PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 161, Summer 2010: Perspectives on an Oil Spill


Report from PRBO's Oil Spill Response Coordinator

Tour of Duty in the Gulf Oil Spill

Diana Humple

Perpectives on an Oil Spill
On Duty in the Gulf

Diana Humple. Photo by Melissa Pitkin/PRBO.
Once it became evident that a vast amount of oil was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon well, I began seeking ways to contribute and preparing for potential involvement. Before long, I answered a call from the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC—, asking me to join their field team in search and collection efforts. IBRRC has responded to more than 200 spills worldwide and, in this incident, carries out two roles: they are one of the groups responsible for rehabilitation of oiled wildlife and, in coordination with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for search and collection efforts. Although I have worked alongside IBRCC in a number of California oil spills, this was my first opportunity to work for them, and I was grateful to be able to help out in this disaster.

Two days after receiving the deployment call (and a month into the spill), I was on a plane bound for New Orleans to spend two weeks on the response effort. For the first week, I helped search for oiled birds in the complex Louisiana bayou and coastal waters, where the terminus of the Mississippi River emerges into the Gulf. Because we needed to be close to where the oiled birds were, we lived on a floating barge 15 miles beyond the furthest town--"the end of the world," as it's known in Louisiana. We conducted all field work by boat, and our boat drivers were the local fishermen whose livelihoods this oil spill threatens. While our efforts were predominantly coastal, we did spend some time offshore, and one experience there is etched solidly in my memory: boating for hours along a tendril of the slick 40 miles from the coast, searching for oiled wildlife, and watching flying fish glide gracefully through the air and into the oil.
Royal Tern is among the bird species affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Photo by Tom Grey/

I spent my second week responding in a vastly different setting, at the eastern periphery of the spill's impacts--in the highly developed Florida panhandle where the occasional park often provides the only habitat for coastal birds. Time spent there was a sharp reminder of all the additional threats these species face, such as disturbance and habitat loss, and that an oil spill can seriously compound the effects of these and other human-caused stresses on natural systems. My work there consisted of searching shorelines for birds and responding to public hotline calls reporting distressed or dead wildlife.

Reluctantly, I returned in early June to my responsibilities in California, with the end of this spill not yet in sight and impacts to the wildlife and fragile ecosystems I observed expected to continue for far longer than the actual flow of oil. Scientists will likely be at work for years studying the long-term impacts of this event and implementing actions to try to mitigate for the losses it causes.

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