Commentary by Dr. Joe MacInnis
Sea Shepherd Board of Advisors

May 25, 2010  

Since April 20 more than seven million barrels of oil have spewed out of a runaway well on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the focus has been on containing the enormous slick on the surface. BP waited for weeks before releasing the first images of oil gushing out of the wellhead suggesting the company is trying to downplay the destruction of life in the fifteen hundred meters above the seafloor.

IMAGINE A SUBMERGED PLUME OF OIL four times as high as the Empire State Building. It begins at the seafloor, thundering out of a shattered twenty-inch pipe with so much force that the sediments seem to sway.

Less dense than seawater, the oil billows upward, black and buoyant. At this depth, fifteen hundred meters below the surface, there is no light so the oil is unseen--a murderous black presence within an everlasting darkness. As it rises, it swells into thunderheads, roiling clouds, and ragged columns. Smaller plumes break away from the main plume and drift sideways in the currents. Some of these shaggy, stunted plumes remain suspended and never reach the surface.

After rising more than a thousand meters, the widening plume slithers into the lower layers of the sunlit zone. Slow moving currents shear it into shattered smoke and upward streaming strands. For many kilometers in every direction, seawater is shot through with black threads, small droplets, and greasy vapors. When the oil reaches the surface, there are places where the smell of swamp rot and sulfur can make men sick.

In the pilothouses of the drill rigs and support ships floating over the plume, the mantra is control: control of the blowout preventer, control of the top hat, control of the relief wells, control of the submersible robots with their five-function arms, control of the oil streaming up from the seabed. The asymmetrical slicks and sheens running out to the horizon confirm how out of control things really are.

The men on the vessels are deckhands, drillers, engineers, technical experts, and oil response crews from coastal towns like Morgan City, Grand Isle, and Venice. They've been working around the clock ever since the high-pressure pocket of natural gas blew past the blowout preventer, roared up the riser, enveloped the drill rig, and burst into fiery orange flames that wouldn't quit until the rig disappeared beneath the surface. The city-block-size structure with its enormous steel tower that sent drill pipe seven miles down into the earth's crust now lies silently on the seafloor at a strange angle.

The deep waters beneath the drill rigs and support ships are a place of death and mystery. They hold the eleven men burned beyond recognition when the rig blew up. They hold the soot-black remains of a billion-dollar drilling platform. They hide the hideous maw of a runaway oil well. For sharks, whales, and thousands of other species they're a place of incalculable carnage.

The seafloor in this corner of the Gulf of Mexico has names like Sounder Canyon, Dauphin Dome, the West Florida Slope, and the Mississippi- Alabama Shelf. It is a wild run of sediment-covered plains, erratic hills, steep ravines, and abrupt valleys. For more than a month, the ever-enlarging oil plume has been drifting across this unseen realm enveloping the larvae and newborn of snapper, dolphin, lobster, billfish, and bluefin tuna. The prodigy of death and mutilations in young and mature animals includes eye wounds, mouth wounds, gill wounds, stomach wounds, gelatinous tissue wounds, and oxygen-deprived metabolisms.

The cell-swarm of killing continues right up to the surface where phytoplankton--the lungs of the planet--are savaged by the violence of the oil and the chemicals used to disperse it. Trillions upon trillions upon trillions of dead diatoms and dinoflagellates rain down through the filthy procession of upward moving oil. In deep water they merge with uncounted corpses of copepods and in deeper water still, the lifeless remnants of big fish, small fish, turtles and invertebrates. The deluge of mega-death continues until the remains come to rest on the gaunt floor of the Gulf.

This is the undersea story of the Deep Water Horizon oil kill--the story BP doesn't want you thinking about.

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JOE MACINNIS is a physician who spent the early years of his career providing medical support for commercial divers working on oil platforms and pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico. He's dived to 4,000 meters in research subs in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and is currently writing a book about leadership in life-threatening environments.  For more go to drjoemacinnis.com

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