Death by the Bay

David Helvarg is president of Blue Frontier Campaign ( and the author of "50 Ways to Save the Ocean."

Oil-covered birds look even worse in real life than they do on TV. Not the dead ones so much, except when a gull has ripped open a floating grebe and is pulling at its toxic guts.

Hong Kong-based shipping executives don’t have to use ships that burn heavy bunker fuel, the dregs of the petroleum process. Of course, cleaner fuels would prove marginally more expensive, and U.S. consumers would have to pay a penny extra for their tube socks or Chinese-made children’s toys. Besides, with modern navigation technology, what’s the likelihood that a cargo ship is going to ram into the San Francisco Bay Bridge in the fog and spill 58,000 gallons of that nasty fuel?

Of course, that is exactly what happened Nov. 7. Coast Guard investigators are still shaking their heads in amazement as they track the human error involved.


There’s also the question of scale. The 810-foot Cosco Busan was carrying 2,500 TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit) containers. There are now cargo ships that carry more than 10,000. Yet unlike tankers full of oil, giant cargo ships aren’t required to have a tug escort when entering or leaving San Francisco Bay.

I’m sitting by the dock of the Bay -- that’s what Otis Redding called the Berkeley Municipal Pier in his famous song. Only now it smells like a gas station. On the rock pile below me, a surf scoter -- a diving duck -- is using the bottom of its red bill to preen its oil-blackened feathers. It shakes its head and carefully repeats the process for the half an hour I’m there. When I make too sudden a move, it flaps its wings like it’s going to flee into the water, where it would likely die of hypothermia, its natural insulation ruined by the oil. I’ll see dozens more oiled birds this day: scoters, grebes, gulls, a rudy duck and cormorants.

The Berkeley marina behind me is one big, oily sheen. “Rainbows of oil” is a misnomer. Gasoline leaves rainbow sheens. Bunker fuel leaves green-and-brown streaks and smudges like marbled meat gone bad. It leaves floating tar balls and disks and globular curly-cue pieces, and concentrations of hard, asphalt-like toxic chips.

It’s been raining throughout the afternoon. The experts aren’t sure whether this will help the cleanup efforts. There are 19 agencies involved. The oil has spread out through the Golden Gate to Ocean Beach and north to Point Reyes. At the Marin Headlands, orange plastic fencing and oil-spill warning signs block access to the wide, cliff-framed strand where workers in yellow hazmat suits have been removing oil-stained boulders and scraping away contaminated sand.

Back home in Richmond, I return to the waterfront, this time at Shimada Friendship Park. There’s a couple, early 20s, Amber Kirst and Scott Egan. She’s walking the shoreline, her white pants oil-stained at the ankles, wearing a protective rubber glove and holding a bag full of oiled litter and dead crabs.

“We’ve got a live crab too. He was in a Cheetos bag,” she tells me, climbing up the rocks to the pathway. “We drove down from Lodi to volunteer, but they said they’d get back to us. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive. We needed to do something.”

The Cheetos crab is still alive. She shows me the small critter, with its dark shell. “Should I put it back? Is it too oiled for them to feed on?”

She looks at the hundreds of shorebirds hunting in the exposed mud flats and floating just beyond. “It’s all so depressing,” she concludes before climbing back down to pick up more oiled litter.

We build our homes in fire zones; we move millions of tons of goods and fuel through marine sanctuaries; we continue to burn a product that, used as directed, overheats our planet. Amber and Scott came from Lodi. They needed to do something. We all do.