AP photographer describes Gulf oil spill then, now

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FILE - In this May 22, 2010 file photo, nesting pelicans are seen landing as oil washes ashore on Cat Island in Barataria Bay, in Plaquemines Parish, La. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, file)

ON THE BARATARIA BAY, La. (AP) — I had been taking pictures of the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for about a month before I made my first visit to Cat Island on May 22, 2010. I will never forget what I saw there.

Noisy brown pelicans were flying around and swimming in the water, which was carrying waves of newly arrived thick crude. The oil was collecting on the shoreline. Some birds were too coated to fly, looking distressed.

On the lush island rookery, filled with thick mangrove, off-white pelican eggs were smeared with oil from birds sitting on top of them in nests.

I took photographs, documenting the first pelican rookeries affected by the spill. There was a pit in my stomach; I thought this colony may well be doomed.

Two years later, I returned to Cat Island. The deterioration was shocking. The island had eroded and was much smaller. What was once mangrove so thick only a bird could enter was now black stumps sticking out of the sand. There were fewer pelicans, and they were nesting on bare earth, exposed to the next storm surge.

As I looked out across the water, I got a sick feeling. I thought this may all be gone soon, only a GPS coordinate in the Gulf and a story about what natural beauty was once here.