The word up from the waves

I got up at 2:45 a.m. last Monday in New Orleans to get to Venice, La., a town at the tip of the toe of the state. I had an appointment with a boat that was going hunting for oiled-up turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. The road to Venice just before dawn was creepy. Black sky, gold-glowing refineries straight out of some techno-Hades and then, where Route 23 terminates, a giant Halliburton plant. It felt like driving into the heart of darkness, where shadowy people make huge decisions that affect the rhythm of the Earth. Men in hardhats parked their cars and walked into facilities painted white. There were guards everywhere. I felt watched.

Nevertheless I caught the sunrise from the deck of a motor yacht with its owner, a charter boat captain who isn’t working because fishing waters are closed. But at least he’s working for BP, getting paid to take turtle people out — that’s worth something, right?

“Fuck no,” he said. He could be making $2,000 a day sitting on the docks on standby, like the crowd of other loitering boatmen. Instead he’s making $2,000 a day working 10 hours at a time, blowing through diesel, dinging up his boat, dealing with filthy animals flopping around his deck. He’s a normal dude who lives on his boat and happens to be tangled in a very strange, high-stakes situation. It was very weird in Venice.

Anyway. At the last minute, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration barred me from riding on the boat, even though its owner and the turtle crew from Florida were okay with me on it. It was infuriating. To that point I was impressed with the amount of access I’d been given to cover the story. After pleading on my knees (literally) and then throwing a tantrum — to no avail — I fled Venice, my blood curdling over the general shadiness of the operation. It was like a bad episode of “The X-Files.” Opaque, unthrilling, unnerving.

On the drive back north on Route 23, a roadside cemetery in Buras, La., caught my eye. I u-turned and parked and walked into it. The graves were above-ground, because there ain’t no underground in Louisiana (there is only underwater). Most graves contained a Buras. Tiny crabs clickety-clacked over stone. The sun was intense. Just beyond a berm the Mississippi flowed lazily to its endpoint. Everything was quiet and calm.

Venice seemed toxic. This cemetery seemed natural, in harmony with its surroundings. And then I noticed that the graveside flowers — neatly arranged in vases — were fake. Cloth and plastic. I said a prayer and left.

There were a half dozen stone coffins marked "unknown."

There were a half dozen stone coffins marked "unknown."