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Oil spill's animal victims struggle as experts fear a mounting toll

By Juliet Eilperin and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; A10

ON BARATARIA BAY, LA. -- In the Louisiana marsh, oil-coated pelicans flap their wings in a futile attempt to dry them. A shorebird repeatedly dunks its face in a puddle, unable to wash off. Lines of dead jellyfish float in the gulf, traces of oil visible in their clear "bells."

These scenes, scientists say, are confirmation of what they had feared for a month. Now that oil from the Gulf of Mexico's vast spill has come ashore -- in some places, as thick as soft fudge -- it is causing serious damage in one of the country's great natural nurseries.

In nature, oil is a versatile killer. It smothers the tiny animals that make up a coral reef. It suffocates blades of marsh grass, cutting them off from air and sunlight. It clumps up a bird's feathers, leaving it unable to fly; then, trying to remove the oil, birds swallow it.

For now, scientists are seeing the worst effects only in one corner of the Louisiana coast.

But they're concerned about what they're not seeing -- and worried that the impact on animals and plants will only get worse.

"Now that the stuff is really sort of coming ashore, it really is living up to its potential. It's certainly breached the sort of outer defense system of Louisiana," said James H. Cowan Jr., a professor at Louisiana State University. "It's the very worst-case scenario for things like birds and mammals."

On Wednesday, the oil company BP started a "top kill" of its leaking well, 5,000 feet below the surface and more than 40 miles off Louisiana. The procedure involves shooting high-pressure mud into the well, hoping the mud coming in will eventually overwhelm the oil shooting out.

But even if that works, it will do nothing to rein in the oil that has escaped.

That oil began washing up in Louisiana last week, about a month after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank. It first appeared in the remote marshes near the Mississippi River's mouth. Then, this week, it began washing into the vast complex of islands, lakes and bayous just west of the river.

"Unfortunately, it's looking like a real oil spill now," said Larry McKinney, who heads the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, part of Texas A&M University. "This is the stuff that does the damage."

On Tuesday morning, Louisiana scientists ventured out here into Barataria Bay, looking for oil and oil-covered animals. They found both.

Near Isle Grande Terre, a brown pelican -- the state bird -- sat atop a piling, its chest and head feathers matted down with oil. As the boat approached, it flew away. But within seconds, the pelican alighted on a nearby rock. It was already too weak to fly long distances.

"It's hard to capture a bird unless it's totally oiled or it's dead," said Rowan Gould, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The official count of the spill so far: 440 birds, 393 of them dead, the rest captured alive. Dozens more turtles and dolphins have been found dead; scientists are still conducting tests to determine how many died from oil exposure.

They say this is a fraction of the total animals impacted. Some, such as the pelican on the piling, are still strong enough to evade capture. Others might die at sea, or deep inside marshes, and be eaten before any human spots them.

"The predation here is so fierce, the carnivores clean them out," said Tom Strickland, assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. He was looking out at the gulf from Fourchon Beach. "We don't know what's happening in the oil spill itself."

What scientists and environmentalists have already seen in this area, however, is enough to leave them shaken.

Robert J. Barham, head of Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said he had seen dozens of oily pelicans on remote islands. Some were trying in vain to get oil off their wings. They may have touched the oil while diving for food.

"They think this is water sticking to their wings, but it's not, and they can't get it off," Barham said. "It's heart-wrenching, when you grow up in Louisiana and you are in love with this part of the world. . . . It just is a blow in the pit of your stomach."

On Isle Grand Terre, LSU researcher Richard Gibbons saw a black-bellied plover, a skinny-legged shorebird, with oil on its face. He said the bird had no way to clean the oil off -- its only tool is its beak -- and instead was plunging its face into a shallow depression full of water.

"It was just repeatedly, you know, dipping its head into the water," Gibbons said. "I was like, oh man, this is bad."

Both BP and the federal government have emphasized the scale of their response: They said that more than 16,000 people are involved, some cleaning off oiled shorelines with shovels and rakes. More than 3 million feet of "boom," floating barriers to the oil, has already been placed. But both environmentalists and scientists say they've seen evidence that the oil seems to be getting past these barriers. On one recent trip in these waters, Doug Inkley of the National Wildlife Federation said he saw an island filled with nesting brown pelicans. It was ringed by two layers of floating boom.

And, inside the boom, there was oil.

"It was kind of like a bathtub ring, about six inches from top to bottom, in all the vegetation surrounding the island," Inkley said. Inside, one pelican on the island was already oiled, using its beak to scrape the goo from its feathers. "The appearance is that the booms make no difference."

One of the spill's most eerie scenes was encountered offshore, by Cowan at LSU. He said he saw dead jellyfish, which had been arranged into straight lines by wind patterns. He said it's easy to tell a live jellyfish from a dead one: In some cases, drops of dark oil were actually visible in their clear insides.

Another sign: These jellyfish had stopped contracting their "bells" to move across the water.

"Live jellyfish swim . . . so they're very easy to tell from the dead ones," Cowan said. "Their tentacles will be falling off, but mostly it's just a total lack of mobility" that tips off the dead ones.

Fahrenthold reported from Washington.

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