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.