This is the ocean as I used to know it. And I find that since I've been in the Gulf a couple of times, I really kind of am traumatized because whenever I look at the ocean now, no matter where I am, even where I know that none of the oil has gone, I sort of see slicks, and I'm finding that I'm very much haunted by it. But what I want to talk to you about today is a lot of things that try to put all of this in context, not just about the oil eruption, but what it means and why it has happened.
First, just a little bit about me. I'm basically just a guy that likes to go fishing ever since I was a little kid, and because I did, I wound up studying sea birds to try to stay in the coastal habitats that I so loved. And now I mainly write books about how the ocean is changing, and the ocean is certainly changing very rapidly. Now we saw this graphic earlier on, that we really live on a hard marble that has just a slight bit of wetness to it. It's like you dipped a marble in water. And the same thing with the atmosphere: If you took all the atmosphere and rolled it up in a ball, you would get that little sphere of gas on the right. So we live on the most fragile little soap bubble you can imagine, a very sacred soap bubble, but one that is very, very easy to affect.
And all the burning of oil and coal and gas, all the fossil fuels, have changed the atmosphere greatly. Carbon dioxide level has gone up and up and up. We're warming the climate. So the blowout in the Gulf is just a little piece of a much larger problem that we have with the energy that we use to run civilization. Beyond warming, we have the problem of the oceans getting more acidified — and already measurably so, and already affecting animals. Now in the laboratory, if you take a clam and you put it in the pH that is not 8.1, which is the normal pH of seawater, but 7.5, it dissolves in about three days. If you take a sea urchin larva from 8.1, put it in a pH of 7.7 — not a huge change — it becomes deformed and dies. Already, commercial oyster larvae are dying at large scales in some places. Coral reefs are growing slower in some places because of this problem. So this really matters.
Now, let's take a little tour around the Gulf a little bit. One of the things that really impresses me about the people in the Gulf: They are really, really aquatic people. And they can handle water. They can handle a hurricane that comes and goes. When the water goes down, they know what to do. But when it's something other than water, and their water habitat changes, they don't have many options. In fact, those entire communities really don't have many options. They don't have another thing they can do. They can't go and work in the local hotel business because there isn't one in their community.
If you go to the Gulf and you look around, you do see a lot of oil. You see a lot of oil on the ocean. You see a lot of oil on the shoreline. If you go to the site of the blowout, it looks pretty unbelievable. It looks like you just emptied the oil pan in your car, and you just dumped it in the ocean. And one of the really most incredible things, I think, is that there's nobody out there trying to collect it at the site where it is densest. Parts of the ocean there look just absolutely apocalyptic. You go in along the shore, you can find it everywhere. It's really messy. If you go to the places where it's just arriving, like the eastern part of the Gulf, in Alabama, there's still people using the beach while there are people cleaning up the beach. And they have a very strange way of cleaning up the beach. They're not allowed to put more than 10 pounds of sand in a 50-gallon plastic bag. They have thousands and thousands of plastic bags. I don't know what they'll do with all that stuff. Meanwhile, there are still people trying to use the beach. They don't see the sign that says: "Stay out of the water." Their kids are in the water; they're getting tar all over their clothes and their sandals— It's a mess. If you go to where the oil has been for a while, it's an even bigger mess. And there's basically nobody there anymore, a few people trying to keep using it.
You see people who are really shell-shocked. They are very hardworking people. All they know about life is they get up in the morning, and if their engine starts, they go to work. They always felt that they could rely on the assurances that nature brought them through the ecosystem of the Gulf. They're finding that their world is really collapsing. And so you can see, literally, signs of their shock ... signs of their outrage ... signs of their anger ... and signs of their grief. These are the things that you can see.
There's a lot you can't see, also, underwater. What's going on underwater? Well, some people say there are oil plumes. Some people say there are not oil plumes. And Congressman Markey asks, you know, "Is it going to take a submarine ride to see if there are really oil plumes?" But I couldn't take a submarine ride — especially between the time I knew I was coming here and today — so I had to do a little experiment myself to see if there was oil in the Gulf of Mexico. So this is the Gulf of Mexico ... sparkling place full of fish. And I created a little oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And I learned, in fact, I confirmed the hypothesis that oil and water don't mix ... until you add a dispersant ... and then ... they start mixing. And you add a little energy from the wind and the waves, and you get a big mess, a big mess that you can't possibly clean, you can't touch, you can't extract and, I think most importantly — this is what I think — you can't see it. I think it's being hidden on purpose. Now this is such a catastrophe and such a mess that lots of stuff is leaking out on the edges of the information stream. But as many people have said, there's a large attempt to suppress what's going on. Personally, I think that the dispersants are a major strategy to hide the body, because we put the murderer in charge of the crime scene. But you can see it. You can see where the oil is concentrated at the surface, and then it is attacked, because they don't want the evidence, in my opinion.
OK. We heard that bacteria eat oil? So do sea turtles. When it breaks up, it has a long way to go before it gets down to bacteria. Turtles eat it. It gets in the gills of fish. These guys have to swim around through it. I heard the most incredible story today when I was on the train coming here. A writer named Ted Williams called me, and he was asking me a couple of questions about what I saw, because he's writing an article for Audubon magazine. He said that he had been in the Gulf a little while ago; like about a week ago, and a guy who had been a recreational fishing guide took him out to show him what's going on. That guide's entire calendar year is canceled bookings. He has no bookings left. Everybody wanted their deposit back, everybody is fleeing. That's the story of thousands of people. But he told Ted that on the last day he went out, a bottlenose dolphin suddenly appeared next to the boat, and it was splattering oil out its blowhole. And he moved away because it was his last fishing trip, and he knew that the dolphins scare fish. So he moved away from it, turned around a few minutes later, it was right next to the side of the boat again. He said that in 30 years of fishing he had never seen a dolphin do that. And he felt that —
he felt that it was coming to ask for help. Sorry.
Now, in the Exxon Valdez spill, about 30 percent of the killer whales died in the first few months. Their numbers have never recovered. So the recovery rate of all this stuff is going to be variable. It's going to take longer for some things. And some things, I think, will probably come back a little faster. The other thing about the Gulf that is important is that there are a lot of animals that concentrate in the Gulf at certain parts of the year. So the Gulf is a really important piece of water — more important than a similar volume of water in the open Atlantic Ocean. These tuna swim the entire ocean. They get in the Gulf Stream, they go all the way to Europe. When it comes time to spawn, they come inside, and these two tuna that were tagged, you can see them on the spawning grounds very much right in the area of the slick. They're probably having, at the very least, a catastrophic spawning season this year. I'm hoping that maybe the adults are avoiding that dirty water. They don't usually like to go into water that is very cloudy anyway. But these are really high-performance athletic animals. I don't know what this kind of stuff will do in their gills. I don't know if it'll affect the adults. If it's not, it's certainly affecting their eggs and larvae, I would certainly think. But if you look at that graph that goes down and down and down, that's what we've done to this species through overfishing over many decades.
So while the oil spill, the leak, the eruption, is a catastrophe, I think it's important to keep in mind that we've done a lot to affect what's in the ocean, for a very long time. It's not like we're starting with something that's been OK. We're starting with something that's had a lot of stresses and a lot of problems to begin with. If you look around at the birds, there are a lot of birds in the Gulf that concentrate in the Gulf at certain times of the year, but then leave. And they populate much larger areas. For instance, most of the birds in this picture are migratory birds. They were all on the Gulf in May, while oil was starting to come ashore in certain places. Down on the lower left there are ruddy turnstones and sanderlings. They breed in the High Arctic, and they winter down in southern South America. But they concentrate in the Gulf and then fan out all across the Arctic. I saw birds that breed in Greenland, in the Gulf. So this is a hemispheric issue. The economic effects go at least nationally in many ways. The biological effects are certainly hemispheric.
I think that this is one of the most absolutely mind-boggling examples of total unpreparedness that I can even think of. Even when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, at least they shot back. And we just seem to be unable to figure out what to do. There was nothing ready, and, you know, as we can see by what they're doing. Mainly what they're doing is booms and dispersants. The booms are absolutely not made for open water. They don't even attempt to corral the oil where it is most concentrated. They get near shore — Look at these two boats. That one on the right is called Fishing Fool. And I think, you know, that's a great name for boats that think that they're going to do anything to make a dent in this, by dragging a boom between them when there are literally hundreds of thousands of square miles in the Gulf right now with oil at the surface.
The dispersants make the oil go right under the booms. The booms are only about 13 inches in diameter. So it's just absolutely crazy. Here are shrimp boats employed. There are hundreds of shrimp boats employed to drag booms instead of nets. Here they are working. You can see easily that all the oily water just goes over the back of the boom. All they're doing is stirring it. It's just ridiculous. Also, for all the shoreline that has booms — hundreds and hundreds of miles of shoreline — all of the shoreline that has booms, there's adjacent shoreline that doesn't have any booms. There is ample opportunity for oil and dirty water to get in behind them.
And that lower photo, that's a bird colony that has been boomed. Everybody's trying to protect the bird colonies there. Well, as an ornithologist, I can tell you that birds fly, and that —
and that booming a bird colony doesn't do it; it doesn't do it. These birds make a living by diving into the water. In fact ... really what I think they should do, if anything — they're trying so hard to protect those nests — actually, if they destroyed every single nest, some of the birds would leave, and that would be better for them this year. As far as cleaning them ... I don't mean to cast any aspersion on people cleaning birds. It's really, really important that we express our compassion. I think that's the most important thing that people have, is compassion. It's really important to get those images and to show it. But really, where are those birds going to get released to? It's like taking somebody out of a burning building, treating them for smoke inhalation and sending them back into the building, because the oil is still gushing.
I refuse to acknowledge this as anything like an accident. I think that this is the result of gross negligence.
Not just BP. BP operated very sloppily and very recklessly because they could. And they were allowed to do so because of the absolute failure of oversight of the government that is supposed to be our government, protecting us. It turns out that — you see this sign on every commercial vessel in the United States — you know, if you spilled a couple of gallons of oil, you would be in big trouble. And you have to really wonder who are the laws made for, and who has gotten above the laws. And there are things that we can do in the future. We could have the kinds of equipment that we would really need. It would not take an awful lot to anticipate that after making 30,000 holes in the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico looking for oil, oil might start coming out of one of them. And you'd have some idea of what to do. That's certainly one of the things we need to do.
But I think we have to understand where this leak really started from. It really started from the destruction of the idea that the government is there because it's our government, meant to protect the larger public interest. So I think that the oil blowout, the bank bailout, the mortgage crisis and all these things are absolutely symptoms of the same cause. We still seem to understand that at least, we need the police to protect us from a few bad people. And even though the police can be a little annoying at times — giving us tickets and stuff like that — nobody says that we should just get rid of them. But in the entire rest of government right now and for the last at least 30 years, there has been a culture of deregulation that is caused directly by the people who we need to be protected from, buying the government out from under us.
Now this has been a problem for a very, very long time. You can see that corporations were illegal at the founding of America, and even Thomas Jefferson complained that they were already bidding defiance to the laws of our country. OK, people who say they're conservative, if they really wanted to be really conservative and patriotic, they would tell these corporations to go to hell. That's what it would really mean to be conservative. So what we really need to do is regain the idea that it's our government safeguarding our interests, and regain a sense of unity and common cause in our country that really has been lost. I think there are signs of hope.
We seem to be waking up a little bit. The Glass-Steagall Act — which was really to protect us from the kind of thing that caused the recession to happen, and the bank meltdown and all that stuff that required the bailouts — that was put in effect in 1933, was systematically destroyed. Now there's a mood to put some of that stuff back in place, but the lobbyists are already there trying to weaken the regulations after the legislation has just passed. So it's a continued fight. It's a historic moment right now. We're either going to have an absolutely unmitigated catastrophe of this oil leak in the Gulf, or we will make the moment we need out of this, as many people have noted today. There's certainly a common theme about needing to make the moment out of this.
We've been through this before with other ways of offshore drilling. The first offshore wells were called whales. The first offshore drills were called harpoons. We emptied the ocean of the whales at that time. Now are we stuck with this? Ever since we lived in caves, every time we wanted any energy, we lit something on fire, and that is still what we're doing. We're still lighting something on fire every time we want energy.
And people say we can't have clean energy because it's too expensive. Who says it's too expensive? People who sell us fossil fuels. We've been here before with energy, and people saying the economy cannot withstand a switch, because the cheapest energy was slavery. Energy is always a moral issue. It's an issue that is moral right now. It's a matter of right and wrong.
Thank you very much.
Even as the Deepwater Horizon tragedy unfolded, Carl Safina took the stage at TEDxOilSpill to share what the facts were known at the time. In a blood-boiling cross-examination, he suggests that the consequences will stretch far beyond the Gulf — and many so-called solutions are making the situation worse.
Carl Safina's writing explores the scientific, moral and social dimensions of our relationship with nature.
Carl Safina's writing explores the scientific, moral and social dimensions of our relationship with nature.