June 25th, 2010
02:38 PM ET

Gulf Dispatch: An aerial view of ruthless oil's impact

Philippe Cousteau, Gov. Charlie Crist and others fly over the oil disaster.

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).

Thump-thump-thump went the heavy blades as I felt the Black Hawk slowly start to whir to life and heave its hulking weight forward.

As a part of my mission to tell the stories of what is going on in the Gulf states affected by the oil crisis, I had been told we would take a helicopter trip out to survey the Florida and Alabama coasts, but I had not expected to travel in one of these huge military machines so familiar to anyone who watches modern Hollywood war movies.

Across from me was Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, and next to him sat Gen. Douglas Burnett, the director of the Florida National Guard.

As the ground slowly fell away from us, I peered out into the glaring midday sun and braced myself for the worst.

It is no secret to anyone who knows me that waking up early is not my favorite thing to do, especially when four or five hours of sleep has been the norm over the past several weeks.

However, a 5:45 a.m. wakeup call is made all the worse when instead of birds singing, the only morning greeting is the slight smell of noxious oil hanging in the air and the sight of thick black muck slowly seeping into what would otherwise be beautiful fine white sand.

Unfortunately, that has become the usual for many of the people who live along the Gulf these days, and so it was for me.

Now I was flying in a machine designed for war, only this time it was not hunting any human adversary. Instead, our mission was to fly reconnaissance over a different type of enemy, one that has no rifles, no rockets, no tanks, but that has nonetheless infiltrated our country as effectively as any spy and as ruthlessly as any guerrilla warrior.

The oil that we have grown addicted to has now reared its ugly head and is slowly laying waste to a huge swath of our country.

As we flew over the Florida coast and made our way toward Alabama, we could see patches of thick orange oil interspersed with sheen dotted throughout the water beneath us.

On the beach, a solid black line of oil lay along the white sand like a long black snake sunning itself. Just offshore, pods of dolphin could be seen swimming through the oil. After over an hour, we landed on a dry patch of land near the beach and held an impromptu press conference with the governor and various VIPs.

We visited the crews along the beach as they worked to pick up the oil, wearing hazmat clothing in the 90-plus-degree heat. Oil was everywhere, and it seemed overwhelming. The men and women would work for hours, shoveling and raking up the oil, but despite their efforts, large black stains still dotted the shoreline as the sticky mass sank into the sand.

My colleague Denny Kelso, executive vice president of Ocean Conservancy, one of the leading ocean conservation organizations in the country, looked at me, and I could see the grim look of horror in his eyes. Denny had been the commissioner of the environment for the state of Alaska during the Exxon Valdez oil spill 21 years ago, and this scene was all too familiar.

As we headed back into the hulking Black Hawks, I felt the magnitude of what lay before us: This enemy was not going away without a formidable fight, one that will last for years and even decades.

But as we lifted off and flew over the beaches, the workers toiling away in the sun, I also felt a renewed sense of determination. The men and women on that beach, fighting the relentless heat and the even more relentless oil, were not giving up. Many of them were from Pensacola, and to me, they represent the best of us, people determined to fight for what they love in the face of overwhelming odds.

We landed at the Pensacola airport and headed toward Mobile, where I was due to co-host a fundraiser for the Mobile Baykeeper alongside Bobby Kennedy Jr., one of the greatest environmental heroes in our country today. The Mobile Baykeeper is another group of individuals determined to do whatever it takes to defeat this new foe.

Just like the workers on the beach, I knew that groups like the Mobile Baykeeper could be found across the Gulf and across the country, people who would never give up. I knew that as long as they continued to fight, there would always be hope.

soundoff (99 Responses)
  1. tia

    Bomb the hole ... have you heard yourself?!

    June 26, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Benedict420

    [Benedect420, it appears they have overcome the obstacles you mention with the pipe they currently have in place (the current pipe is drawing up oil despite the freezing methane and the buoying nature of resulting hydates thatyou mention). My suggestion is to add suction and vacuum to the pipe to attemt to suck in the escaping oil at the BOP]

    If you notice, the vents in the device are not all closed. Some oil has to escape, otherwise the oil stream will suck in water, because of the venturi principle. So there has to be enough back pressure kept on the pipe to make sure some oil escapes.

    At some time they plan to use a tighter fitting cap anchored to the ocean bed. That should help. There is no need for vacuum as there is 10.000 psi on the pipe, and you can't vacuum a column more than about 16 ft, and the pipe is a mile long! So vacuum as a solution is a non starter anyway.

    June 26, 2010 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jeff

    Ron Gos

    I don't understand why they can't use a powerful suction to suck up the oil escaping from the well head. They have a pipe already in place above the well head, why can't they attach a pump to the surface ship and vacuum all the escaping oil? Yes, it will suck in seawater as well, but that can be separated at the surface. Why is this not being done to prevent this tragic catastrophe from getting worse?

    You are thinking 2 dimensionally...you can't just vacuum up oil from a mile down under the ocean. the temperature a mile down is almost freezing...when the oil gets contained at that temperature...it freezes up as what they call..."hydrates" When that happens...it will clog and the pressure will push the oil back down into the seals of the containment dome and the pressure will blow the containment cap like if you put canada dry soda and mentos together.

    It's very easy to close up an oil gusher...from the surface of the ocean...from a mile down...it's a very different senario.

    June 26, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
  4. JonBratt

    I have read many of these comments and everyone is missing the most effective solution. God created the whole universe including galaxies trillions of miles from here. He is the incredibly awesome and all powerful friend to those who care to get to know Him. Nothing is impossible with God Luke1:37. If we humble ourselves and call on our Awesome Creator he could send an earthquake that would shift the ocean bottom and permanently seal off the leak. Then he could send a storm to bring the whole spill mess out into the middle of the Atlantic. Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. Wisdom comes with age and God has been from forever. Stop trusting in Man.Turn your eyes to the LORD like Israel just before the Red Sea was parted and they were delivered by the hand of Almighty God.

    June 26, 2010 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. marcia

    Too bad that BP and the government could care less about the leak. This is no accident!

    June 26, 2010 at 11:17 pm | Report abuse |
  6. James Geriman

    PC is no JCousteau ..stop writing about "It is no secret to anyone who knows me that waking up early is not my favorite thing to do" and start waking up early like all of us true Americans instead of living off Daddy's trust funds- typical Frenchman bashing America in guise... I pulled triggers for this country and this is what I eat at night?

    June 26, 2010 at 11:55 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ttaj

    5000ft is soooo deep. The extreme conditions down there make any attempt they "try" not really work. I mean we have maned missions to space but not to the bottom of the ocean. It's seems like they hit an artery and can stop the bleeding. To think there are no proven disaster responses to deal with this event is scary. Let's face it, for years NOAA was complaining about NASA getting all the funding. The only people putting real money into deepwater exploration was Big Oil and that was just to drill.

    Check this out:


    June 27, 2010 at 12:03 am | Report abuse |
  8. Dennis Guilbert

    I think that the biggest problem is if we do stop completely the leak and start pumping and cleaning all this mess , where do we put it all in a fastest time as possible ? Looks like years...

    June 27, 2010 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
  9. Mike F.

    MESSAGE TO CNN: Please keep the "Gulf disaster: Tracking the numbers" clock running. The public needs to be aware of this information, and they need to see how fast it's rising and how much oil has been spilled. Thank you for this new feature. Until this crisis is resolved, this oil spill clock should stay up and running.

    June 27, 2010 at 2:20 am | Report abuse |
  10. DaveC

    RonGos: The highest suction theoretically possible is a perfect vacuum. If you have that, the maximum possible upward pressure you can exert on the oil is air pressure (just over 14 psi) because that's what is pushing down on the ocean's surface. With that, it's possible to raise a column of oil a few hundred feet, not a mile, and it's nothing compared to teh thousands of psi pushing up from the earth's interior. This is the same reason deep water supply wells have to use submersible pumps at the bottom of the well - the water cannot be "sucked up" from the top. It's just physics.

    June 27, 2010 at 8:25 am | Report abuse |
  11. Richard Hebert

    Shows once again how urgent the switch to electrics in automobiles is.This series of oil related disasters in the past 30 years cant keep on going forever.We got to cut the oil umbilical to save ourselves from further , and yes there WILLl be other disasters like this ,killing our own habitat. This is long term suicide. Im no environmentalist , not one of them enviro nutcases ...Im like you. And i invite you all to push the government to embark on a 10 year program and to have a complete switch of newly produced cars to an electrical propulsion system.That this program also emcompasses the building of new power stations to accomodate the growing demand on the grid as the switch takes place , the standardisation of recharge stations and the installation of those throughout. . The time is short. We need a new Kennedy style all out effort in order to stop this mess.

    June 27, 2010 at 8:47 am | Report abuse |
  12. Movers

    I can not understand how this mess is still ongoing. We don't need fundraisers we need solutions. Bp and the government should join forces and offe r a prize of one hundread million dollars to the idea that stops the flow of oil. Clean ups are useless until the oil stops

    June 27, 2010 at 9:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Lisa

      You are absolutely correct! Now is the time to use brain power to get the mess up because if anyone thinks oil spills, at any depth, will never happen again, are living in a Fool's Paradise. We are going to have oil because we are addicted and until we get off oil, which probably, realistically thinking, will not happen in our lifetime, we need to learn how to CLEAN UP these types of spills and begin the process of clean energy.

      Just keeping it real.

      June 27, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Thomas King

    Maybe this is a sign that we should start working on cleaner forms of energy instead of using a form of energy that both pollutes the air and is dangerous to acquire. How much of an ecological disaster would occur by setting up a solar panel? Or a wind turbine? The thing that boggles me is that this is not the first ecological disaster brought on by drilling for oil beneath the ocean surface. Clean energy is out there and so is the technology to harness it, but the mega rich oil companies and their bought and paid for politicians don't want you to know about it.

    June 27, 2010 at 9:43 am | Report abuse |
    • johnnyhouse

      The most pollution we have now is the hot air mass coming out of the Halls of Congress and the government at its top levels..It has a high content of methane and other dangerous gases.

      June 27, 2010 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
  14. TimmyGuns

    I can't believe that anyone would want to attempt drilling at great depths considering the financial/environmental cost that could come with it. Even BP's new face is saying they shouldn't be taking risks until the evidence is clear. Perhaps all wells should have double BOP's...?!? Perhaps there should be Oil capture systems set in place at a radius of 2 miles oround drilling sites...?!?! Perhaps the Canadian Oil Sands are a cleaner alternative?!?!? Perhaps we should try to use less oil?!?!?! Perhaps we should look at the bigger problem and realize that we (as humans) are becoming a cancerous tumor to our beautifull earth..... Are we overpopulating the earth? A simplistic life is a thing of the past... GOD help us...or should I say- "Higher power, please help us."

    June 27, 2010 at 10:44 am | Report abuse |
  15. TimmyGuns

    Could they somehow drive a pile into this well head... with a Railgun? Could be the stupidest idea, or might be brilliant... I really with it could be stopped. Then we can stop and assess what just happened in great detail.

    June 27, 2010 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
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