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"They don't want any media out here," the seaplane pilot said, looking down at the bayou below, the lush filigree of marshes, rivers, and estuaries that frame the Gulf Coast. "But I've got to the point where I don't care. I'll take anyone who wants to go. Everybody should see this."

"They," of course, is BP, the oil company that caused the worst environmental disaster in American history when its drilling rig the Deepwater Horizon exploded last April, killing 11 workers and unleashing an out-of-control gusher of heavy crude. After its initial estimate of 1,000 barrels flowing daily into the Gulf of Mexico, BP was forced by scientists to admit the truth: The number was closer to 60,000 barrels. The result: a cloak of oil and toxic chemicals coating one of the world's richest ecosystems, about the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every four days. "You will see black oil, you will see brown oil, you will see red oil, you will see sheets of it," the pilot added. He was from Alabama and plainspoken, with an accent that stretched his vowels out like warm taffy. His eyes were pale blue and deeply sad.

Our flight path would take us out to the rig itself, roughly 50 miles offshore. But first we crossed the coastal lowlands, a region that teems with life. Usually in summer the shorelines are filled with fishermen, shrimpers, and oyster harvesters, families picnicking on the beach. Now the only people near the water are workers in heavy boots and hazmat gear. It is also the season for migrating birds, and millions would soon show up: geese, ducks, shorebirds, waterbirds, songbirds. But the baitfish they are coming to feed on are dead or contaminated, and the birds' resting grounds are fouled with sticky crude. Thousands will undoubtedly perish. The brown pelican, Louisiana's state emblem, was only recently removed from the endangered species list. Its numbers could take a significant hit; other bird species may fare even worse.

As we set out over the Gulf, the smell of oil became overwhelming. It was a heavy, noxious backdrop, like burying your head in a crankcase; it sears your eyes and constricts your chest. The sky was a haze of cloud and smoke, and the Gulf's surface shimmered with sickening rainbows and strange metallics, like a dirty puddle at a gas station. "All that's oil, just different intensities," the pilot said, pointing out the window. "Black is the thickest. And there's even more underwater."

Next: "What will it mean for the 150,000 dolphins in these waters, creatures with skin so sensitive that oil burns and blinds them?"

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