Tomorrow I will celebrate my one year anniversary as a Sea Shepherd crew member. Over the past 12 months I have sailed enough miles to circumnavigate the globe. I have been a part of defending two of the last remaining pristine wildernesses areas left on this planet: Antarctica, and The Kimberley region in Western Australia. I’ve seen the same humpbacks breaching against the blue mountains of icebergs while they’re feeding in Antarctica, breach against the red cliffs of the Kimberley coast while they socialize and calve in Western Australia.
But today I find myself somewhere quite different: The Gulf of Mexico.
The Gulf of Mexico could not be more opposite to Antarctica and the Kimberley, it’s a picture example of what it means to “industrialize” a body of water. Hundreds of oil rigs light up the horizon through the night and bright orange buoys scatter the surface attached to long lines that stretch their deadly tentacles 3 miles into the depths. In the Gulf we have sailed through oil slicks that we could smell before we could see them, casting their rainbow sheen over the horizon. Over a 100 miles from land we’ve picked up human trash in the form of styrofoam boxes, discarded fishing buoys, balloons celebrating birthdays and newborns and floating plastic versions of just about everything imaginable.
And this is just what’s on the surface.
The Mississippi runs through the heartland of America dumping into the Gulf the contents of some 7000 fresh water streams. Across the country, these streams are lined with industrial, animal & agricultural facilities, GM crops and chemical processing plants, which dump who knows what antibiotic-filled animal effluent, fertilizers, countless heavy metals and many undocumented toxic pollutants into the Gulf.
The Gulf of Mexico was in trouble before 2010. It was in trouble before BP caused the biggest environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States, flooding the Gulf with 200 million gallons of oil and covering it up with over 2 million gallons of toxic dispersant.
Our main aim for Operation Toxic Gulf is to investigate how these toxins are building up at the top of food chains in what is probably the largest tooth predictor to have ever lived on earth; the sperm whale. My job on board the RV Odyssey is to document this information and share it with the world; both the beauty of this surprisingly resilient ecosystem and the continuing destruction of it.
I came here expecting to be faced with a polluted environment (compromised ecosystem), what I didn’t expect was the response from the local people. As we have spent some of our time docked in the Gulf coast city of Pensacola, part of my role has been to interview locals and listen to their stories. When we first arrived in port I was overwhelmed to find people lining up to speak with us. First, they told me the story of hope. How locals first reacted to this disaster, everybody gathering together to help clean up the mess and then how things deteriorated after that. Many of the locals were given BP money to either be employed during the clean-up or to supplement their fallen income during this time due to fall in tourism to the area. When they took this money they signed a contract with two clauses; one was that they weren’t to speak to the media about the oil disaster or its effects and secondly to say that they will never file a lawsuit against BP. A clever move by BP given that they were entering compromised communities with desperate people. Unfortunately what BP didn’t take into account was that when the community was faced with beaches that they could no longer trust to let their children swim in, along with struggling economies 3 years on and rising cancer rates in their small communities; nothing could stop them from speaking.
It was overwhelming listening to these stories.
In January this year we spent three weeks in Antarctica before the whaling fleet arrived. We got to experience it in all its natural beauty; rising orange moons, blood red sunsets and inquisitive wildlife before the exploding harpoons arrived. In the Kimberley we experienced the wild beauty of the world’s largest humpback whale nursery in one of the last remaining wilderness areas on this planet. When you visit these places you know in your heart that they must be protected; because we haven’t destroyed them yet.
The Gulf of Mexico is totally different. Unlike a harpoon in Antarctica, or a gas hub in the Kimberley, the extra toxins poured into the Gulf after the oil blowout are apractically invisible additive to an already industrialized body of water.
But during our time on Operation Toxic Gulf, among all the floating plastic and oil rigs, I have had some of the most breathtaking experiences of my life. We have had countless types of dolphins keeping us company during the day; bow riding, jumping and spinning in the air, chirping away beneath the surface and turning on their sides to get a better look at us. We have also been lucky enough to meet more than 40 of the 1,600 endangered sperm whales that call the Gulf of Mexico home. Only last week we watched on as 10 individuals came together in an amazing social display that involved breaching, spy hopping and slowly rolling over one another under an amazing orange sunset.
Life still exists here amongst the industrial chaos and it’s obvious that what remains in the Gulf of Mexico, is an ecosystem that is worth protecting and a community that cares about making that happen. So what hope do we have?
I spoke with campaign leader Iain Kerr onboard the Odyssey earlier this month and I asked him his thoughts on the question of what it is that we can do. He replied saying, “We need to engage people with the largest mediating force on our planet – that is our oceans and then encourage them to see the connection between their everyday choices and its degradation.”
When Dr. Roger Payne was on board I asked him the same thing. He replied, “People tell us not to depress people because it will cause them to lose hope. But from my experience when people are faced with total devastation they react in the opposite sense. They feel the need to get up and do something. I think that the time has come to depress people with the truth about what’s going on and in turn, motivate them to do something.”
After working in this field for a number of years, after being among harpoons that send their murderous echos through the ice, after seeing people’s greed drive them to plan to destroy one of the last remaining wilderness areas on this planet, after watching countless hours of slaughterhouse footage watching people kick and beat innocent animals to their death; how does one find hope?[sws_picture_frame10 src=”https://www.whale.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/eliza_0006.jpg” title=”” alt=”” align=”sws_frame_right” lightbox=”1″ album=”” video=””] [/sws_picture_frame10]
Dr. Payne and Iain are right. It is time to realize that each and every one of us is part of the problem and the only solution. It’s time to really feel that. To get depressed about the reality of the environmental problems we face in this world, but it’s time to do more than just that, it’s time to get engaged stand up and do something, and that’s what Ocean Alliance and Sea Shepherd are doing in the Gulf of Mexico. We are determined to do the science so that we know how to Defend, Conserve and Protect this special ecosystem.
And on top of this, we need to keep emotionally connected to the wild world because when we stop feeling we lose sight of what is worth caring about; to celebrate every victory, cry over every loss, and keep on fighting, because in the words of Captain Paul Watson, “The only alternative is to do nothing, and to do nothing means incredible destruction of our oceans and I think if there’s one message that we’re trying to get across here, it’s that if we can’t save the whales, the sea turtles, the sharks and the fish, we’re not going to save the oceans. And if the oceans die, we die, we can’t live on this planet with a dead ocean.”
-Eliza Muirhead, Sea Shepherd Society