Swirls of oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico
Dolphins burst through slicks of oil
Whales swim through oily water
A dolphin washed ashore
All photos © Matthew D. Potenski. Select images are available for non-commercial use by members of the Marine Photobank. Login or register for membership to access thousands of ocean conservation images.
Although thousands of viewers and readers followed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill through the media, very few people had an opportunity to witness it offshore. I was thrilled to be asked to participate in the assessment. My duties were to geospatially document whales, dolphins, and turtles in the oil. I took my camera to share what I saw with my family, but soon realized the importance of these images.
I was excited to go offshore via helicopter that first day, but the amount of oil overwhelmed my expectations. Horizon to horizon, the spill obscured much of what was in the water as the smell of petrochemicals permeated the cabin.
Arriving offshore, I heard the radio crackle with an overwhelming stream of reports noting the extent of the spill and sightings of whales. Two sperm whales were spotted within view of the wreck site. Our craft banked sharply and flew towards their reported location. We finally located two small wakes slowly being carved through the oil. As we approached the animals, a frustrating hopelessness gripped me, as all I could do was watch the tragedy unfold in the water below.
These two whales were plowing through the heavy crude close to the source. Awash in oil, they swam along the surface, undulating behemoths spouting and writhing in the water. Their heads appeared to turn left and right, ostensibly in attempts to make sense of what their world had become. We circled and photographed the two for as long as our flight plan and fuel would allow. With a final loop around the whales, we left them to their oily struggle.
The second day our flight traversed miles of royal blue water marred by parallel lines of orange-colored degraded oil called mousse. Peering intently, we spotted multiple splashes progressing rapidly across the surface. Directing the pilot towards these disturbances, we identified a pod of more than 150 striped dolphins swimming in broad lines across the orange-striped water. Dolphins both young and old would swim beneath the surface for short periods of time before blasting upward and becoming airborne for several yards to again vanish beneath the waves in incredible, synchronized splashes.
I shot frame after frame, mesmerized by the fantastic aerial acrobatics executed by the animals below. My excitement dissipated later that evening as I examined the images. The photos revealed oil sticking to the dolphins' bodies as they sailed through the air towards open water. These dolphins could not distinguish oil from water. Animals emerging from beneath the mousse were coated in oil. When I thought about how the oil was affecting their eyes, skin, blowholes, and open mouths, I felt morosely ill.
Biologists at the scene expressed great concern for the long-term effects the oil and dispersants could have on the animals in the Gulf. The increased numbers of marine mammal and sea turtle strandings following the spill confirmed their concerns. Scientists continue to assess the health of the Gulf and her many creatures. Unfortunately, the total effects may never be known, as baseline information on populations in the Gulf of Mexico was less than adequate.
The longer I rode in the helicopters those first few weeks, the further my heart sank. I felt a great human shame for the tragedy unfolding beneath my feet as miles of oily water passed below. Humanity had failed its fundamental duties in ocean stewardship, adversely affecting all life in the Gulf ecosystems. These photographs give a voice to those silently suffering creatures. They speak out for our need to understand and preserve the beautiful complexity of the Gulf and her many inhabitants.
After attaining his BS in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, Ron Wooten worked for the National Marine Fisheries Service as a fisheries biologist for 5 years. Wooten then shifted to education and spent 7 years as an AP Environmental Science teacher. He recently graduated with a Masters in Marine Resources Management from Texas A&M at Galveston and is currently examining his career options. Wooten also writes a monthly article in Galveston Monthly, a local interest magazine in his hometown, and hopes to branch out to writing stories of national interest regarding the marine environment. Wooten's work has been featured on the cover of The Islander, is currently on the National Geographic TV website (Delta Diver), and has been featured several times on the Nature Conservancy photo-of-the-day page. Wooten is currently based out of Galveston, Texas, USA.