Photos and videos, coupled with vivid descriptions in print and on the radio, give us some sense of the scale of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, how it has affected marshes and wildlife and local economies.
We can see video of the oil spill in real time, pouring into the Atlantic Ocean. There are ample aerial images, showing it spreading. Newspapers, magazines and websites feature heartbreaking pictures of birds, dolphins and turtles, rendered unrecognizable by the oil.
But there are certain facets of the spill that have proven hard to convey to those of us many miles from the Gulf. What does it smell like? What is the consistency of the oil? What does it look like to marine mammals and southern flounders, animals that continue to swim in the polluted Atlantic?
On Monday, Rich Matthews, a photographer for the Associated Press, tried to answer some of those questions. He donned goggles, grabbed a camera, and slipped into the Gulf waters.
"I want people to see the spill in a new way, a way they haven't yet," he wrote in an amazing piece, datelined "UNDER THE MURKY DEPTHS OF 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.
Dropping beneath the surface the only thing I see is oil. To the left, right, up and down — it sits on top of the water in giant pools, and hangs suspended fifteen feet beneath the surface in softball sized blobs. There is nothing alive under the slick, although I see a dead jellyfish and handful of small bait fish.
Matthews doesn't — in fact, he can't — spend much time in the water. After ten minutes, he is on the back on the boat, trying to scrape the oil, which is is "thick and sticky, almost like a cake batter," off his body.
It does not wipe off. You have to scrape it off, in layers, until you finally get close to the skin. Then you pour some Dawn dishwashing soap and scrub.