Category: BP Oil Spill

What Have We Learned?

What Have We Learned?

It’s been ten years today.

I was leading a night dive in Curacao and surfaced, tasting oil in my air tank. None of the others on the dive had that issue. And my air proved to be fine…but I tasted oil.

I hadn’t been watching the news, was unplugged from social media. Didn’t know until two days later, when I was in the Atlanta airport, that the BP Deepwater Horizon had exploded on April 20, 2010. Eleven men were killed and on the 22nd the rig sank.

After documenting the oil spill for a year on the Alabama Gulf Coast, I thought it would be the wake-up event that would shake the world. I was wrong. Completely wrong. As soon as the well was capped…which wasn’t soon–85 days, 16 hours and 25 minutes–that mile-deep gusher polluted the Gulf of Mexico.

Chemical dispersants were used that made the spill MUCH worse than letting the oil float to the surface for removal. I watched tide pools of fizzing oily water along the beach and witnessed the destruction first-hand.

My heart broke open. I felt grief beyond anything I had known. I felt anger. I felt shame at being human and part of the problem. And now, ten years later, I feel rather hopeless because there wasn’t an awakening…for some of us, sure. But overall…now regulations are fewer and more lax thanks to the current USA administration…worse than before the spill.

We have an even greater opportunity to awaken on a worldwide level with a tiny virus making a huge impact. My greatest fear is we will not take advantage of this opportunity to make major changes that will improve the health of all life on planet Earth…and that would be the saddest of all outcomes. With such a high death toll my prayer is that it will fuel a world-wide awakening to positive change so these deaths will not have been in vain.

I wasn’t going to write about the oil spill disaster today but how could I not? It was an awakening for me and I will never be the same. Which is a good thing because I won’t go back to sleep…ever.

How did that disaster affect you? Change you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

P.S. I don’t know why I tasted oil in the air that night in Curacao but I suspect on some level I sensed what happened. We are One, connected to all life. Perhaps my cetacean self got the message loud and clear.

Five Years Later

Five Years Later

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Summer 2010
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Summer 2010

I stood on the shore of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, early summer 2010 with tears streaming down my face. I had just called the hotline to report oil on the pristine, sugar-white sand. I thought that finally people would awaken and forge a new path of care and love for this Ocean planet. Five years have passed and the fervor to find and extract oil, at any cost, has escalated. And there are more spills worldwide, more toxic wastes generated by fracking operations and more earthquakes near fracking zones. The Atlantic coast is being opened to offshore drilling. The Arctic is open for drilling. Politicians are systematically trying to dismantle protected areas in states and federal lands.

Gulf of Mexico today
Gulf of Mexico today

As I sit on the sandy, Gulf beach watching the chocolate-colored waves, at least there is no benzene smell or globs of fizzing crude oil washing ashore. The dark water is from recent heavy rains. The salt breeze carries the smell of incense, an offering to the spirits of this magnificent body of water. I ask for forgiveness on behalf of all humans.

Common Loon resting on the beach this afternoon
Common Loon resting on the beach this afternoon

I reflect on John Muir’s life, one that was dedicated to preserving sacred places of unparalleled natural beauty and the success that came from his unrelenting love of nature. He saw the Divine in nature and viewed it as a direct reflection of God. Places like Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Mt. Rainer, Petrified Forest are a small sample of areas Muir helped preserve. He petitioned Congress for a National Park bill and in 1890 it passed.

Photograph Summer 2010...Shell Oil
Photograph Summer 2010…Shell Oil

“The radiance in some places is so great as to be fairly dazzling, keen lance rays of every color flashing, sparkling in glorious abundance, joining the plants in their fine, brave beauty-work–every crystal, every flower a window opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator.” John Muir.

Photograph Summer 2010 Gulf State Park Pier
Photograph Summer 2010 Gulf State Park Pier

“Keep close to Nature’s heart, yourself and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean from the earth-stains of this sordid, gold-seeking crowd in God’s pure air….Don’t lose your freedom and your love of the Earth as God made it.” John Muir.

Photograph I took Summer 2010. It reminds me of a woman's body and so I call it the Rape of Mother Earth
Photograph I took Summer 2010. It reminds me of a woman’s body and so I call it the Rape of Mother Earth

Lately, as I’ve read about seemingly endless assaults on nature and attempts to sell it to the highest bidder for fossil fuel and about sonar testing that deafens cetaceans, sentencing them to death, I have become increasingly disturbed. The grief and despair I felt during the year I documented the oil disaster has been touched and the wound opened again and again.

Photography taken Summer 2010 Orange Beach, Alabama
Photograph taken Summer 2010 Orange Beach, Alabama

I wrote this in August 2010:

“This morning I sat weeping for the birds, oysters, shrimp, crabs….for us all. As I breathed in the stillness of the dawn I felt sadness that we have collectively created such imbalance on this beautiful planet. Inhaling, exhaling…pausing to touch the grief within me….how did it get so messed up?

We have become so dependent on practices that destroy our world, there is no easy way to stop them. The oil industry is woven into the fabric of life in Louisiana along with the Gulf’s bounty. Maybe the problem began when we considered only what could be produced from the Gulf.

But it goes beyond the Gulf Oil Spill Crisis–way beyond to the collective intention to consume, to conquer without regard for what it does to the planet that, quite literally, gives us life. Where did this short-sighted way of thinking begin?

I weep for our ignorance and the destruction it keeps in motion. I weep for political polarization that puts power on a pedestal over compassion and caring. We are lost in fighting battles that pull us apart and weaken us.

When will we stop and breathe together in silence? When we will awaken from our slumber and join hands to work to save our planet, to save ourselves?”

Common Loon friend that shared the beach with me today as I reflected on the past five years
Common Loon friend that shared the beach with me today as I reflected on the past five years

Today, almost five years later, the same questions still haunt my mind every day. When will we stop and breathe together in silence? When we will awaken from our slumber and join hands to work to save our planet, to save ourselves?

Yet there is hope for there are still people who care, who love Nature and understand that humans are part of it, not above it. There are many who understand the necessity for living in balance and who grasp that the mindset of ‘more at any cost’ is no longer a valid way to successfully exist. We sell our own souls when we auction nature to the highest bidder.

Photograph from Summer 2010
Photograph from Summer 2010

So how can we stay positive? Hopeful? By reaching out to each other in love and by treading as gently as possible on this sacred Ocean planet. And practicing simple, yet collectively powerful steps such as these: turn off lights not in use; don’t use disposable plastic bottles; use water sparingly; adjust the thermostat two degrees and save energy and money; recycle; re-use; opt out of the mindset that new electronics must be purchased each time a new version is released; get by with less ‘stuff,’ buy locally-grown foods’ celebrate the beauty of nature each day; participate in efforts to make a positive difference.

Photograph today at Gulf State Park. During the oil disaster this area was saturated with fizzing, oily sludge
Photograph today at Gulf State Park. During the oil disaster this area was saturated with fizzing, oily sludge

Now is not the time to give up. Now is the time to celebrate beauty found in nature and in human hearts everywhere.

Planet Ocean

Planet Ocean

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Seventy-one percent of our planet is water. Two hundred miles offshore from each land mass we find international waters; therefore, 45% of the planet belongs to nobody.  Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance, spoke last night in Pensacola and shared about the research they are doing in the Gulf of Mexico. He and Dr. Roger Payne, President of Ocean Alliance, talked about shining light on problem to effect change. Their presentation certainly gave a clear picture of problems our water planet is facing but they also gave us hope that collectively we can make positive change.

simonelipscomb (27)The Gulf of Mexico has 21 species of whales which include dolphin species. Sperm whales are included in our permanent Gulf residents. The largest apex predator in the Ocean calls the Gulf home.

simonelipscomb (28)Those present last night were reminded that the Gulf of Mexico is a microcosm of the larger Ocean system and that oceans are downhill from everything. Here are some interesting facts: 50-80% of all life is found in the Ocean; 1.2 trillion gallons of sewage and waste water are dumped in the Ocean every year; 14 billion pounds of garbage is dumped in the Ocean each year. Yuck!

simonelipscomb (2)The Gulf has an estimated sperm whale population of 1600 and this is the species Ocean Alliance is studying. One of the reasons is that apex predators are at the top of the food chain and therefore, like humans, suffer the most ill effects of toxins and contaminates. From whales benignly sampled all over the world, their research has shown that the Gulf of Mexico has the highest levels of metal toxins. Their research on whale cells cultivated on board the RV Odyssey proved that very low levels of these metals are toxic to cells. Imagine what the elevated levels are doing to sperm whales…to you…to me.

simonelipscomb (22)Dr. Payne reminded us that the health of the Ocean affects our lives. If life in the Ocean dies, we die. It’s really that simple. Over half of the oxygen for our planet comes from the sea. If phytoplankton that produces this oxygen is destroyed by contaminants none of us will survive.

simonelipscomb (8)I took pages of notes last night and wish I had done so today while visiting the Odyssey, their research vessel. I chatted with a few of the crew who entertained questions and showed visitors the high-lights of their work.

Area showing sperm whale population...note it is in the same area as the BP Deepwater Horizon
Area showing sperm whale population…note it is in the same area as the BP Deepwater Horizon

Those of you familiar with me know the Ocean has claimed me as Her own and I simply try to be present and show up when opportunities are presented. Of course I was excited to learn about whale research but want to know this: Why aren’t there more organizations studying whales in the Gulf? Dr. Payne reminded us that apex predators such as sperm whales are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, giving us very clear indicators for not only Ocean health but human health. Do we just not want to know or maybe I should say who doesn’t want us to know what’s happening?

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Here’s a bottom line for those of us who live in the coastal region of the Gulf of Mexico: Nickel and chromium levels are alarmingly high. Can you guess where these heavy metals can come from? If you guessed crude oil you are right. (sigh)

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Dr. Payne concluded his presentation last night reminding us that people need to lead and we do that by the choices we make. The greatest illusion corporations want us to believe is that we are powerless and at their mercy. My friends, we are the masses, we have the power to instigate change and it begins by demanding change as a united group that puts the health of the planet, and thus humans, before profit. Every time we spend a dollar we are sending a message. What message do we choose to send? What do we believe? What do we create by our intention?

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Hydrophone cable is pulled behind the vessel and the crew listens for the very loud of sperm whales to determine location
Hydrophone cable is pulled behind the vessel and the crew listens for the very loud click…click…click of sperm whales to determine location

I could share facts about the work Ocean Alliance is doing in the Gulf of Mexico or specifics about their research vessel. I could tell you what I learned about their sampling methods and how data is used. You can find all of that on their website. The only thing I can really do is simply share how I felt listening to the program last night and spending a couple hours on their  vessel today.

simonelipscomb (24)Since documenting the BP Deepwater Horizon I have met some of the most incredible human beings who genuinely care about the planet and all life here. But sometimes when I read the never-ending depressing news about the latest species going extinct or the level of pollution or when I pick up garbage on my sea turtle walks, I feel very hopeless. Humans can be incredibly compassionate and caring and they can also be stupid and mean beyond understanding. I struggle with ongoing sadness and grief at what we do to this glorious Ocean planet. And then…well…then I’m guided to meet people who genuinely care and are working very hard to gather evidence that helps educate the rest of us..that can help species find greater levels of protection…or maybe even help set aside sanctuaries to protect vulnerable species.

When I meet others who share a passion for the Ocean and all life within it, I feel as if I have met family. We need to remember that all of us are family…in the truest sense of what family means. So tonight, as I try to put into words my gratitude for people like those who work with Ocean Alliance, I breathe a little easier. My heart’s a little bit lighter.

simonelipscombHere’s an example of how it can work: My artist cousin Donna emailed me a flyer about the Ocean Alliance program last night. I sent it out to several friends. Six of us showed up because she sent me a flyer. There were many more people there but think about that. If each of us connects with others to create positive change, the effort is magnified because of connections, networking, caring. One doesn’t equal one. One equals six…or twenty…or more! The more we share our ideas, information and even our emotions about what’s happening to our planet, ourselves, the greater possibility for change. Now is not the time to give up but rather the most important time to take magnificent care of our Planet Ocean.

Some of the visitors to RV Odyssey today...learning about our Gulf of Mexico and our friends, sperm whales
Some of the visitors to RV Odyssey today…learning about our Gulf of Mexico and our friends, sperm whales

Here’s just a few things we can each do on a daily basis: use re-usable water bottles and STOP purchasing plastic bottled water; use re-usable shopping bags and refuse plastic garbage bags; stop consuming so much ‘stuff’; recycle recycle recycle; grow our own food organically or purchase organic produce; stop using chemical fertilizers and don’t fertilize near waterways; eat less meat and use more vegetable protein; vote only for those who care about our planet and if you can’t find anybody that cares run for office and be a pivotal point for positive change; turn off lights; adjust the thermostat to save energy; write letters with positive ideas to corporate CEO’s; form support groups for positive change; reach out to neighbors to encourage positive change; get outside and reconnect with nature; driver slower…it saves gas; use LED light bulbs for amazing energy savings and looooong-lasting bulbs; turn off the water when you brush your teeth; keep showers short; turn down the thermostat on your hot water heater; carpool; combine trips for errands to use less fuel; ride a bicycle for errands; use energy-efficient appliances; pick up trash on beaches and near other waterways and ditches; pat yourself on the back for trying to do one thing every day to help the planet…after all, you’re helping yourself when you do.

I encourage everyone to share this blog post and to visit the Ocean Alliance webpage as well as their Facebook page. They need our support and deserve it for the incredible work they are doing to help our Gulf of Mexico…to help us.

simonelipscomb (4)For those still eating apex predators such as swordfish, blue fin tuna and even grouper here’s something to think about strictly from a human health perspective. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) degrade immune systems and can cause serious health consequences for species consuming them. They are man-made chemicals that find their way into the Ocean as runoff from everything upstream. Microscopic diatoms are contaminated by EDCs and since they are at the bottom of the food chain contaminate everything that eats them…and then the organisms and fish eating them that eat other fish all the way up the food chain build-up higher and higher levels of these toxins. So the top predators, like swordfish, tuna, humans, sperm whales get the highest doses of EDCs. The crew put together a little formula to consider when eating a one pound steak of swordfish…it takes 50 ten ton trucks of diatoms to create that one pound steak of swordfish. It’s like your liver (the detoxifying organ in the body) is hooked up to that many diatoms…and if they are polluted as well as other fish further up the food chain, you my friend have just dosed yourself with some pretty nasty chemicals. Maybe your swordfish didn’t eat contaminated fish who didn’t eat contaminated diatoms….but how can you tell?

Here’s a few side effects of EDCs: Increased rate of breast cancer, undescended testicles in boys, increased rate of prostate cancer, increased aggression in kids and increased rates of ADD and decreased sperm counts. If you’re really into swordfish and tuna and grouper…at least know what you are doing to your body. And what is happening in our Ocean….our one planetary Ocean.

Loving the Earth

Loving the Earth

photoLoving the Earth: Creating a Conscious Relationship with Our Planet

A slight breezed carried my SUP board downriver as I stopped paddling to watch a pair of bald eagles drag their talons along the surface of the water. Nearby great egrets crowned cypress trees, their white plumage dazzling against the background of blue sky. A mullet splashed in the mud-tinted water of the Magnolia River and brought my attention back from sky to earth. As my gaze turned downward a brown pelican folded her wings, as if in prayer, and dropped from the sky close to my board. All around life expressed in a beautiful ballet of balance with this lone patron admiring the dance. Bliss seemed shared by all but perhaps it might be better named communion.

Osprey...image taken in Florida last winter

One never knows what will be the call that brings us to our heart’s work. While I loved nature since childhood, I never felt the commitment…the calling…to dedicate my life’s work to it until the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. It felt as if everything in life stopped so I could focus entirely on the Gulf Coast and the amazing life in our coastal ecosystems. During the first days of oil washing ashore I remember thinking the end of the world had arrived. How could this happen?

This should never happen anywhere on our beautiful planet...let's unite in love and compassion and create the world we want to live in and leave for generations to come.

It’s easier to believe everything is okay than to pay attention to what’s really happening. I shared my book containing oil spill images with a cousin the other day that lives in Pensacola and she was shocked to see the reality I documented. There are people who live in Gulf Shores who still believe it wasn’t bad…that there wasn’t oil mixed with dispersant and it wasn’t fizzing in tidal pools of tiny fish gasping to their last breath. I know because I saw it first hand and stood on the beach weeping for every life I saw pass.

simonelipscomb (18)The most difficult thing I have ever experienced was witnessing the spill and its effects on innocent life which included small children playing in oily waters…so polluted that the benzene burned my eyes and throat. Video and photographs in my library document everything I saw but they can never share the true experience of grief beyond anything I’ve known.

A friend and mentor reminded me, during the first year of the spill, that there was a reason I was being called to witness the horror even though I might not understand why. Over four years have passed and I am more convinced that the only way to heal our broken planet is to heal our relationship with It and to heal our relationship with each other. That means healing our own lives.

SimoneLipscomb (8)The only solution I have found is to practice love…love as compassion…love as respect…love in the purest form of opening to surrender, to service.

When wild animals make contact with me I always feel so joyful!

Love for the planet requires opening the self. When we risk the deep opening of human heart to planetary heart we know the elation of unspeakable joy, of the heart’s expanding in answer to beauty. We also know the experience of grief and heartbreak when places, wildlife and humans we love are destroyed or profoundly injured.

One of my favorite places to celebrate life is under the Salt Pier on the island of Bonaire

Celebrating the beauty of the Magnolia River and other places of natural beauty relieves the grief that comes from being aware of the trials our planet is experiencing. There is resilience in nature and my hope is we will practice better stewardship before a non-reversible tipping point is reached.

SimoneLipscomb (25)As I remain engaged with nature’s rhythms through simple, daily observation and intention, I am drawn more deeply into partnership with the Earth. If we collectively open our hearts to loving this sacred planet, we can create a bond with each other that will transform darkness and create positive, lasting change.

Two Days Before Earth Day

Two Days Before Earth Day

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Curacao…a beautiful island in the southern Caribbean

Two days before Earth Day four years ago I was underwater. The strong taste of petroleum filled my mouth with every inhale. I signaled my dive buddies to surface under the star-filled night sky. Their air was fine. I didn’t know the source of the weird taste so we submerged but I stayed rather shallow and kept the dive brief.

I remember surfacing and turning back to look over my shoulder into the dark Ocean. A wind swept across the water and I felt a chill that shook my core. It was a very ominous way to end a dive.

simonelipscomb (15)A few days later I was sitting in the Atlanta airport after the flight from Curacao and saw the footage showing Deepwater Horizon in flames. When I am in the Caribbean I unplug as much as possible so had missed the news coverage of the explosion until I was almost back to Asheville. As I sat in disbelief on the vinyl-covered seat, clarity came and I knew it was time to go home.

Years ago I had promised the Gulf that I would help but didn’t know how. I heard a very distinct reply on the inner…You will know when it’s time to come home. The summons had been given. It was time.

I tracked the oil after arriving back to my mountain home and timed my arrival on the Alabama Coast, my birth place, a few days before the brown goo arrived. I wanted to document the unspoiled marshes and shores. I could sense the menace approaching but could do nothing except be a witness.

I remember one day I had been to Fort Morgan and was driving back to my mom’s on Bon Secour Bay. I stopped by a marsh and took photographs of large, orange boom in Mobile Bay. When I got back in the car I lost it. I mean really, really lost it. I started sobbing and screaming….how could we do this to our planet? It was as if I was experiencing a panic attack for our planet. I thought that I was witnessing the beginning of the end of life as we knew it.

One day as I walked the trail to the beach at Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge, I crested the top of the trail on the dune and saw before me a crime scene. Big blobs of smelly, brown goo were scattered all along the beach. I called the 800 number to report it and stayed for what seemed hours until somebody came to document it. Tearfully I sat on the sand and not knowing what to do I started singing to the Gulf of Mexico….I prayed and asked forgiveness for all humans. But mostly I grieved. My tears fell among crude oil staining the beach.

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When the oil first came ashore it was marked with driftwood and gloves…I couldn’t help but enjoy the message this glove was giving.

simonelipscomb (13)One week each month for the first year I returned to the Gulf of Mexico and documented seven areas of beach beginning at Fort Morgan and going to Fort Pickens, Florida. I remember a day in early July when I was standing at a tidal pool watching a little fish gasp in the grip of death as the bubbling crude oil, dispersant and salt water suffocated her. I was pretty close to the end of my coping skills. After days of breathing the benzene-ridden air, dealing with heat and the horrors of what I was witnessing I literally almost lost my shit, so to speak, watching that fish die.

simonelipscomb (9)Standing with tears flowing and sobbing I heard someone call my name. It jerked me out of the spiral of grief and I saw my friend Sherry, who I hadn’t seen in years, coming toward me. She gave me a big hug and we stood for a moment. I believe God or Mother Earth…or both… sent her to me that day. She was working on a clean-up crew and just ‘happened’ to be there.

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simonelipscomb (7)My spiritual practice of meditation helped me make it through that year. My friend and teacher from England pulled me aside at a workshop almost a year after the spill and asked how I was doing. I told her how difficult it was to witness such needless destruction. She told me that there was a reason I was witnessing it and to stand firm in my love of the planet. Many friends from all over the world followed my blog posts and sent support to the Gulf and all life within and around it. If my actions could bring the truth to a few people, it was worth it.

simonelipscomb (8)The process of personal healing has been long after that year. The journey back to wholeness led me to return home permanently to the Gulf Coast. While I haven’t really understood what my role here is now, I have enjoyed each moment spent with sea turtle hatchlings, manatees, ospreys, eagles….the salt marshes and river. The very things that broke my heart and spirit have been my healers.

simonelipscomb (17)Much of what I shared during the spill and cleanup was what was happening on the beaches. The personal struggle was small compared to the ecosystem and the community of relationships within it. Yet humans, too, are a part of the community of nature. We are deeply engaged in the cycle of life whether we acknowledge it or not.

simonelipscomb (23)A week with Joanna Macy in Rowe, Massachusetts, allowed a group of thirty of us, working to make a positive difference on the planet, have a safe place to facilitate our healing and help us understand the process that is happening globally. Perhaps the most important lesson learned that week was that all of us are needed to, step-by-step, be midwives to the Great Awakening or as Joanna calls it, The Great Turning.

simonelipscomb (18)We cannot afford the luxury of turning our eyes away from the horrendous abuses humans do to the planet, to animals, to each other. We are all connected…we are one family of life surviving on a living planet.

A kid's book I created to explain the oil spill in a simple, understandable way to all ages.
A kid’s book I created to explain the oil spill in a simple, understandable way to all ages.

This Earth Day, let us remember our connection to our magnificent planet…the Ocean, sea turtles, dolphins, whales, otters, rivers, osprey, eagles, the kid across the street, the massive oak trees and the tiniest flower. We are One.

simonelipscomb (21)The taste of petroleum in my regulator on the dive in Curacao couldn’t be explained. On an energetic level I believe I connected with the disaster happening in the Gulf of Mexico while I was in Curacao, in the southernmost island of the Caribbean. It showed me, without doubt, that I am connected to the Ocean…the One Ocean…and to all life. And so are you my friends

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To order my kid’s book on the oil spill or other books….please CLICK THIS LINK or visit Coastal Art Center in Orange Beach, AL or Page and Palette in Fairhope, AL.