MOSS POINT – Captain Benny McCoy pulled the 24-foot, flat-bottomed river boat away from the dock and began pointing out wildlife as if identifying familiar friends.
There was a baby alligator, a tricolored heron, a great egret, an osprey.
The clouds reflected off Rhodes Bayou as McCoy headed for the brackish water of the marshes and the freshwater swamps along the Pascagoula River watershed.
Ten years ago, April 20, this region was thrust into one of the country’s worst environmental disasters, when the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 people.
Oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days, endangering wildlife habitats and McCoy’s livelihood. Through settlement funds and the work of groups such as Audubon Mississippi and individuals, work to restore the coast continues.
“It really hit my business hard,” said McCoy, who guides tours on the water. “It took us probably a couple years to recover (our) tourism.”
On this morning, McCoy was giving a tour as part of an event hosted by Audubon Mississippi to remember the 11 human lives lost and highlight restoration efforts in the decade since the spill.
If you search for signs of the disaster here, you may not see them.
“As far as the oil itself, of course it affected our barrier islands a lot, but they protected our estuaries,” McCoy said. “A lot of states didn’t have that luxury, like Louisiana, you’ve seen what the outcome was there, but Mississippi has our barrier islands, which really benefits our ecosystem.”
In 2010, the damage to wildlife in the Gulf was widespread and visible, as millions of barrels of oil were unleashed into the water.
The oil stuck to birds’ feathers and affected flying, buoyancy and the ability to dive into the water for food, according to Audubon Mississippi.
It hasn’t been possible to determine exactly how many birds were killed, but high estimates put the number at around 1 million, while more conservative estimates are between 55,000 to 100,000, the organization said.
According to information from the National Audubon Society in 2019, “...there is no question that the impacts of the spill on birds and their habitats will continue to be felt for decades and will require ongoing monitoring and conservation efforts to ensure the recovery and health of those species affected.”
Two months after the spill, Audubon Mississippi established an all-volunteer response center to help field phone calls and transport oiled wildlife to rehab facilities, said Policy Director Jill Mastrototaro, during a presentation at the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point.
“We also recruited and trained dozens of volunteers across four Gulf states to actually do monitoring of our beaches and they identified over 60,000 birds in their bird walks and were able to help about 1,000 birds get the medical attention that they need.”
On board McCoy's boat were Angela Baldocchi and John Maginnis, who traveled from Wisconsin to Mississippi for a hummingbird festival.
Baldocchi said she's interested in researching the resilience of ecosystems.
“We weren’t here, but I remember watching it on the news and that it just was unending,” Baldocchi said. “It was a human-caused disaster, but the human recovery effort was huge and so humans can have a good effect on nature.”
Maginnis looked out on the water.
“Over the years since then, I realized that if it hadn’t been for the country coming together and people coming together, we never would have been able to see this again.”
In 2016, a federal judge who ruled BP had been “grossly negligent,” approved an estimated $20 billion settlement to be paid out over 16 years, the Associated Press reported.
Of that, about $1.3 billion has been committed to Mississippi, which can be used for restoration, Mastrototaro said.
Her organization is working toward ensuring the dollars benefit birds, wildlife, water quality and beaches.
The funds can also help make coastal communities more resilient and support seafood and tourism economies, she said.
Audubon Mississippi remains focused on existing and emerging threats, such as overcrowding, predators, invasive species, erosion, storms and sea level rise, said Sarah Pacyna, who manages the Coastal Bird Stewardship Program.
“Birds are so important, not only for restoration ... they inspire us,” Pacyna said. “They show the changing of the seasons. They’re found in art, they’re found in religion, so everybody connects to birds.”
The public can help by volunteering to monitor birds, particularly during the summer nesting season, or by speaking to federal and state leaders about how restoration funds should be used, Mastrototaro said.
“That was such an extreme loss, so when you have that with the other threats, that’s why it makes it that much more important to steward and try to protect these populations,” Pacyna said. “That’s why we’re monitoring with the changes also to know if there’s a potential new threat.”