oil dolphin
© Jerry Moran
Dorsal Fin Encrusted with Oil in Barataria Bay
Toxic poisons are stalking the dolphins in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, and no one is discussing or reporting the fact that the oiled mammals are struggling in the waters near Grand Terre Island. There are no published photos or videos that we have been able to find, and no stories that describe the oil-encrusted dorsal fins and odd behavior that suggest an under-reported or deliberately hidden environmental catastrophe.

We were on the water with New Orleans photographer Jerry Moran and Reel Screamers Guide Service on June 11, when we noticed two groups of dolphins. One group was swimming through a bubbling slick consisting of the dispersant COREXIT and oil, and the other was in the shallows and rooting in the mud. Dolphins will dig for flounder on the bottom, so it did not seem remarkable at the time, but we did note that they appeared unusually agitated. The group swimming in the oily dispersant near our boat was sluggish but there was nothing we could do to discourage them from swimming there. Oil was everywhere, above and below the surface, and there was no escape. We shrugged it off, snapped a few photos, and went on to photograph oiled pelicans on Cat Island and Queen Bess.

oil dolphin
© Jerry Moran
Oiled dorsal fin
oiled dolphin
© Jerry Moran

We should have taken a closer look.

Moran was going through his photos few days ago and noticed that some of the dolphins we observed had dorsal fins that were completely coated with rusty red oil from the British Petroleum rig explosion.

When we realized what we had discovered, we called Daryl Carpenter, owner of Reelscreamers, and asked him if anyone else had noticed the oiled dolphins or reported it. Carpenter said that news crews had taken video footage, but he did not know if any of the images had been broadcast. So far none of the images have surfaced, and wildlife officials, if they know about this situation, have been mum.

There have been reports that marine animals are trying to outrun the massive river of oil and fleeing to shallow coastal waters. The New York Daily News compared the disastrous situation as akin to "animals fleeing a forest fire."

The BBC and ABC have filed reports and video about Captain Lori De Angelis, who runs dolphin spotting boat charters in the bays near Orange Beach, Alabama. She observed dolphins "acting drunk."

We called "Captain Lori," and told her about the behavior of the dolphins in Barataria Bay. She confirmed that she has been observing similar behavior and that "It is unnerving."

Captain Lori described some dolphins that were sluggish, and others that were "acting hyper and swimming and playing as if it were the last days of their lives."

The fact that their dorsal fins are encrusted with oil could spell an immediate death sentence. The dorsal fin and the fluke (tail) are an important for body temperature regulation., You can find a simple explanation and video here and a more detailed scientific paper here. The bottom line is that the dorsal fin helps to release excess heat from the body. Oil acts like a heat trap and water and air temperatures are climbing in this hot, sticky Louisiana summer.

Benzene is one of the volatile chemicals in crude oil. The dolphins are swimming in it, ingesting it, and it is coating their bodies. Like humans, they are mammals. Toxic chemical exposure is as dangerous to the dolphins as it is to humans. A review of the toxic effects and other characteristics of benzene is available here.

Chronic exposure to benzene can cause ventricular fibrillation, congestive gastritis, toxic gastritis, kidney damage, skin irritation and burns, swelling and edema, vascular congestion in the brain, and lethal central nervous system depression. See this analysis.

Toluene is also a concern. This is the same chemical found in airplane glue and its effects are well known. Inhalation of toluene fumes is not only intoxicating, but in large doses can cause central nervous system depression and death.

As reported in this overview at emedicine:
Acute intoxication from inhalation is characterized by rapid onset of CNS (central nervous system) symptoms including euphoria, hallucinations, delusions, tinnitus, dizziness, confusion, headache, vertigo, seizures, ataxia, stupor, and coma.
Those of us who were on the water last week developed varying cases of headaches, confusion, dizziness, (in my case, vertigo) and nausea. Unlike the dolphins, we were not swimming in the toxic soup or ingesting it. The water is the dolphins' environment. There is no escape from the rivers of oil and dispersants washing into their feeding grounds. We were able to retreat to our terrestrial environment and cleaner air.

On an even worse note, this is the time of year that calves are born. There can be serious consequences if a baby dolphin ingests tainted milk.

Why the dolphins of Barataria Bay have been forgotten, ignored, or the situation has been deliberately withheld is anyone's guess. What we do know is that the Coast Guard has been engaged in restricting news crews in the area. The Coast Guard, as one of the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, seems to be answering to the orders of British Petroleum, and in a widely reported incident, challenged CBS reporters reporting from Louisiana's Coastal waters, as seen in this video:

On two occasions during the week of June 6-13, we were stopped by the Coast Guard and Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Officials for "not wearing a life vest," when regulations state that while a vessel must have flotation devices, they do not have to be worn unless the boat is under sixteen feet. The captains believed we were at or over the requirement on both occasions. The camera, more than safety concerns seemed to be the motivation for the encounters. While we were detained, we were also warned "no photos."

© G. Nienaber
The buck stops with the Coast Guard, and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser has called for the resignation of Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, saying Allen has failed at almost every step in dealing with the catastrophic leak and is "not the right man for the job." Nungesser was talking about idle skimmers, idle BP workers and roadblocks placed in the way of his attempts to clean oil out of sensitive marshlands in Barataria Bay and other areas.

Another source says that BP officials have warned workers under contract that they are not to discuss dead, injured, or oiled dolphins with anyone. While working the beach at Grand Isle, we were stopped by private security on two occasions and warned not to take photos of workers and not to step over the barrier boom into the "hot zone."

News blackout or not, it is critical that the dolphins of Barataria Bay get some attention.

A recent study of dolphins suggests that their intelligence requires that they be treated as "non-human persons" and granted rights as individuals.