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Oil slick diving

Weather reporters would have you believe they are a courageous lot. Microphones in hand, they hunker down in storms, while rain pelts their faces and ferocious winds hurl debris past their soggy heads. “Yep, it’s mighty windy out here. See that palm tree explode. Ooh, a city bus just flew by.”

I thought hurricane immersion reporting was about as bizarre as it could get until I saw what Associated Press photographer Rich Matthews did to dramatize the effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf. He put on a diver’s mask and tank and slid into the oil-soaked waters without the benefit of a hazardous material suit, to get an ocean’s eye view of the mess.

Here are some excerpts from his report:

“Some 40 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, I jump off the boat into the thickest patch of red oil I’ve ever seen. I open my eyes and realize my mask is already smeared. I can’t see anything and we’re just five seconds into the dive.

“I’m alone because the other divers with me wouldn’t get in the water without Hazmat suits on, and with my mask oiled over and the water already dark, I don’t dive deep. I want people to see the spill in a new way, a way they haven’t yet. I also want to get out of the water. Badly.”

Rich mucks around in the sludge taking pictures for 10 minutes, then muses that he knows what an oil-soaked pelican must feel like. When he finally gets back on board, it takes 30 minutes to clean him up with scrapers and dishwashing liquid.

Only problem is they forget to clean the bottom of his feet and goshdurnit, he slips and falls off the boat back into the oil slick for an encore performance. I’m not kidding. He goes through another 30 minutes of scraping and cleaning. He throws away his scuba stuff because he can’t clean it up.

His report was picked up by other news organizations, who praise Rich for his courage. Just Google “photographer jumps in oil,” to see for yourself.

But I wonder. Am I a more-informed person today for having seen Rich’s theatrics? I already know the oil spill is the worst ecological disaster ever. I know the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen are practically ruined. I know the tourist industry in the Gulf is reeling. I know the BP response has been slow and ineffective from the onset.

To be honest, I’m weary of the reporting. I don’t want to see anyone else jump into the Gulf unless he’s there to fix the problem.


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