Tag: Gulf Oil Spill

Truth…Where Are You?

Truth…Where Are You?

SimoneLipscombToday I was reminded of how a lack of clarity can be brutal to a person’s psyche. It’s just been a strange day. I got an email that ripped the understanding of my world apart, saw a person dead, passed out or asleep in a ditch in front of a tavern, and pushed myself hard cycling for 25 miles hoping it would burn off the crazy. It didn’t work. I finished the ride and was just hot, sweaty and still crazy.

Another email supposedly clarifying the first one left me more confused and more crazy-feeling. Just speak plainly. Just tell me the truth. Thank you.

IMG_2333But truth is in short supply.

People are sorting through half-truths all over the planet. Who can tell a lie from the truth when words are coming from a politician’s mouth? Is the government lying about how much oil leaked from Shell’s pipes in the Gulf a few weeks ago. Do corporations lie to avoid fines or criminal charges? Shot a gorilla in a zoo because their tranquilizer gun was where? Pesticides are safe. GMO’s are safe.  It’s okay to destroy the planetary ecosystems because….what is the ‘truth’ today? In your life? In mine? For our planet?

People seem to say anything that will get them what they want, regardless of the percentage of fact included. Why is honesty such a skittish commodity?

SimoneLipscomb (1)Telling the truth may create reactions in others that are scary. If we really knew how much harm we do to our bodies by ingesting pesticide-ridden food would we rise up and grow our own? Would we ditch medical practices that are more harmful than good? The atmosphere itself seems congested with lies that protect corporations, governments, the 1%….. and damn all other life on the planet.

SimoneLipscomb (6)What started as a simple question, early this morning, snowballed into this thesis–or rant–on half-truths and created a wave of crazy in me that longs for truth, even if it hurts, even if its scary. I want all things hidden to be exposed. I want the government, corporations, politicians and every single one of us to let go of the fear of speaking the truth. Or is the fear that we simply cannot handle the truth?

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

Let’s start with honesty and build on that. Shall we? I can handle the truth. Can you?



The Bottom Line is Love

The Bottom Line is Love



Eva Saulitis
Eva Saulitis

Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas, was written by Eva Saulitis. It’s a very personal story of over twenty-five years of connection with transient orcas in Alaska. In this touching account Eva shares the life and death of a pod of orcas that lived near the Exxon Valdez spill area. While it is beautifully written, it’s also incredibly sad for not only does she tell the story of their death, she tells the story of her untimely death due to cancer.

And it makes me wonder…..what about the Gulf Coast? What will happen to those of us who worked to clean up the spill or document its affects? 

The BP Deepwater Horizon spill was far worse in volume that Valdez. The coverage area, humans exposed, wildlife exposed….what will be the long-term story that unfolds along the Gulf Coast?


Internet image of orcas
Internet image of orcas

While reading Into Great Silence, there were many times I paused to contemplate the profound love Eva had for the whales and their waters…the forests surrounding them…the bears….salmon….seals….dolphins. Here’s a excerpt from page 92:

9 July 1989–Yesterday, Mary and I hiked on Crafton Island, not realizing it had been heavily oiled. We found an oil-coated river otter skull. Even the grass above tide line was black. I told Mary about the first time I’d come there. One spring day in 1987, a fisherman friend had invited me for a skiff ride. It was an old, wooden skiff, and he’d perched atop the outboard’s cowling so the engine wouldn’t fall off. Here, I told Mary, was where we’d searched for glass balls among bleached driftwood. Here’s where we’d found wild irises. here’s where we’d sat on the wreck of an old boat and talked all afternoon. I’d never met anyone so earthy, so entirely of a place, embodying an all-out, organic love for the Sound. I’d only begun to recognize that in myself. “Why aren’t you married to him?” Mary asked. I told her I was married to the place.

SimoneLipscomb (4)I remember walking on a beach at the Alabama coast that was heavily oiled– my eyes and throat burning from the smell of crude oil and dispersant– asking myself why I was there. For a week of each month for a year I left my home in Asheville and my husband to travel to my place of birth to document through photography and writing the effects of the disaster. Why am I doing this? I asked.

SimoneLipscomb (3)It was grueling, depressing, hot, horrible work. I had the freedom to leave whenever I wanted to escape the black death that coated the beaches and the stench of hot fumes filling the air. Every time I began to drive into the mountains of North Georgia, on my way back to North Carolina, I remember feeling relief, feeling I could breathe again. It felt as if a weight lifted off of my chest as I made my way home. To safety. To clean air.

Adjusting to being away from the disaster was difficult though. I was so depressed it was almost impossible for me to invite laughter or pleasure into my life. I felt guilty for enjoying myself given the dire circumstances at the coast. It felt as if the world was ending and life as I had known it was gone due to a needless, careless catastrophe.

SimoneLipscomb (6)So back to the question: Why am I doing this? 

The only answer that ever came was….someone needed to witness the disaster with an open heart and mind. Not as scientist or politician or oil company representative….just a witness that loved the place.

So I visited seven beaches for a year and walked them, photographed, took video footage of them and wrote about them. My tears mixed with the oily waters of the Gulf of Mexico and I stood as witness to the pain and suffering of life there.

SimoneLipscomb (23)This kind of experience changes a person. Something happens within the mind and heart that shifts the perspective so completely that life can never return to how it was before. A person cannot return to ‘not knowing’ what they know. They can’t un-see or un-feel the multitude of visual images and emotions that were experienced on those wounded shores.

My heart broke for the ghost crabs and blue crabs, the flounders, shrimp, fish, dolphins, string rays, sea gulls, terns, osprey, pelicans….for the humans that would eventually become sick from exposure to such high-levels of toxicity. Nothing is the same after witnessing this.

_TSL1859 1.08.19 PM-2I was certain that humans would awaken and create immediate and lasting change after the spill, but it didn’t happen. This was incredibly disappointing to me.

After documenting the spill and its aftereffects I noticed people responded strongly to images of beauty and stories of nature depicting the profound relationship experienced with wild places and wild life. It felt like a natural evolution of my work and efforts to shift from death and destruction to beauty, specifically the beauty of the Ocean.

I haven’t forgotten what awakened my own sense of urgency to protect our planet, our Ocean. And the deep sense of place it instilled.

Eva reminded me of the love we develop for places that touch our lives. We become a part of these places and the more we invest our time, energy and work into them, the deeper the connection we have with them. Their wounding becomes our wounding. Their health, our health. Their death, our death…metaphorically and literally.

Why do we risk our own safety to help? The bottom line is love.

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Photograph by Brent Durand of me diving in the Sea of Cortez.


This is Why I Cried

This is Why I Cried

IMG_3140Driving to the state park to walk with Buddy, I was listening to the Eagles Long Road Home. Glenn Frey is gone? He wasn’t a personal friend but the music of the Eagles was the soundtrack of my youth. Peaceful, Easy Feeling is probably my favorite of their earlier songs and brings back the innocence of younger days. The song that spoke to me this morning was one from their more recent work and tears flowed as it played….”I’m not gonna say a word. I know I can’t change your mind. You know where you need to go. I know I’ll be left behind. I won’t hold you back, I won’t stand in your way. If you need to make a new start…But I still wanna know when my arms let you go…what do I do with my heart.” I was sitting in my husband’s blue truck when I first heard this song and realized our relationship was slipping away. Nearly four years have passed since I last saw him and when this song plays that memory rushes in.

800_1368But it wasn’t just a love song and music from my young adult years that touched me the past few days. David Bowie died of cancer. Then Alan Rickman (Snape…Harry Potter). But Eva Saulitis died, too. She was a marine biologist that documented the decline of an transient orca population in Alaska that has never produced a surviving calf since the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. As Krista Langlois said, “Her own life and those of the orcas were spiraling into the sea together.” Eva died of cancer. Bowie died of cancer. Rickman….and countless others whose name we will never know died of cancer….are dying of cancer. Epidemic?

Photograph Summer 2010...Shell Oil
Photograph Summer 2010…Shell Oil…Courtesy BP 

Recently President Obama said he was forming a new initiative to cure cancer. I appreciate your work Mr. President but it’s not a cure we need…it’s prevention. It’s cleaning our polluted waters and sky. We are poisoning the planet and therefore we are poisoning ourselves. Orcas are at the very top of the food chain and therefore consume the highest level of toxins. It’s the same with humans.

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

Times like this morning, when death and planetary challenges seem so evident, are a knock on my inner door. When I was a teenager we knew fossil fuels were problematic yet nothing changed. We were told to turn off lights back in the 1970’s to conserve energy but solar and wind development took a back seat for decades. There have been improvements…remember Erie Canal being so polluted it caught on fire? Thankfully the EPA tightened restrictions on much of the industrial processes.

Gulf State Park Summer 2010
Gulf State Park Summer 2010

Given all this…how can anyone suggest lessening EPA standards and regulations? We know that corporate industry will do anything to save money, to make more profit. Deregulation would increase already polluted waters and land and air. Why is this even a political battle? Anyone with an active, healthy brain can easily see the link between cancer and human-created environmental pollution and toxins. How could anyone who cares about their health or the health of children vote for candidates who lobby against the environment?

_TSL1690My heart breaks over pollution and toxins that are killing our wildlife….killing us. Take that Eagles song and sing it to our Earth Mother and all life on this sacred planet…”Tell me you’re not leavin’ now, Tell me you’re not leavin’…..Tell me that you’re gonna stay, Please say you’ll stay with me, baby….For this and this alone I pray, Fall down on my knees and pray…I’ll do anything. Yes, I would to save what we have, To keep you by my side…I’ll love you ’til death do us part….But what do I do, what do I do when I’m still missing you? What do I do…what do I do with my heart?”

SimoneLipscomb (1)Innocent no longer….the carefree days of youth have passed. The loss we face is much greater than a lover or music icon or actor or even a diligent marine biologist. We are at the brink of losing much more than we can even imagine. This is why my heart breaks. This is why I cried today.


The New Normal

The New Normal

SimoneLipscomb (10)The usual situation of having at least three books going at once gave a strange coincidence last week. On the sofa I was reading, Telling Our Way to the Sea, by Aaron Hirsh. The book is about two college professors who take students to the Sea of Cortez via the Baja Peninsula. The quote that caught my eye? “We live amid wreckage yet we hardly notice that something has changed. Why are we so blind to the destruction–so forgetful of what was here? Knowing only the natural world we’ve encountered in the short interval of a life, we fail to notice the substantial transformations wrought by previous generations; and so we over look the absence of all that was already gone when we ourselves first arrived on the scene.”

SimoneLipscomb (5)Then migration to the bedroom and the book on the bedside table about the Amazon River, Mother of God, by Paul Rosolie, presents this quote on the same evening: “I have witnessed a kind of generational amnesia to ecological abundance. It is a sinister phenomenon whereby members of each generation seem to accept what they see around them as the way things ought to be. It is a problem of shifting baselines, a lowering of the standards by which we judge the condition of our environment. Over generations and across continents, this collective inability to accurately assess environmental change has become a serious problem.”

SimoneLipscomb (4)From May 1st through August 31st I walk one morning a week at sunrise looking for sea turtle tracks–evidence of a nest—as a sea turtle volunteer. The mile and a half section I walk begins at the wildlife refuge and goes eastward. The first part is in an exclusive, gated development but it isn’t immune to litter. And not just a plastic bottle here and there. Metal tent frames are abandoned here just like all along our Alabama beaches. People leave tents, ice chests, beer bottles and cans, plastic water bottles, chairs, plastic toys, cigarette butts, kites and string, fireworks, balloon remnants, diapers, condoms….it’s an endless list of nasty human waste and the weird thing is people walk by like it’s not even there.

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

Tar balls, oil containers, gas containers, antifreeze containers….doesn’t seem to faze our tourists or those that live on the beach.

simonelipscomb (1)Drilling in ocean water too deep to be safe…drilling in sensitive environments like the Arctic…fracking shale near homes, schools, playgrounds…clearcutting forests….overfishing…dumping sewage in the sea…violence against the planet, wildlife, humans….yet we seem numb, immune.

simonelipscomb (6)Are we so used to trash, pollution and rape of the planet as the norm it no longer affects us? S.N.A.F.U. I suppose. Seriously S.N.A.F.U. Sadly so. I don’t like this new normal. How about you?

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 during the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster. It reminds me of a woman’s body and so I call it the Rape of Mother Earth



Can Science, Common Sense & Compassion Co-Exist?

Can Science, Common Sense & Compassion Co-Exist?

IMG_9945The shell was still warm from saltwater. The perfectly formed brown and cream-colored swirls of calcium carbonate dried quickly in my hand. The empty shell was an unexpected gift, a reminder of the beauty and mystery of life in the sea.

I walked eastward in the pre-dawn light searching along the high-tide line for sea turtle tracks. The calm, clear water of the Gulf of Mexico reflected soft, pastel light that illuminated my early-morning walk with exquisite colors that made me yearn for my big Nikon…left behind on this sea turtle patrol.

IMG_9959The only tracks I discovered were those of a four-wheeled type driven by a biologist and crew who have been studying sea turtles in Alabama since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Over the past five years they have satellite tagged, drawn blood samples, conducted DNA tests and other measurable markers on our sea turtles in an effort to study where they feed and live…and probably gather a little data for evidence in the BP Deepwater Horizon legal case.

IMG_9961A report compiled by the Ocean Conservancy in 2014 stated that 1149 sea turtles were collected during the BP oil spill from April 30, 2010 to April 12, 2011. Of those 613 were dead. Out of the total number of sea turtles collected, 809 were Kemps Ridley’s…a highly endangered species. And 481 of those were dead. “Tens of thousands of sea turtles were located in coastal waters within the surface oil extent and were exposed to oil.” There were 278 sea turtle nests relocated from the Northern Gulf Coast that produced 14,700 hatchlings.

SimoneLipscomb (1)So there is a need to study sea turtles in our area and while the study sounds great, there are some things to consider. First, the satellite tags are attached to the shell with epoxy which gets quite hot as it hardens. There are nerve endings in the shell or carapace so sea turtles so they actually feel the burning of the epoxy as it hardens. When a female has completed her exhausting nesting process–heaving her 350 pound body out of the water and crawling in soft sand, digging a hole with her rear flippers, laying maybe 120 eggs, covering the hole and crawling back towards the water–she is corralled by two-legged beings, ‘burned’ with epoxy, poked with needles and held captive until the ‘glue’ hardens and the scientists have everything they need from her. Then she is released and must crawl back into the water…after being exhausted from nesting and ‘harassment’ by the team.

Harassment, in terms of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is any human-generated behavior that causes a wild animal to change his or her behavior…including feeding, watering, touching, chasing, injuring, changing habitat, etc.

SimoneLipscomb (5)No matter how much good the data does the scientists…or sea turtles…it is a very stressful process for the mother turtles.

According to a report released by the biologist, they have tagged 59 females (that’s perhaps 15% of the Northern Gulf of Mexico population…a large sample for scientists). They concluded that one-third of the small and declining population live year-round in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. They want to continue tracking and studying sea turtles to test whether they revisit the same feeding areas and this gives new possibilities for management and conversation practices.

What if 15% of the total population…the tagged turtles…. are in some way damaged from the very process that is supposed to help the species? How many tagged sea turtles is enough? How much data is enough?

SimoneLipscomb (6)I have attended two of the debriefings done by the scientists after their tagging season here and saw how the data and the drive for more data seemed to overshadow the species they intend to protect. Watching the scientists light up when describing numbers or capturing male loggerheads by jumping on their backs while the turtles are swimming… bothered me. Is collection of data the prize, the goal? How does long-term concern of the individually tagged animals enter into the equation? It’s easy for humans to say, it doesn’t hurt the turtles, but where is long-term research and evidence to back-up that statement?

The government won’t take action against business unless there are very specific and detailed data showing how the species is being harmed from corporate functions (fossil fuel industry as one example, commercial fisheries is another). So scientists have to focus on numbers…the only thing the government seems to understand….or maybe the only thing scientists understand. It could be very easy to lose track of the health of individual animals while wanting to save an entire species. But this only supposition on my part.

SimoneLipscomb (4)For many years I have volunteered with wildlife biologists and most are very dedicated, caring individuals. I have had discussions with some of them about the issues addressed in this commentary. I hope they can understand how their actions might look to those of motivated to act solely out of compassion and love.

Weather in which northern flying squirrels are removed from nesting boxes and processed for data
Weather in which northern flying squirrels are removed from nesting boxes and processed for data

Waking an endangered northern flying squirrel in the high altitudes of the Blue Ridge Mountains during intense cold to weigh them, measure their back leg and tag them seems edgy. But they must have their numbers to justify continued endangered status. I assisted with this research and it bothered me because it seemed to endanger an endangered species…to collect data to justify its status as endangered. (Twisted??)

Sea turtles here in Alabama have been poked, prodded, tagged now for the past several years. Can’t they just be left to nest in peace? But no, numbers are needed…more, more, more numbers.

While earning my undergraduate degree at Auburn University I took a wildlife conservation class and learned the history of this endeavor. Science has evolved through the years and thankfully moved to a more compassionate way of studying species, but I think it has a long way to go.

My theory: Scientists become hyper-focused on numbers and data because that’s the only way they can get the money to fund more studies to prove to the government that the species is endangered, threatened or healthy. I can imagine that their original intention to help wildlife must become a frustration to them as they have to work within a broken system focused on money, money…money.

Last night I was reading a chapter in a book by Jim Nollman. It was about his time spent with orca in Buddy’s Cove, British Columbia.  He describes the non-stop ‘researchers’ who visit the whales and spend hours each day in small boats chasing them or the film crews who are equally aggressive in their pursuit of orca. Their justification is to help orca but in the truest sense, this is harassment. And the government issues permits to allow it.

SimoneLipscomb (3)I totally understand the need to study wild animals in order to provide data that gives proof to the government of what’s supposedly happening so that laws and rules and status changes can be implemented. But a red flag seems appropriate to raise when the welfare of the species they are trying to ‘protect’ comes into question from the research practices. Animals harassed long-term due to research become stressed. Perhaps we need to look at the practices of science that insist on data to prove anything. So it’s not as simple as finger-pointing at the government or corporations or scientists. Perhaps the process of research has never really taken deeper issues of quality of life and respect into consideration.

Can science, common sense and compassion coexist? It is a question yet to be answered. The sea holds many mysteries. Humans who think they can unravel the mysteries without common sense and compassion will never fully understand the very thing they think they are protecting. I wonder if some scientists feel as if they have to sell their soul, little-by-little, as they work within such a warped model to protect wildlife that live in environments highly damaged due to human exploitation.

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Humans can justify just about anything in the name of science. Governments can refuse to take protective action unless there are years of data. Corporations know this and profit from it. And what about the wildlife? Indeed…what about the wildlife.

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