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.
The sun was oozing orangely into the sea as we anchored in the lee of the island. It appeared to be deserted, but the lagoons were fenced with bright-yellow boom, and anchored farther away was a clot of crew boats, barges, and tenders. The barges were stacked with double-decker, 40-foot steel boxes marked LIVING QUARTERS, shipping containers serving as windowless "flotels." So this was where Hazmat Nation was spending the evening. I wondered how many were squeezed into each tin.
Anchored near us was a gigantic, three-story sportfishing boat flying a VOO flag. A couple of guys in camo fatigues lolled on the upper deck. The boat never budged in the 16 hours we were anchored there. The VOO program is a boondoggle. The boats' ability to deal with any oil they find is very limited, as explained by a VOO captain who agreed to speak anonymously. "If we found anything," he said, "we'd call the shrimp boat assigned to us, they'd come, and we'd boom it off and suit up in Tyvek. You'd put a produce bag on the end of an aluminum pole and actually scoop oil up with those bags, then you'd put it in bigger plastic bags and drop it off. We got as much as we could, but it was almost pointless. You can't really clean that shit up."
The idea was to employ out-of-work fishermen, but my VOO mole—a sportfishing guide—explained that it hasn't worked that way. Despite the fact that his guide business had dried up after the Deepwater Horizon blew on April 20, it had taken him until July 1 to get activated. "There were people not in the fishing business who formed corporations early on," he said. "One group had nine boats. Their friends' kids operated them. And you'd call BP and ask, 'When am I gonna get activated?' 'Well, we've got too many people.' A friend of mine was out there for two months in a 12-foot johnboat. Two months! In a 12-foot boat! There was no supervision. You'd just check in: 'See ya in 12 hours.' People were going out and fishing all day."
BP also launched the $500 million Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, which might be coined the Scientists of Opportunity. I learned of some being offered $250 an hour for their research—on topics approved by BP, of course—but prohibited from discussing or publishing their findings for three years.
WE SLEPT ON DECK to beat the heat, slapping mosquitoes through the night—except Jimbo, who ignored them. At dawn, he muttered "I got to marinate" and threw himself overboard. The water looked clear of oil, so I did, too, and immediately got stung by a jellyfish. These Jimbo tuned out as well. "I used to swim long distance," he said, pulling beautiful strokes around the boat. "I'd get stung constantly. Put yourself in a different mind-set. They don't actually hurt."
Jimbo—who's a part owner of Dragonfly boats, the most enlightened fly-fishing craft ever conceived—had been fishing in the Bahamas with his old pal Jimmy Buffett when the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Jimbo and Jimmy hatched a plan, with the musician funding the design and construction by Dragonfly of two skiffs custom-made for wildlife rescue. The Shallow Water Attention Terminal, or SWAT, boats have whisper-soft trolling motors, a draft of just ten inches, mid-deck worktables, misting systems, canopies, Wi-Fi, video cameras, and "sea-mist green" hulls (so they merge with the waterline and don't spook birds). After the boats were built, however, Jimbo was informed by Fish and Wildlife that only trained specialists with federal permits have clearance to handle oiled birds; if anyone else tried to rescue one, they could be in violation of federal law under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Jimbo suggested donating a boat to the local Audubon Center. Nope, no permits. He would eventually have to donate it to a conservation nonprofit who could then lend it to Fish and Wildlife for rescue and research efforts. "Most frustrating thing I've ever experienced," he said.
Still stinging from the jellyfish, I kayaked to Petit Bois with Bill Finch. We dragged the kayak ashore and made our way through the dunes toward the gulf side. Blooming morning glory vines crawled over the sand and scrub. Bill nibbled on wild plants: sea rocket, a briny, mustardy green that tasted like Grey Poupon, and glasswort, which was crunchy and salty, the potato chip of the beach.
Foraging is one of his passions. Not long before the Big Leak, he'd been out on the islands wandering over Native American middens—ancient heaps of oyster shells—grazing on glasswort and wolfberries, shucking oysters straight out of the water. "It's the way people must've eaten for 10,000 years," he said.