Video | ‘Off The Deep End’ in the Gulf of Mexico

Like anyone with a heart, I’ve been saddened and outraged by the images of oil-covered birds and turtles from the Gulf. As a diver, I was concerned from the start about the potential effects of the oil and dispersant on the life we land-dwellers can’t see — the life teaming deep beneath the surface.

Recently, I put together a reading list for World Oceans Day. Of the dozen books listed, two were by Dr. Sylvia Earle, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and former chief scientist with the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration.

Gale Mead

Gale Mead

Two out of a dozen apparently wasn’t good enough for Earle’s daughter, Gale Mead, who suggested adding her mother’s most recent book, The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One. On a whim, I did a search for Mead. I was delighted by what I found. Not only is Mead an explorer in her own right, she’s also a talented musician with a wonderful CD titled Common Good that’s filled with as much passion and life as a coral reef. And, it turned out, Mead had filmed the first — and only — glimpse of the bountiful life on a seamount off the Louisiana coast. Unfortunately, that spot is just sixteen miles from where, eight years later, the BP Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 and spewing millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The OnEarth Video

I contacted Mead and she readily agreed to do an over-the-phone interview/narration of her 2002 dive, including her assessment of the threat posed to this unique ecosystem by oil and chemical dispersants. The resulting video was produced for OnEarth magazine, a part of that publication’s continuing coverage of the Gulf disaster.

Two Letters from Key West

The Florida Keys reef tract is visible as the arc of light-colored shallows spreading westward from the southern tip of the peninsula. (Photo by Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA, Johnson Space Center.)

The first “letter” is actually the preface to a book about coral reefs that I wrote a decade ago. In it, I recall my first memories of these magical islands, from two decades earlier. Now, with plumes of oil threatening the reefs, my somewhat abstract concerns for the future have become immediate, real and terrifying.

The second letter is from Joel Biddle, who lives in Key West and is a coral reef advocate from way back. Joel calls on Florida Governor Charlie Crist to act now to protect the Keys. I don’t know enough about the actions Joel describes to comment on their efficacy. But Joel’s dedication to saving the Keys represents the spirit of hope in action that is our best chance — maybe our only chance — to save the world we love.

Key West, letter 1

Back in the early 1970s, when I was living the life of a beach bum in Key West, I’d go down to AT&T beach at night, stretch out upon the still-warm sand and gaze at the multi-colored lights flashing far out at sea. I knew that the flickering lights marked the coral reef five miles off-shore, but that was the extent of my knowledge then. During the day, I’d put in my full eight hours on the beach, snorkeling and drowsing in the sun, hanging out with friends. There is an Italian phrase for this sort of existence (although I didn’t learn it until much later): Dolce far niente. It means, literally, “sweet doing nothing,” and that pretty much sums up life in Key West back then.

The Beach Bum years

Coming from Iowa, I was, for a time, largely content to snorkel among the crumbling pilings of the old pier near Vernon Street, where schools of fishes darted in and out of concrete blocks, and on the small patch reefs beyond the sea grass beds. But still, I wondered what lay beneath the water marked by the lights. Mysteries feed on time, and as the months went by the beacons became for me what the light at the end of Daisy’s pier was to Jay Gatsby: the symbol of an obsession.

Finally, I talked my friend Cory into taking me out in a borrowed boat. It was not the best weather for such an excursion. A tropical storm was caroming around the Caribbean and the water out at the reef was dotted with whitecaps. At one point we saw four separate water-spouts writhing like immense snakes between the sea and the leaden sky. I was having second thoughts about the trip, but Cory was a Conch, a Key West native, and so by definition a bit crazy. He wasn’t about to let a few waterspouts spoil our fun.

“Nothing to worry about,” he yelled as I kept an eye on the waterspouts. So I convinced myself that I wasn’t afraid – not much of a feat when you’re young – and dived into the water.

Credit: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

There is another phrase, much used today, that applied to what I experienced that afternoon on the reef: “information overload.” I actually remember very little of what I saw on that first trip. There was simply too much to see, and none of it fit into the world I had known up until then. But I vividly recall the feeling that I had somehow stumbled into a different universe, one constructed of bright colors and populated with exquisite and bizarre creatures.

I have returned many times over the past two decades and the thrill of the reef remains just as overpowering, and the miracle of life there just as ineffable as they were back then. It is this sense of wonder and magic on the reef that I want most to convey – that and the fact that this unique and enigmatic underwater realm may be fading from our world.

What follows isn’t a scholarly treatise on coral reefs. It is a natural history of coral reefs, and of humanity’s relationship to them, written by a lay person for lay people. Whether the work turns out to be an ode or an elegy is still very much an open question, and the answer lies – where else? – in our hands.

Preface to The Enchanted Braid: Coming to Terms with Nature on the Coral Reef, 1998.

Key West, letter 2

An Open Letter to Governor Crist

Florida on Saving Florida (we need an International Fleet of Supertankers now)

Conch Republic flag (Key West)

The State of Florida cannot count on BP or the Federal Government to stop the oil from destroying our waters and coastlines. Our fishing and tourism industries are too important to rely on their dithering. In spite of budgetary woes, Florida must save Florida now.

Here is how we can best use our money and resources:

As soon as possible, a flotilla of super tankers should be stationed areas where the oil enters the Loop Current and pump it up – not only the surface oil but also the deeper oil which will have more toxic dispersants. Tankers and fleets of commercial, recreational boats and, why not? large cruise ships should be fitted with pumps and holding tanks to assist and be ready to move when oceanography specialists see where the flow will be the heaviest. Flexibility is the key.

We should consult other countries with spill experience, especially Australia and the Scandinavian countries. Any foreign assistance should be encouraged and gratefully accepted.

This won’t get all the oil but, because the West Florida’s coasts are relatively shallow, retrieving significant amounts is feasible and we could prevent large amounts of oil from entering the Florida Straits and going up the East Coast of Florida to Maine, to Europe and beyond.

All revenues from oil captured in Florida’s waters should be used in the clean-ups that will be necessary for years to come. And a big fat bill sent to BP.

Sincerely Yours,
Joel Biddle
*Former Educational Director, Reef Relief
Key West, Florida

*Organization listed for identification purposes only