Dispatch From the Gulf Oil Spill: When Apologies Are Not Enough

alexandra and philippe cousteau inspect tarball on the beach photo
Alexandra and Philippe Cousteau inspect tarballs that have washed up on a beach in Alabama. Image courtesy of Philippe Cousteau

I got word last night on the way to Alabama that Larry King is doing a two-hour special telethon and that they want me to be a special field correspondent to film and host all the in-the-field segments. I’m honored to help tell the story of the crisis in the Gulf. There is a real need for money and resources to help the communities and wildlife who are suffering in the wake of this ongoing disaster. If I can help to tell their stories and get people engaged in this fight—then all the better.

Alabama is on the ever-expanding front lines of this crisis and I knew that this would be an important trip. I had visited Alabama before but that was when only a few tarballs were washing up on the beach. Things are much worse and now the oil is even headed towards Florida.

The morning was hot as usual and we all headed out around 7am from Mobile to Orange Beach and Gulf Shores on the coast. Casi Callaway, the director of the Mobile Baykeeper and Bill Finch of the Nature Conservancy met us at the hotel as did a film crew from France 2, a major French news station that is doing a profile on our work in the Gulf in honor of my grandfather’s anniversary. First stop was a famous local place called Tacky Jacks for breakfast where we had a chance to discuss the plan for the day while simultaneously being filmed by the French film crew.

From the deck of the restaurant we could see Perdido Pass were just a few days earlier oil had flowed through to spread out into the marshes. We were told that oil had washed into the marina and so we headed there, only to be blocked by a security guard. Of course, this is a public marina and the guard refused to answer any of our questions, not even a question about why we couldn’t enter the marina. We even asked him what his name was, where he was from and how old he was and all he could say was “I can’t answer that question.”

public marine closed photo
Access to this public marine is now restricted. Image courtesy of Philippe Cousteau

Frustrated, we walked around the beach and tried to enter that way only to be told by police and BP officials that we could not enter. We did get close enough to tell that oil was everywhere.

Probably the most frustrating part of this situation to the locals who accompanied us was that for over a month they had been warning of the need to protect the pass, the only connection to the Gulf for miles and no one did anything. Now the booms had been laid across the inlet, but too little too late.

We finally gave up on the marina and headed to Orange Beach. We met with various officials and Mayor Robert Craft of Gulf Shores—who all told us the same story. Things are bad and getting worse. This small family-friendly destination is getting hammered by this disaster and no one is quite sure what to do.

beach closed due to oil sign photo
Image courtesy of Philippe Cousteau

Unlike a hurricane that passes through quickly, no one seems to know how long this will last and they are terrified.

The area looked like a ghost town and the beaches, normally crowded from road to shoreline at this time of year were empty but for a few hardy souls willing to brave the heat and the oil. As I walked down to the beach I saw the sign informing people that they could not enter the water. A few more steps and it was easy to see why.

tarballs under the sand photo
Tarballs hide just beneath the surface of the sand. Image courtesy of Philippe Cousteau

Lumps of oil were washing up everywhere on the beach and sheen was clearly visible on the water. While there were cleanup crews raking the oil off the sand, more oil was exposed underneath with a simple swipe of the sand.

empty beach photo
Image courtesy of Philippe Cousteau

A little girl in a bathing suit stood on the beach and stared out over the water. It was one of the most poignant scenes I had seen during this entire trip and I wondered what she was thinking. I wondered if she understood what this crisis meant not only to the Gulf but to her and to all the children like her around the world who suffer for our cavalier attitude towards our environment; our willingness to take the best of our heritage, and be it for profit or ignorance, standby as it is destroyed.

I wanted to try to explain to her, to apologize, but I didn’t have the words. No apology can give her back what she has lost, and that is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies.