Gulf Oil Spill Meets Dead Zone: What Lies Beneath

By Brenda Peterson, Huffington Post
August 5, 2010 11:20 AM

Scientists in Louisiana have just documented that the disturbing "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, is one of the largest ever — about the size of Massachusetts. Now, this eerie, underwater hypoxic (low-oxygen) area overlaps the toxic BP oil spill plume. One doesn’t have to imagine what trouble lies beneath the sea. We know. It’s just that the darkness lurking out of sight is often out of mind. And as the visible gusher is being "killed" and our shores are less sullied with oil and slimed wildlife, we want to move on, forget, and fall back into denial.

Signs of that denial are everywhere: the Department of Interior is signaling the offshore drilling ban may be lifted before November 30th; and the Gulf states are the most fervent opponents of proposed restrictions on offshore oil wells. Though scientists are warning about a spill plume and dead zones that could affect us for decades — sometimes facts are not enough to keep us awake and engaged.

Sometimes the only way we can remember and change is through stories. A recent book, What Sticks, makes the case that statistics don’t stick in our minds like stories. Consider these reports:

  • 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled from worst accidental oil spill in history
  • Dead Zone from farming’s run-off is 7,722 sq. miles and spreading
  • Vital ocean phytoplankton, required for half of all photosynthesis on the planet has declined 40% between 1950 and 2008

Facts can be filed away and forgotten. But a story is often vividly remembered. So here’s a story about the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone — what it looks and feels like to experience this as an undersea diver. I researched the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico for my environmental thriller, Animal Heart. Nearby this barren undersea stretch is one of the most beautiful marine sanctuaries in the world, Flower Garden Banks, south of the Texas-Louisiana border near Galveston, Texas.

Every August, eight days after the full moon, there is a miracle, a sea change, a diver’s delight. Here is what an undersea photographer on assignment for National Geographic sees:

Constellations of translucent star coral in full spawn. Bubbling, pearl-like bundles of egg and sperm swarm the coral reefs; whole colonies cross-pollinating in such a bright storm it is like swimming through glowing green galaxies. Reef gardens are embellished with scarlet and orange staircase sponges and feathery gorgonian fans with their bright yellow branches. So glorious these colors, as if freshly splashed by some Poseidon-Picasso, using phosphorous paints.

Just this year the Census of Marine Life declared the Gulf of Mexico one of the world’s top five areas for marine biodiversity. Imagine now that these precious waters are not only threatened by a spreading plume of oil but also a poisonous Dead Zone. Dive down past bleached and oxygen-starved coral to witness the Dead Zone that lies beneath:

About fifty feet below the healthy surface of the Gulf lay a murky layer… a turbid cloud of stirred-up sediment and dead sea creatures. Flaccid jellyfish floated on the flat currents of tiny corpses. On the sea bottom the waters were gray and terrifyingly empty. No coral, no fish, no algae, nothing but the noxious oily streaks of red tides and lethal plankton blooms. Everything in this 7,000-square-mile zone had died from lack of oxygen. It would be as if every person in a city were suddenly sucked dry of air and suffocated together.

Except the death was agonizingly protracted for the fish, the algae, the dolphins and whales. For a diver accustomed to the rich underworld sea life, it was shocking. Coral didn’t pop and crackle, because it was bleached dead. There was no curious companionship of loggerhead turtles, no zip and flutter of clown fish or soaring manta ray. Not even the ugly, saw-tooth smile of a moray eel.

This haunting undersea world of liquid gray nothingness must be photographed in black and white. Disoriented, his own air running out, he lifted his camera to focus the viewfinder on this underwater image: Blankness, black, white, and gray. Haunting. Click, click click. Slow film. Slow death. Clarity.

In this oil spill aftermath, we can still clearly witness, "the evidence of things not seen" below our ravaged Gulf waters. Will we join with BP in denying their oil plume now overlapping a Dead Zone? Or, as Alabama’s Anniston Star editorial board hopes, "BP will be working in the Gulf for years to come — and not just drilling for oil." When the well is finally killed, we at the surface of the sea must begin to truly fathom what lies beneath.