Out on the Gulf, Oil You Can See, Smell, Taste in the Back of Your Mouth

BY Tom Bearden  May 27, 2010 at 9:55 AM EDT

That giant oil slick bobbing atop of the waters of the Gulf of Mexico is just plain nasty.

As Ed Overton put it, you can see it, smell it, and taste it in the back of your mouth. Overton is a recently retired environmental sciences professor at Louisiana State University. He was one of several scientists who accompanied reporters and photographers in a five-boat flotilla arranged by the National Wildlife Federation yesterday.

At first, the boats encountered a rainbow-hued sheen of light oil on the surface. Overton said bacteria would take care of that quickly, without the need for human intervention. But as the boats motored slowly forward, the surfaced darkened, and then turned black. At one point it seemed to have the consistency of a thin mud. Whenever a boat backed up, oil surged toward the transom, the liquid completely black, not a hint of water. One of the five boats had engine trouble, and the captain thought oil was the cause.

Overton pointed out small, dead jellyfish in the oil. A NWF wildlife expert, Doug Inkley, pulled a dead eel out of the muck. He also said he saw a disoriented shark swimming in circles.

People were oddly quiet as we motored through this wasteland. A few were nauseated by the smell, and wore respirators provided by the NWF. Earlier the charter boat captains had bantered on the radio, cheerfully swapping insults. But they, too, seemed disturbed by what they were seeing, even though they’ve taken a lot of people out here.

We made a high-speed run back to our starting point, a marina in Venice, LA. Along the way the powerful boat engines kicked up a rooster tail in the wake. At times it would turn from salt-water white to jet black as we passed through a plume of oil.

The photos at top are by Tom Bearden. The photo below is by Win McNamee, of Getty Images, in Blind Bay, Louisiana.