The oil-soaked bird that shocked the world

On 20 April 2010, the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded after a surge of natural gas blasted through its concrete core, spilling 795 million litres (210 million gallons) of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. Two days later, the rig capsized and sank into a valley in the continental shelf.

The ignition killed 11 people aboard and injured 17. The number of other casualties – including marine mammals, sea turtles, birds, fish and invertebrates – were countless, and several species are still experiencing new health consequences.

Oil and natural gas uncontrollably burst into one of the planet’s most productive ecosystems for nearly three months. At its largest, the oil spill covered over 15,000 sq miles (39,000 sq km) of the ocean,according to an environmental damage assessment conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

When the world first learned about the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Win McNamee, chief photographer for Getty Images, was stuck thigh-deep in pluff mud, an umber quicksand-like miasma, on East Grand Terre Island, Louisiana. McNamee was starting another 14-hour day, working to illustrate the depth and breadth of the crisis.

With petroleum malodour lodged in his nose and the early morning sun on his back, McNamee, cemented in the swamp for 30 minutes, was snapping photos of the spill’s aftermath. But he was not the unluckiest party on the island; that was the wildlife, thrashing 10ft (3m) away from a future-Pulitzer Prize winner and his camera. 

Before him, a brown pelican was baptised in the Gulf’s backwash of petroleum and Corexit, a toxic chemical meant to break up the oil.

“It’s difficult to describe the feelings of helplessness that a person feels when they see wildlife caught up in the middle of an environmental disaster,” McNamee says.

With its Brobdingnagian bill and lithe neck, the pelican is not the obvious choice for a galvanising symbol. But there’s more here than meets the eye. 

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