Editor's note: Philippe Cousteau Jr. is the grandson of legendary ocean explorer and filmmaker Jacques Yves Cousteau. Philippe heads the nonprofit organization EarthEcho International (www.earthecho.org).
After a very successful telethon for "Larry King Live" â€” we raised almost $2 million â€” I boarded a red-eye and headed down to Florida. Unfortunately, tar balls are starting to wash up on the shore, the same kind I saw on the beaches of Alabama that now, three weeks later, have weathered oil and sheen washing up on the beaches and into the marsh. If recent history is any indication (and I hope I am wrong), the Gulf coast of Florida is next.
As part of my work here in the Gulf, I wanted to get ahead of the catastrophe and witness the beauty of these fragile environments before the oil spoiled them. My destination was Apalachicola Bay, a delta system that is among the most pristine and productive in the Gulf.
I landed at the Panama City airport and stopped at a news shop in the terminal to scan the morning papers as I walked to rendezvous with the rest of the team who had flown in from D.C. For the first time in weeks, I noticed something different.
When I picked up the New York Times, there was no mention of the crisis in the Gulf on the front page for the first time in recent memory. Not good, I thought to myself. We cannot afford to allow this national crisis to succumb to our short attention spans. Unlike a hurricane or a tornado, this crisis is only going to get worse before it gets better, and as many have said, those responsible will only live up to their obligations as long as we the public hold them to task and demand it.
I met up with the rest of the team, and we headed out for the bay. The drive took us along two hours of winding roads bordered by alternating sections of strip malls and swamp land. We rendezvoused with the local Riverkeeper Alliance and headed to the bay.
I have visited people and communities all along the coast, from Louisiana to Alabama, but a whole new experience lay ahead of me here. Where fishermen often view conservation as an impediment to their industry, the oystermen who were about to take us out on the bay have been working with the local Riverkeeper. They understood the inherent alliance that can exist between conservation and fishing if the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem and thus the resource is maintained.
Toby and Leroy, two oystermen, greeted us with a broad smiles and warm welcomes. I could tell they were excited to take us out on the bay and share with us a place they were fiercely proud of and equally fierce about protecting. Unpainted and worn, their flat-bottom wooden boats looked crude and unstable.
Within moments of setting foot on board, however, we all quickly realized their simple elegance and perfect design.
â€śA good boat can last you 10 years,â€ť Toby told me as he expertly guided his weathered craft through the shallows.
There is no dredging here; instead, these men catch or â€śtongâ€ť the oysters in a time-honored way that causes little damage to the environment, and they rotate the shoals they fish every six to eight months. I watched as Toby demonstrated the technique and then gave it a try, catching far fewer than Toby.
Even as we sorted through the oysters, we knew the oil was continuing its relentless onslaught unabated. I heard the same refrain from the oystermen as I have heard over and over again from men and women throughout the Gulf: â€śIf the oil comes, it could take 10 to 15 years before we can fish again, our way of life will be over, and we donâ€™t know what we will do.â€ť
Heading back to shore, we spotted a pair of American Oystercatcher birds.
Like the oystermen, they and countless other creatures are threatened by this cancer spreading through the Gulf. Here in Apalachicola Bay, as in every part of the Gulf and indeed the world, the fate of the environment is entangled with the fate of humans, one inseparable from the other.
The sun was settling low into the sky as I watched the men tie up their boats and offload their catch. I was struck by the simple beauty of this place, the timeless dance of seasons and tides and the men and women whose lives depend upon them, and I was reminded, yet again, of the terrible price we pay to continue our addiction to oil. I can only hope that tomorrow morning, when I pick up the paper, they remember too.