Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘Spill

Tidal Marshes & Oil

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Tonging oysters in the Chesapeake Bay near Norfolk, Virginia

I’m angered and saddened as I watch the oil staining the Gulf coast, blackening the beaches and wetlands, suffocating the marine life and shore birds.  Though I’m not from the Gulf, I feel connected to life around the water.   I grew up in Virginia’s Tidewater region—an area very similar to the Louisiana coast.  As a kid, I spent summers crabbing at Lynnhaven Inlet, or fishing in the ocean from Harrison’s Pier.  The bounty of the sea seemed unlimited.

My love of coastal regions was strengthened by an early National Geographic assignment on the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina.  The Sea Islands are surrounded by coastal marshes, and isolated from the mainland by wide creeks.  Each summer, thick grey clouds of mosquitoes rise from the marshes to feed.  Working on that story, I used insect repellant for the first time in my life, though I was still covered with itchy red welts much of the time.

On these isolated islands, the unique Gullah culture survived.  Descendants of African slaves, the Gullah preserved some of the crafts, traditions and language of their ancestors.  Yet all that was quickly changing.  The islands were becoming popular resort destinations.  New roads and bridges allowed easy travel to the various islands, effectively blending them with the mainland. My assignment was to explore what remained of the Gullah culture.

As I worked there, I began living like a Sea Islander, my days shaped by the rhythm of the sea and the seasons.  The summer was for crabbing and shrimping.  Oystering was for the fall and winter.  To capture the pictures I needed, I learned to follow the tides.  On their rise and fall, the fishing and shrimping boats went out and came back.

At low tide, a boy hunts the muddy marsh flats for crabs and shrimp stranded in pools of water

When the tide was in, people on shore netted fish.  When the tide was out, sure-footed children ran onto the mud flats, picking up stranded shrimp and scurrying crabs and putting them in plastic buckets.  I noticed that they only took a few creatures—not more than their family would eat that day.  Camera in hand, I followed them, but quickly learned that on the tidal flats, you need to be small, skinny and quick.  Within minutes I started sinking deeper and deeper into the dense mud.   When I was up to my knees, I told myself that sometimes, it was best to wait for the scene to come to me.   I was too big and slow to keep up with the children, who clearly enjoyed watching the photographer trying to keep her gear from getting muddy while attempting to pry herself out of the mud.  Thank God my shoelaces were tied in double knots.

I ate often with the families that I photographed.  On Wadmalaw Island, I had shrimp and grits for breakfast, shrimp sandwiches for lunch and fried shrimp for dinner.  There was shrimp gumbo, seafood casserole, creamed shrimp and something called Frogmore stew—shrimp cooked with sausage, potatoes and corn on the cob.  Like that character in Forest Gump, I didn’t know shrimp could be served so many different ways, each one fresh, tender and sweet.

Shrimpers working off Hilton Head South Carolina unload their catch onto the deck of their boat

Shrimp caught off Hilton Head South Carolina

Daufuskie Island was special for me. Here, crab was king.   I was practically raised on crabs and have been known to eat a dozen crabs and still want more. My favorite was deviled crab, which resembled a crab cake without any breading, served on the cooked shell.  Every day, boatloads of tourists landed on Daufuskie looking for that delectable dish.

The summers were far from lazy on the islands.  People were always busy, gardening, fishing, trapping and canning for the winter.  The year I was there set a record for the longest continuous number days over 100 degrees with nearly 100 percent humidity. My skin was covered in a layer of moisture that never evaporated, even in my air-conditioned motel room.  Still, I knew I had to be a southerner because I felt comforted by that hot, damp weather.  I didn’t mind that my damp sticky shirt stuck to my damp sticky skin.  Extreme weather makes me aware that I’m living and surviving in my environment.

There is a rhythm in this region that I became part of.  Each humid day ended with a brilliant red sunset.  Magnified in the thick air, the sun seemed to take up the entire sky.  Hanging there the sun was a visual lullaby, telling me to slow down, to appreciate the moment before the evening arrived.  I loved every minute of my time in the Sea Islands.

A resident of Johns Island South Carolina casts his net for fish and shrimp in one of the islands rivers

As I traveled with watermen through the tidal marshes, I could see how rich these islands were with life.  They provided refuge for the small creatures living among the sea grasses, allowing them to reproduce and mature.   Mussels, oysters, marsh periwinkles, shrimp, fiddler crabs, snails, and worms were all nurtured here, many becoming food for the schools of fish swimming up the waterways, animals forging the marsh, shore birds hunting in the shallow waters and humans living on the shores.

In this low-lying region, sea and land were closely connected, boundaries washed away by the daily tides.  I’m drawn to areas like the Sea Islands, where life has adapted to a special kind of geography.  Trees have learned to live in brackish water.  In the branches of those same trees, plants live symbiotically, grabbing moisture and nutrients from the air.  Wetland areas like the Sea Islands or the Louisiana coast are the foundation of life.

Today, seeing how millions of gallons of oil leaking into the Gulf are damaging the rich productive marshlands of Louisiana, I have to wonder just what were we thinking.  I think of the Gullah oystermen and shrimpers I photographed, knowing how dependent they were on the sea.   I can only imagine the sadness and fear the watermen living along the Gulf Coast must feel as they see their livelihood vanish but also see their partners in the marsh, the seabirds, the dolphins, turtles and other creatures living there struggle to survive.  I cannot help but think that people who depend on the sea as much as the creatures with which they share it, must watch a pelican covered with oil, and see themselves in that bird.

Our lust for oil is so insatiable that we risked one of our richest food sources by drilling in the waters of that region—not with just one or two rigs but with hundreds.  The odds of an accident may be low, but it did happen and the damage is catastrophic.  The seas grasses that incubate the life found in and around the marshes cannot stop the oil from snuffing out all life in it’s path.  No amount of money will bring back the life taken away by that brown, thick, sticky goo.  It may take decades for the earth to recover from the damage caused by just one accident.

Sea Island men harvest oysters on Lemon Island

The marshes are like a breadbasket, protecting and nourishing an astonishing amount of life in their sheltering grasses.  This protein, easily reached, is an often under-appreciated bounty.  Since my blog also deals with food, I’m including a couple of simple recipes.


Steamed Shrimp

I usually like to eat my seafood as plain as possible. Nothing can beat shrimp steamed in a mix of half vinegar (or beer) and water with a healthy dose of Old Bay Seasonings. The key is not to overcook.  As soon the shell turns pink and it starts to curl, I take it off the stove.  Then peel and eat.

Crab Norfolk

There crabmeat dish is so simple it’s like eating it plain.  Chesapeake or east coast Blue crab is the best one to use for this dish.  Imported crabmeat does not have the sweetness or texture of crabs from the east coast of the United States.  I used to make this all the time when I lived in Norfolk, but with lump crabmeat now sitting at 30 dollars a pound, this is now a rare treat.

-1 stick of butter (you can use less, but the crab should be coated and not swimming in the butter)

-1 lb of lump crabmeat

-4 Tablespoons of vinegar (You can adjust for taste. I like the flavor of vinegar)

-Sprinkle of Paprika  (I usually skip this, as I don’t like red color on my crabmeat)

Take half the butter, and melt in a medium size pan over medium heat.  Add the crabmeat and top with the remaining butter.  Sprinkle vinegar over it.  Sauté quickly.  Try not to break up the lumps.  Cook until the vinegar evaporates.  Sprinkle the paprika and serve from the pan.

In the Wake of the Spills

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Ten years after the Exxon Valdez spill, a footprint glistens with oil on an island in Prince William Sound.

Watching the drama of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the subsequent gushing of thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico’s fragile biodiversity, I’m saddened, but not surprised to see history repeat itself yet again.

Back in March 1989, a tanker called the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.  Like the current Gulf spill, the Exxon Valdez disaster was well covered.  We were flooded with dramatic and heartbreaking images—animals coated in thick black oil struggling to live, heroic people desperately trying to save them, yellow suited teams of workers cleaning the oil from rocks lining the once-pristine shore.

Though I hadn’t been to Alaska at that time, I grew up around the water and the disaster was vivid for me.  When I saw those images, I thought, never again.  How could we as a nation, even with our great need for oil, allow a mistake like that to occur? Countless animals were killed or maimed and the livelihood of thousands of people was jeopardized.

In the mid 1990s, National Geographic assigned me to photograph a story on the effect of the oil industry on Alaska.  It was called “Oil on Ice.”  I accepted it with trepidation.  I had rarely worked above the Mason–Dixon line.  My assignments took me mainly to warm climates and I liked it that way.

I underestimated the north’s wild call.  Once I got that first blast of cold air into my lungs, I was hooked and Alaska became my favorite photography location.  That might seem odd since I rarely photograph animals or landscapes.  I photograph social and economic issues.   But I loved the state and once I completed the oil coverage I started thinking about projects I could propose that would bring me back to Alaska.

That chance came in 1998, when National Geographic sent me to Prince William Sound to photograph a story on how the region was recovering nearly a decade after the Exxon spill.  Researching the story reminded me how much damage had been done to the area.  Still, I didn’t expect to see oil, much less smell it.

I was traveling with a researcher whose job was to see where the oil still remained and take assessments of it.   We were jumping from one island to another via a floatplane.  When we landed by the first of the islands that had been in the pathway of that spill, the stench was overwhelming.  Although the shoreline looked clean, it stank just like a refinery.  The researcher showed me why.  The oil was still there, just below the surface and still in liquefied form.  As we walked along the shore, our booted feet broke through the thin covering of rock chips on the surface, and water rapidly filled in our footprints.  The sun hit the one closest to me, spinning a beautiful rainbow of color out of the oily film.

Rocks on an island in Prince William Sound still carry oily goo from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The researcher stopped to collect samples, digging down with a spoon; she came up with clumps of a gooey black mess.  It didn’t take her long to get enough samples to fill a jar.  By the time we headed back to the plane, her yellow work gloves were black.

After the Exxon Valdez spill, researchers began studying bird rookeries in the Barren Islands to determine the impact.

Showing oil on the shoreline didn’t have a lot of visual drama, but it was an important picture for the coverage.  There would be other more dramatic situations; a bird rookery impacted by the spill, salmon harvesting, and Prince William Sounds’ magnificent coastline scenery.  Seeing oil was a visual reminder that the spill had done long term damage, not a passing injury that would wash away in a month or two.

Before setting foot on those islands I had no idea that oil in its liquefied form could last that long.  The spill had happened ten years before!   But that is what we have to remember if we, as a nation, feel that offshore and coastal drilling are necessary.  Yes, the technology is advanced and relatively safe and yes, there are years when nothing much happens and the rigs pump the oil day in and day out without so much as a leak.  But when an accident does occur, the consequences can be catastrophic and the price we all pay—in money and damage to the environment—is very high.

Laying down oil spill containment booms during a drill. The drills were instituted after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, but the technique doesn’t work well in choppy water

What I find most amazing is how ill prepared the oil companies seem to be for these catastrophes.  The boom technology we’ve seen used in futile attempts to contain the Gulf of Mexico spill is little changed from that used for the Exxon Valdez spill over twenty years ago.   Companies drilling in deep water like the Gulf should not be allowed to do so unless they have a workable plan to immediately contain spills.

Eleven human lives have been lost, and countless numbers of birds and marine creatures will be lost, along with millions of gallons of oil.  As with Alaska, the effects of the spilled Gulf oil will linger long after the clean up efforts have ended.   After witnessing first hand the long-term damage of the Exxon Valdez spill ten years after the fact, I feel we should rethink our desire to drill for oil in these fragile ecosystems.