Mopping Up

One year after the spill, two books examine the causes and effects of BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Shadows on the Gulf, A Sea in Flames

Shadows on the Gulf (Bloomsbury, $25); A Sea in Flames (Crown, $24)   

LIKE A LOT OF people who witnessed the Gulf oil spill last summer firsthand, I came away with two tightly entwined emotions: rage at BP's malevolence, and love for the people and landscape of the Louisiana coast. Two new books published on the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster give eloquent expression to those feelings—and plenty more. Carl Safina, one of the world's great ocean advocates, provides equal amounts evidence and outrage in A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout (Crown, $24). Safina lays out the "disaster chain" of wrong assumptions, haste, and laziness that led to the exploration-well blowout. It's a haunting string of small decisions, any one of which could have prevented the catastrophe—in one instance, company officials waved off an alarming pressure reading as the result of a faulty gauge. Safina's ire rises once the oil starts gushing and the lies and ass-covering have begun. He's a little too easy on the U.S. Coast Guard and its then-leader, Admiral Thad Allen, whose toothless guidance and deference to BP turned an honorable organi­zation into a synonym for feckless. But Safina makes it clear that BP wasn't simply struck by bad luck on Deepwater Horizon: the company had been running high-risk wells in the Gulf for years. Perhaps the most disturbing precedent set last summer was BP stepping into the government authority vacuum with such chilling ease—a dynamic that Safina captures with a clarity I haven't seen elsewhere. "We don't normally put the criminal in charge of the crime scene," he writes.

Rowan Jacobsen, who wrote about the spill for Outside, adopts a different tactic in Shadows on the Gulf: A Journey Through Our Last Great Wetland (Bloomsbury, $25): he travels by boat throughout the region, capturing the sights and smells of the spill at its ugliest. But first, to reach the oil, he has to cross hundreds of miles of amazing, untainted wetlands. "The Gulf Coast is one of those magical places on the planet where life burns a little brighter," he writes. Yet Jacobsen is also a real­ist. "After the accident, people who never gave a damn about the Redneck Riviera became suddenly tearful with concern," he writes. "But the truth is that we have been screwing the Gulf for decades." You know the story: oil canals cut up the marshes, upriver dams caught the Mississippi's replenishing sediment, overfishing depleted the abundance. Both Jacobsen and Safina tell that tale. But, as Jacobsen writes, "this is no eulogy for the Gulf." He aims to celebrate the life of the region while it's still around. Which is good. If there's one spark of hope to come out of the debacle, it's that the Deepwater Horizon spill may open the nation's eyes to the natural treasure that is the Louisiana coast.

Toothy Reading

Demon Fish, Juliet Eilperin
Demon Fish (Pantheon, $26)

Pity the shark, so vastly misunderstood. Most are uninterested in human flesh (think of all those spit-out surfers), and their menacing reputation, bolstered by gaping jaws full of teeth, arises largely from a physiological quirk requiring them to swim open-mouthed to take in oxygen. (Biologists call it ram ventilation.)

Sharks, which predate dinosaurs by 200 million years, were once venerated but today are slaughtered by the millions for their fins, which are considered a delicacy in China. This alarming decline drives Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks (Pantheon, $26), a state-of-the-creature survey from Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin, who travels from Florida to Belize to Japan and discovers that over the past half-century, the populations of many shark species have dropped by 90 percent. Eilperin does get in the water—she observes a great white from the safety of a cage in South Africa—but her adventures are peripheral, spice added to an environmental cautionary tale. The most entertaining moments come courtesy of characters like a Papua New Guinea shark caller, who lures the fish with a rattle, stabs it in the eyes, and clubs it to death. And therein lies the problem. Until people are as excited by conservationists' attempts to save this essential predator as they are by its terrifying image, shark populations will continue to plummet.

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