Portraits from the Gulf: Bonny Schumaker - Oceana USA
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June 2, 2014

Portraits from the Gulf: Bonny Schumaker

April 20 marked the four-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In the process of filming a short film about the aftermath of the spill, “Drill, Spill, Repeat?” Oceana staff met Dr. Bonny Schumaker, a former physicist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who now flies over the Gulf of Mexico looking for oil stemming from the spill. This is the first in a three-part blog series that highlights the many faces of the Gulf’s recovery. Stay tuned for more.

Dr. Bonny Schumaker flies her little plane, Bessie, over the Gulf of Mexico day to day. She doesn’t take Bessie over Gulf waters for tourism, commercial transportation, or military service. Every time she flies, Shumaker searches for the sheen of oil stemming from the BP spill in 2010, still turning up in dark, ugly clouds in the Gulf today. And what she’s finds isn’t pretty.

Shumaker spent much of her life working in remote sensing — the science of detecting things on the Earth’s surface from the air — as a physicist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She came to the Gulf in April 2010, after the spill occurred. Her colleagues at NASA arrived to monitor the oil and to see what they could do to track it. To do so, they needed Bonny’s help with aerial reconnaissance. Shumaker is a practiced pilot, so she took up the task, flying scientists our over the ever-expanding oil sheen. “The scientists that I would take out, they were absolutely changed once I took them out there in the plane and they saw with their own eyes,” she says. “We were flying over miles and miles and miles of nonstop oil… that’s when they realized that this is really bad.”

A person like Bonny poses her own threat as an enforcer of accountability — a kind of watchdog from the skies — to BP’s spill cleanup efforts. Some pro-oil forces attempted to pass her off as one little person with one little plane, and consequently less reliability, yet the tension was still there. “For two years, until about summer of 2012 or so, I was advised strongly by many, many lawyers, because of what we were publicizing, to keep Bessie in a hanger — a locked hanger,” says Shumaker. “It was not pretty what I was showing. Even around the BP site, Deepwater Horizon, there was extensive sheen. You could see leakage into 2012.”

The BP oil spill occurred miles below the ocean’s surface, making it very difficult to predict where and where the oil would appear. As long as there’s oil to be spotted out in the Gulf, Bonny continues to search. “If nobody bothered to notice, they wouldn’t have had to do anything,” she says of BP’s response. “So I was not popular. What’s wrong with letting people know the truth?”

Want to know more about how the Gulf is doing four years after the BP oil disaster, from those still dealing with its damage? Take a look at Oceana’s latest documentary, “Drill, Spill, Repeat?”, to learn more, and click here to host or find a viewing party near you. 

You can also help us stop the drill by keeping oil surveying tests out of the Atlantic.