ON BARATARIA BAY, La. — The wildlife apocalypse along the Gulf Coast that everyone has feared for weeks is fast becoming a terrible reality.
Pelicans struggle to free themselves from oil, thick as tar, that gathers in hip-deep pools, while others stretch out useless wings, feathers dripping with crude. Dead birds and dolphins wash ashore, coated in the sludge. Seashells that once glinted pearly white under the hot June sun are stained crimson.
Scenes like this played out along miles of shoreline Saturday, nearly seven weeks after a BP rig exploded and the wellhead a mile below the surface began belching millions of gallons of oil.
"These waters are my back yard, my life," said boat captain Dave Marino, a firefighter and fishing guide from Myrtle Grove. "I don't want to say heartbreaking, because that's been said. It's a nightmare. It looks like it's going to be wave after wave of it and nobody can stop it."
Along the beach at Queen Bess Island, oil pooled several feet deep, trapping birds against unused containment boom. The futility of their struggle was confirmed when Joel Sartore, a National Geographic photographer, sank thigh deep in oil on nearby East Grand Terre Island and had to be pulled from the tar.
"I would have died if I would have been out here alone," he said.
With no oil response workers on Queen Bess, Plaquemines Parish coastal zone management director P.J. Hahn decided he could wait no longer, pulling an exhausted brown pelican from the oil, the slime dripping from its wings.
"We're in the sixth week, you'd think there would be a flotilla of people out here," Hahn said. "As you can see, we're so far behind the curve in this thing."
After six weeks with one to four birds a day coming into Louisiana's rescue center for oiled birds at Fort Jackson, 53 arrived Thursday and another 13 Friday morning, with more on the way. Federal authorities say 792 dead birds, sea turtles, dolphins and other wildlife have been collected from the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline.
Yet scientists say the wildlife death toll remains relatively modest, well below the tens of thousand of birds, otters and other creatures killed after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound. The numbers have stayed comparatively low because the Deepwater Horizon rig was 50 miles off the coast and most of the oil has stayed in the open sea. The Valdez ran aground on a reef close to land, in a more enclosed setting.
Experts say the gulf's marshes, beaches and coastal waters, which nurture a dazzling array of life, could be transformed into killing fields, though the die-off could take months or years and unfold largely out of sight. The damage could be even greater beneath the water's surface, where oil and dispersants could devastate zooplankton and tiny invertebrate communities at the base of the aquatic food chain.
"People naturally tend to focus on things that are most conspicuous, like oiled birds, but in my opinion the impacts on fisheries will be much more severe," said Rich Ambrose, director of the environmental science and engineering at program at UCLA.
The gulf is also home to dolphins and species including the endangered sperm whale. A government report found that dolphins with prolonged exposure to oil in the 1990s experienced skin injuries and burns, reduced neurological functions and lower hemoglobin levels in their blood. It concluded, though, that the effects probably wouldn't be lethal because many creatures would avoid the oil. Yet dolphins in the gulf have been sighted swimming through plumes of crude.
The prospect for the future left fishing guide Marino shaking his head, as he watched the oil washing into a marsh and over the body of a dead pelican. Shrimp and crab flourish here, finding protection in the grasses. Fish, birds and other creatures feed here. "It's going to break that cycle of life," Marino said. "It's like pouring gas in your aquarium. What do you think that's going to do?"