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Gulf Coast Photographer Captures Oil Spill’s Effect on Wildlife

May 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Since the oil leak in the Gulf erupted more than a month ago, Associated Press photographer Gerald Herbert has as been documenting the people and places at the center of the disaster.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the images of the oil spill in the Gulf as seen through the lens of a veteran photojournalist and Louisiana native.

GERALD HERBERT, AP photographer: My name is Gerald Herbert, and I’m a photographer for the Associated Press based here in New Orleans.

Ever since the rig exploded, I was up in the air covering it in the air, in boats, helicopters, every day. Seeing the fishermen react to their loss of income and seeing the oil impact the wildlife, it’s been a pretty sad process.

Early on, I was down in Hopedale, and there was a big meeting of all these fishermen. They are all out of work all on the same day, all at once, as though a hurricane hit. And all of them are walking around saying, this is going to be worse than Katrina.

Katrina came and went, and they could rebuild. This thing, they feel, is going to last for a very long time. And their worry was very profound and very real. These men are faced with mortgages. They probably have mortgages on their boat. They have families to feed. They have a livelihood that they’re used to, and they don’t probably have other skills that they can apply to replace their livelihood and earn an income elsewhere, nor do they want to.

And, just lately, with the oil recently impacting into the shores of Grand Isle, Venice, and Barataria Bay, you see impact on wildlife. We were on a supply vessel, and one day I was out taking pictures of some egrets that had landed on the boat, and they were oil-stained. And one of the crew members motioned me over, and he was frantically pointing into the water.

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I could see this bird languishing in the water, and he was pecking at the hull, trying to get in. And he had no way of getting in, and he was completely inundated in oil. And this was right at the spill site. So, you could imagine that the plume was coming up right there. And he was just getting the full impact of that oil as it was coming to the surface.

And it was a pretty sad sight to see that bird. He worked his way around the hull, and he went around the front, and I never saw him again.

It’s one of those little things that you don’t notice. And, in fact, I was out there with a couple of other news media. And there was a TV crew, and one of them was right next to me. And he pointed it out. And he said, look at that dragonfly.

And once I zoomed in on it and made a frame, I could see that it had oil on its wings. And I saw that its feet couldn’t move off of the reed. He was stuck to the oil on that piece of marsh grass. And, so I thought — you know, it’s quite something to see something that small impacted by the oil after flying over that rig at 4,000 feet while it was fully engulfed in flames.

To see the macro and the micro was a privilege, but a sad one at that. It’s affecting everything from the insects, to — the little insects are going to get the oil on them. The birds are going to be eating the insects. And it’s going to go all the way up the food chain.

The brown pelicans in particular, they just came off of the endangered species list not too long ago. And they’re getting hit pretty hard right now in Barataria Bay. I saw birds swimming in the oil. I saw birds fully coated in oil, and birds with oil on their tips of their beaks.

And, so, you know that they’re going out, getting fish, bringing them back to those babies, because they’re nesting right now, and the babies are hatching. And you know that they’re ingesting that oil, too. Only one drop of oil on an egg can kill that egg. That rookery very well stands a good chance of being gone, that they might all die.

Walking on the fringes of that island, I was trying to get pictures of the impacted birds and saw this little heron. He was down there looking lifeless. Mud was very thick and gooey. And you could see the oil, the drops of oil, on his underside. I don’t know if he died from the oil or not, but there’s no question that he was in proximity to oil and he had it on him.

When you’re out on that island, the sounds of life are so overwhelming. It’s a very beautiful sound. You see — you hear the ocean waves lapping. You don’t hear the sound of the death. You don’t hear when they’re suffering. You hear the sounds of life. But you see the ones that are hurting, and you can see that they’re not well.

You really can’t truly grasp the magnitude of it until you’re out here. This thing has been gushing oil for over a month now. And it’s been nonstop. I think that it’s just beginning. This oil is starting to come ashore. And what you’re seeing now, it is going to keep impacting for some time.

And it’s got everyone on this coast frightened — frightened and angry. One oyster fisherman I was out with, he said, you know, this is not just the fish and the fishermen. It’s our whole culture. All of Southern Louisiana is affected by this.