A sudden flapping got my attention from where I stood above a narrow, seawall-bound beach on the Gaviota Coast the morning after the Plains All American pipeline ruptured. Ill-defined in the distance, the brief ruckus looked like fitful kelp blades caught in the wind. As I moved closer, what had seemed normal and natural viewed from afar became science fiction —thick, black, oar-like limbs all at once rose and struck the sand again and again, and an extraordinary creature strained to walk from the sea.
There was the photo: the wretched, bitumen-covered bird, exhausted, all but glued to the sand, struggling to escape its environment. I was photographing the Refugio oil spill, and the merits of this shot were obvious. I steadied my camera behind the seawall to be less threatening, but as I looked in the viewfinder, an overwhelming empathy surfaced. Here was more than another shot. Here was a contract I had agreed to long ago. This suffering, once soaring animal, now a pathetic tar ball with head held high, wanted to live — its condition and future was, in part, my responsibility.
A mile away, Refugio cove had transformed from a Gaviota playground to a somber, stinking, emergency bivouac of federal, state, and local agencies and media. This battered bird and its future seemed to symbolize the gathering’s purpose.
For two or so hours, keeping an eye on the bird while photographing, I scaled the bluffs again and again for help. Representatives of more than a half-dozen agencies and contractors were assembling nearby along 101, where the awful stream from the broken pipe passed under Union Pacific’s tracks. Repeatedly, I described the bird’s location and sought the assistance of each new arrival. And repeatedly, most expressed but one concern — that I shouldn’t be there. I went back to the beach and continued scouting pictures, hoping my pleas had worked.
The day before, the oil had flowed under 101, pooled beside the railroad tracks, and headed seaward through saturated topsoil over underlying bedrock to a spectacular, hydrocarbon fall down a Refugio bluff. That morning, the magnitude and appearance of this cascade of petroleum seemed like the paint poured on Planet Earth in the Sherwin-Williams logo.
The congealing oil on the bluffs was dramatic, utterly upsetting, and getting a lot of attention, including my own, but in the distance, the bird was just a lonely, overlooked dark spot on the beach. I could see she was now washing in and out on the incoming tide. Once again I stashed my equipment behind the seawall and climbed up a now-familiar, goat-like trail to endure more “We have people on it,” “We know where the oiled birds are,” “The helicopter is spotting for us,” “This is a hazmat area. You need to leave.” With that, I felt I had done all I could, so I went back for my gear and perhaps a final photo of the abandoned bird before moving on. But I couldn’t take the picture.
A pelican is not supposed to be held in our arms; neither is crude oil. When the two have become a nearly lifeless tar ball of feathers, sand, and sea grass and barely indistinguishable, paradigms shift and what matters is not what’s supposed to be.
Having rescued three people from drowning — in Zihuatanejo, Calafia Baja, and Morro Bay — what I now know is that there is a point when, after a scan of your surroundings for help has revealed none, and those over the horizon who can help are too distant and will be too late, it is your turn. When alone, and the last dry reckoning and rule check are completed, when Fate is tapping on your shoulder, you get wet. Relying upon experience and empowered by focus, you react, study fast, and plan as you go.
Untrained and unconstrained, I took off my shirt (I should’ve kept it on), then stepped into the salt water emulsion of fossil fuels to wrap up the pelican. Standing over the puzzling heap, I made out the shape of a bill — the only thing recognizable — pressed flat against the sand. From there, I followed the bill back to her head and, with the help of a surge, slid them out from beneath her, rolled her over so she was upright again, and momentarily let her tarred legs and feet dangle — I had no idea the whereabouts of her impressive wings. I wrapped her in the shirt and lifted her. My course was set: Carry the pelican like a child; concentrate; ignore being covered in crude; whoa, keep my face away from her frantic snapping; hold her bill; tune into our breathing; she’s heavy; don’t trip; climb and find 101 — this time not to plead, but hopefully to deliver the bird to safety.
An hour or so later, on the freeway’s shoulder after the wildlife people had been notified and had finally arrived and carried her off, a sheriff’s deputy, now in charge, asked how I was feeling. While standing there half naked, still coated in oil, and the object of much attention, including that of two journalists and a three-man hazmat decon team, I replied, “Embarrassed.” I didn’t realize the deputy’s concern was for my health, as I was being well taken care of by the decon team. That embarrassment initially prompted me to write this account. I have come to see another, fuller perspective.
In the early hours of the spill, when the welcome, formal reaction of first responders was still being organized, the unwelcome, informal reaction of people in their street clothes helping in their own ways was already making a difference. Those grassroots efforts were not only effective, but provided the world a more complete and essential impression of this calamity’s impacts. The unavoidable lag time of the official response gave those of us who had the urge and opportunity to help the chance to do so. It gave us the opportunity to care for our beloved Gaviota. Images of my friend Dean and others on the beach in oil-splattered shorts and tennis shoes inspired in people far and wide an empathetic sense of belonging and commitment lacking in the photos of the official cleanup. Aware of our own culpability, in the midst of this ruination, we experienced the personal comfort that comes with helping. Such events have few long-term positive impacts. These were among them.