guard Admiral Craig Bone Commander of the 11th District that includes California. The 810-foot Cosco Busan that hit the bridge was carrying 2,500 TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit) containers. There are now ships that carry over 10,000. Yet giant cargo ships, unlike oil tankers, aren’t required to have a tug escort when they enter or leave the Bay or other major ports.
I’m sitting by the dock of the bay — That’ what Otis Redding called the Berkeley Municipal Pier in his famous song. Only now it smells like a gas station. On the rock pile below me a Surf Scoter — a diving duck – is using the bottom of its red bill to preen its oil blackend feathers that are sticking out from its chest in thick dollops. It shakes its head and carefully repeats the process for the half hour I’m there. When I make too sudden a move it flaps its wings like it’s going to flee into the water to die of hypothermia. I slow down. Even if the ‘professional’ bird rescuers arrive I don’t see how they can get a net on it from where it’s come to rest. I’ll see dozens more oiled birds today and tomorrow: Scoters, grebes, gulls, cormorants and avocets among those I can identify. The best bird wrangler I find claims he can catch half of the oiled birds he tries to net. Most are lucky to catch one out of ten. Any yet hundreds have now been recovered.
The Berkeley boat marina is full of oily sheens. Rainbows is a misnomer. Gasoline leaves rainbow sheens. Bunker fuel leaves green and brown streaks and smudges like marbled meat gone bad. It stains the bottoms of the hundreds of sailboats here. The spill has also forced the crabbing fleet to delay their season (a dozen crab boats will now join the fleet of oil skimmers, as will I shortly). The spill also leaves floating tar balls and disks and globular curly-cue pieces, and concentrations of hard asphalt like toxic chips.
The western grebe lies exhausted on a rock in the Richmond Marina where I now live. Stained black its red eyes seem to burn with anger if not reproach. I know that’s anthropogenic thinking. As humans we understand that we’re killing them whereas they have no idea what’s killing them. The next day they boom off my neighborhood wetland though some oil from the bay has already gotten into the salt marsh.
It’s been raining throughout the afternoon. I tour the Incident Command Post that has moved from Fort Mason over to Treasure Island. There are 19 agencies represented. As of Saturday there are 200 people at the ICP and 700 in the field. Too many cooks I think. At Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands I watch 60 clean-up crew in yellow hazmat suits bag oily boulders and tons of contaminated sand. Government’s innate fear of the public is reflected in the State Fish & Game Department’s threat to arrest any citizens who try and do clean-ups on their own. The oil has now spread from San Francisco to Point Reyes. On Sunday I watch 3 women, Caitlin, Christine and Julie net a bird and box it for the cleaning station. They won’t use their last names because of the threats from Fish & Game.
58,000 gallons isn’t even a big spill compared to dozens of historic disasters like the 9 million gallons released in and around the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina. In Denmark offshore wind farms now provide 20 percent of that nation’s energy needs and no one worries about wind spills.
Back home in Richmond I return to the bay as it’s getting dark and encounter a young couple Amber and Scott. She’s walking below the rocks in the pouring rain with her white pants oil stained at the ankles, a protective rubber glove on and a bag full of oiled litter and dead crabs. “We drove down from Lodi to volunteer but they said they’d take our contact information and get back to us. It’s an hour and a half drive. We needed to do something,” she explains.
We build our homes in fire zones, we move millions of tons of goods and fuel through marine sanctuaries, we continue to burn a product that, used as directed, overheats our planet.
They came from Lodi. They needed to do something. We all do.
Blowing in the Wind
One of the things Blue Frontier believes we need to do is encourage sustainable development of clean energy offshore as well as on. Since my last Blue Notes NBC Nightly News did a two part series that focused on offshore wind, wave and tidal energy. At the University of Delaware I met two professors who were key in getting Delaware to choose a marine wind farm rather than build a new coal or natural gas power plant. In coming years its turbines will provide the state with 13 percent of its power.
For those of you whose magazine reading doesn’t include ‘Geophysical Research Letters’ or the Environmental Law Institute’s ‘ELR News & Analysis’ I found two good articles. The first by Willett Kempton, one of those professors and 4 of his colleagues suggests there’s enough wind energy in the Mid-Atlantic Bight to provide much more than all the electric and transportation power consumed between New York and North Carolina (the range of Blue Frontiers 2005 Mid-Atlantic Conference on ocean conservation). In ELR Mark Spalding of the Ocean Foundation and Charlotte de Fontaubet address “the relationship between clean energy projects and ocean conservation,” and suggest the outlines for a Conflict Resolution process including the need for the kind of meetings between climate investors and ocean advocates discussed in our last Blue Notes.
And after class there’ll be coral practice
There’s an old saying that if you let the sea camel get its nose under your moon pool it will soon be in your whole habitat, or something to that effect.
If you’re looking for ways to keep marine education interesting its hard to beat ocean courses taught live from 60 feet below the surface.
That’s what Phil Renaud, Executive Director of the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation and a Blue Frontier Board member has organized at Aquarius, ‘America’s Inner Space Station’ located 4 miles off Key Largo on Conch Reef. From November 12-14 Project SeaCAMEL (Classroom Aquarius Marine Education Live) will see scientists and grad students living and working out of the world’s last undersea lab while offering real-time show-and-tell coral reef experiments to thousands of students and others around the world via webcast. There’ll even be a robotic fish involved which I hope isn’t an experiment to replace the real ones. The only experiment I wanted to try when I visited Aquarius years ago was to place an order to Pizza Hut. That was back when they promised to deliver within half an hour or the pizza was free.
If you miss SeaCamel live you can view the archived videos at www.seacamel.livingoceansfoundation.org
Take two dolphins and call me in the Morning
Back in the late 60s the navy had its own SeaLab habitat off San Diego with a working dolphin named Toughie. Other Navy dolphins were off in Vietnam doing ‘swimmer nullification’ (killing enemy divers). Today captive dolphins have gone new age therapeutic with claims that they aren’t just fun (and profitable) to play with in swim programs, but actually promote recovery and adjustment for the autistic, disabled and depressed. Now the killjoys at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society are pointing to an Emory University Study that reviewed 10 years of papers on “Dolphin Assisted Therapy” and found no evidence that it works. Seeing wild dolphins in their natural habitat on the other hand has been associated with a sense of wellbeing and euphoria. Warning: side effects may include seasickness and drowning.
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