Dolphins joined the reef rodeo festivities in Louisiana
By Jay Harrod
On Earth Day 2010, I visited Grand Isle, Louisiana, to celebrate an oyster reef restoration project that had just gotten underway. Everyone knew at the time that the Deepwater Horizon oil well had blown just two days earlier, resulting in the tragic deaths of 11 workers. But none of us knew the explosion would also result in an massive oil spill that would become the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Recently, I visited Grand Isle again, this time following the completion of the 1.66-mile oyster reef project there, which was postponed for seven months following the spill. I was to be among some two dozen kayakers participating in a Nature Conservancy hosted “Reef Rodeo” on April 2. While the anglers logged the species and size of each fish they caught near the newly completed reefs and that data will make up a very small part of a comprehensive study by Louisiana State University, the event was really about celebrating the project’s completion and the benefits the reefs provide.
What might matter most to the residents of Grand Isle is that these reefs lessen the wave energy that erodes their island. But the benefit on the mind of most folks who’d come to fish the rodeo was that the three-feet-high structures provide outstanding habitat for shrimp, crabs, small fish and the game fish that feed on them. Several of the rodeo participants, including two locals, knew that fisherman had been reporting nice catches near the reefs.
Just after sun up, the group pushed their kayaks into the calm water and paddled towards the reefs. The temperature was in the mid-60s, the high was to be around 80, the humidity was low, and the sun was rising over clouds that lingered on the horizon, creating shades of purple, blue, red, orange and gold as the rays shimmered on the water in front of me. I was there to get to take photos and video footage. Lucky me, I thought. And although the fishing that day ended up being a bit slow, I don’t think I was alone in my thinking. (The group ended up logging 51 catches, which included redfish and speckled trout.)
It felt good to be out in a natural system teeming with life – a place that I, as well as the people who were there to fish, had a hand in helping. Migrating songbirds were replenishing themselves at the island’s forested preserve after making the long journey across the Gulf of Mexico. Least terns were diving into the water after fish they’d spotted. Pelicans stood their posts. And gulls swarmed moving bait fish as a flock of geese soared above.
Then, some 300 yards from me, I spotted splashing and swells in the water. Dolphins! Maybe those who frequent the Gulf don’t get excited at the sight of these amazing creatures, but I live in a landlocked state and have only seen them in the wild a few times. And I’ve never had the chance to kayak among them. I paddled hard and was pleasantly surprised to see they were moving slowly. It appeared to me as though they were playing. As I neared them, one approached my kayak. All I could see was its tail, which slapped the water every four feet or so as it slowly made its way towards me. It came within a foot or so of the boat, then darted away with speed that made me blurt out loud, “Wow!”
I guess there must have been 30 dolphins there, many of which circled my kayak, and occasionally one would speed towards my kayak, creating a torpedo-like wave, before diving under it.
As I drove back from Grand Isle, I recalled how depressed I felt each day the oil well remained uncapped. I remembered laying in bed awake thinking, how many days now? How many barrels?
Because the effects of the oil spill aren’t fully understood, and may not be for many years to come, it bothers me when some people speak – with seemingly great authority – that its damage to the environment was nominal. For instance, we don’t yet know what effects the oil and dispersants will have on bluefin tuna, which spawn at just two places in the entire world, one of which is the northern Gulf of Mexico… in very close proximity to the site of the spill. And we don’t know how the spill will affect endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, which, after hatching from their nests along the Texas coast last spring, made their way to Louisiana’s waters to feed on crabs. The list goes on and on, but that’s a different story.
As I drove, however, my thoughts eventually lingered on what I had experienced that morning. Natural beauty. Wildlife. And the chance to share these things with other people who love the Gulf. My thoughts then turned to hope. I passed dozens of shrimp boats that are now once again catching shrimp rather than cleaning oil. And I thought that very soon, maybe even by Earth Day, The Nature Conservancy will begin another oyster reef restoration project at St. Bernard Marsh. The workers who’ll build the “living reef” will be based out of Hopedale, Louisiana – the same site as BP’s command center during the oil spill. Beautiful irony for sure.
I’m hopeful because I know the restoration sites in Louisiana are among many similar efforts throughout the Gulf. And these oyster reef projects make up just one part of what the Conservancy and its partners are doing to protect and restore the Gulf.
And I’m hopeful because I know I work for an organization that is supported by the gifts of people who care and share my in hope, too.
Want to help? Let’s ensure that fines from the oil spill stay in the Gulf and are used for its restoration.
Jay is a senior communications manager for The Nature Conservancy who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.