AP’s ‘Oil Diver’ Gets Into the Thick of It for Firsthand Account

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By: Shawn Moynihan

“I jump off the boat into the thickest, reddest patch of oil I’ve ever seen,” Associated Press video journalist Rich Matthews wrote of his plunge into the murky, oily waters of the Gulf of Mexico. “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.”

So begins the firsthand account of Matthews’ exploration into the polluted gulf waters, a story that brings home the taste, the feel, the smell of the disaster that’s wreaking havoc on the Gulf Coast, its wildlife, and its residents.

This is no typical disassociative journalism. For Matthews, who’s based in Dallas but has lived on the Gulf Coast, it was a chance to literally get into the thick of things and tell readers just what cleanup crews are up against.

“My job as a journalist is to take people places they can’t go, and I take that seriously,” he tells E&P via phone from a dock in Venice, La. “This was the opportunity to do that.”

Matthews is no stranger to dangerous situations, having covered hurricanes Katrina and Ike and the destruction wrought by the earthquake in Haiti. He got the OK from his AP superiors and on June 7, headed out with experienced spearfisherman Al Walker and AP photographer Eric Gay, the latter of whom had planned to snorkel alongside Matthews but thought better of it once he surveyed the waters.

“My bosses have shown extreme concern for my safety my whole career,” says Matthews. “I go to disasters for a living. I do a dangerous job, but I’m not a risk-taker.”

Being submerged in waters thick with oil, however, quickly turned into a harrowing experience. About five seconds after he hit the water, Matthews says, “I did say to myself, ‘What am I doing out here?’

“It was a little scary,” he continues, noting that he was diving in 1,000 feet of water alone, with little or no visibility at times. “My goal was to dive to about 60 feet,” he says, which got cut to 15 to 20 feet “because it was just too dangerous. I didn’t want to lose my orientation and get lost.”

After the dive, of course, came the task of getting clean enough to re-enter the boat. After spending 30 minutes getting the gunk off, Matthews slipped back into the water — and had to start over.

“It had a texture to it that I didn’t expect. It stuck to everything,” he says of the oil’s consistency. “It wasn’t just sticky, it was thick, almost like a putty, like a cake batter. It was a process, to get it off.”

After finally getting out of the water at about 3 p.m., he adds, “I wasn’t clean enough to get in my bed until about 3 the next morning.”

And he’d do it again, Matthews says: “I do want to return to that same area, whether it’s a month, two months, three months from now, because there are thousands of us covering from above the water, and just a few of us covering it from under the water — and I want to continue covering it.

“We all have moments in our careers that we’ll never forget,” he adds. “And I’ll never forget being 15 feet below and seeing oil as far as I could see.”

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