It was like watching a bunch of little people clean the world’s largest litter box, with older tarballs dry and easy to bag but recent arrivals messy and laborious.
WE HAD TO SLALOM RIGS as we sailed, there were so many. East Coasters may stand on a beach and expect to see nothing but blue horizon, but Gulf Coasters enjoy nothing so sublime. Stand on any given shore in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or Texas and you can count as many as 20 oil rigs rising out of the haze on spindly legs, like the Martian invaders from War of the Worlds.
Most people seem to believe it's a horrible coincidence that BP's leak happened so close to the lower 48's most bountiful fishing grounds, but the same factors that make the northern Gulf of Mexico so rich in oil also make it rich in life. For millions of years, the Mississippi River has been the gulf's great benefactor, pouring midwestern nutrients into its warm coastal waters and fueling extraordinary production of phytoplankton, the single-celled plants that are the foundation of the marine food web. That phytoplankton feeds some of the most fantastic stocks of oysters, shrimp, crabs, and fish on earth. What doesn't get eaten drifts to the bottom as it dies—"marine snow." As additional sediment buries it over eons, it gets pressure-cooked into that blackest of sauces, oil.
In the steamy Cretaceous, 100 million years ago, seas were much higher, and much of Texas and Louisiana lay beneath an expanded gulf. As global temperatures cooled and the gulf shrank, the easily obtained oil became accessible beneath the gulf states. That was the first oil boom. We burned through most of that in a few decades. That was the first oil bust, and by the 1980s it had turned East Texas and Louisiana into very ugly places. But in the 1990s, geologists discovered enormous oil reservoirs much deeper in the gulf than ever suspected. New technology provided the means to drill a mile underwater through three miles of bedrock, and oil prices went sky-high, making it all worthwhile.
More than 4,000 rigs pepper the gulf. You head their way to catch red snapper, which cluster beneath. The Deepwater Horizon blowout has focused attention on deep-water drilling, but there are still only a few dozen rigs capable of operating in water a mile deep. These massive platforms are the Parthenons of our time, soaring high-tech temples to the reigning god. But the majority of rigs are more like rinky-dink parish churches, mostly stuck to the seafloor close to shore. Many lie abandoned; others limp along sketchily, like the Mariner Energy rig that caught fire on September 2. The low-hanging fruit is gone.
Deep-water is the source of most gulf drilling jobs. A few decades after the last of those reservoirs are drilled, they'll be tapped out. The gulf's petroleum era will end and the region's entire identity will change. To what, no one knows. A graveyard on the edge of a cesspool? It's not hard to imagine.
OUR SKIPPER, JOSH DEUPREE, is one of the coast's top sailboat racers, yet he'd been trapped lately, hesitant to even take Dolphin's Waltz out of port for fear of mucking up her engine and hull with sticky oil. Lucky for us, though, the 36-year-old couldn't resist the lure of an exploratory mission.
A few miles off the coast of Petit Bois Island, we finally got the boat dirty. Our first slick looked like a trail of brick-colored diarrhea running to the southern horizon. We punched through it and watched it disappear behind us. We hit a few more slicks as we approached the island. Sailing has been defined as hours of boredom interrupted by moments of terror. This was hours of beauty broken by moments of disgust.
A line of trees on the horizon: Petit Bois, a typical barrier island, a wandering carpet of dunes that gets piled just high enough on the inland side to support a few marshes and trees. These trees were mostly dead, casualties of Hurricane Katrina. Petit Bois is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore. In 1978 it was designated as wilderness, the Park Service's highest level of protection. Yet we could see blue shapes along the beach. Binoculars revealed them to be tents, each shading an assemblage of coolers, rakes, and plastic chairs.