Carrying a Torch in the Gulf

Little did Drew Wheelan ’96 know when he arrived in Grand Isle, Louisiana, how much his new job—and life—would be consumed by the environmental nightmare unfolding offshore. Or that he would rise to national prominence because of it.

Drew Wheelan

Drew Wheelan, Photo by Laura Erickson.

Last May, Wheelan moved from Wilkeson, Washington, where he was doing marine upholstery work, to become the American Birding Association’s temporary Gulf Conservation Coordinator. Just three weeks earlier, the Deepwater Horizon rig had exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing a gusher of oil that would flow unabated for the next four months.

Living mostly in his truck, on a shoestring budget, Wheelan worked diligently—many days from six in the morning until midnight (except when he got slammed by pneumonia)—to show the world what was happening on the impacted shorelines from Texas to Florida. He launched a multimedia blog for the ABA that quickly came to be regarded as one of the most credible sources of on-the-ground information about the disaster. In it, he chronicled the terrible consequences for Gulf Coast bird life and ecosystems, visited BP’s Louisiana headquarters to demand the company stop using the toxic dispersant Corexit (and was harassed by local police), and documented the lack of environmental oversight associated with the cleanup. He also reported on the valiant efforts of activists and scientists who responded to the tragedy and helped protect endangered least tern nesting habitat from destruction by BP contractors. His work soon caught the attention of the mainstream media: he was interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper; his footage appeared on national news broadcasts; and he was mentioned and/or quoted in Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, the London Review of Books and many other outlets.

Wheelan was recruited to the ABA position by another Greener, David Hartley ’94, the birding organization’s communications director. They found each other on Facebook after Hartley saw some of Wheelan’s birding videos on YouTube. Wheelan’s field research and travels have taken him across the United States and to South and Central America, South Africa and Indonesia. “David thought the flavor was good to bring a younger demographic into the fold,” says Wheelan, whose Gulf reporting has drawn major attention to the ABA and bird conservation in general.

A native of Narragansett, R.I., Wheelan came to Evergreen to study ecology and agriculture and learn about organic farming, but says he “became distracted by birds.” He worked closely with ornithology professor Steve Herman (“his ornithology class was a major epiphany for me,” Wheelan says).

Before he took the ABA position, Wheelan—who is also a sewing whiz— was planning to start a company devoted to making clothing and footwear from recycled materials and a subscription-based journalism website called the “Vicarious Living Project.”

Gulf birds

L to R: In May, Drew observed this snowy egret with oil on its bill and legs foraging in contaminated water; Large amounts of heavy oil on Grand Terre Island in August; One of five piping plovers seen on the shores of Raccoon Island in September. Photos by Drew Wheelan, from his blog.

It looks like his experience in the Gulf may now be moving him in another direction, though. This fall, he has numerous speaking engagements booked, including at the Ohio Ornithological Society’s annual meeting, an ABA birding event in Providence, Rhode Island, and a meeting of the nation’s oldest ornithology organization, the Nuttall Ornithological Club, at Harvard University. He will also lead a workshop at the annual conference of the Center for a Better South.

The ABA wants to bring Wheelan on staff permanently as the organization’s director of conservation. “My charge will be to investigate and report on the most pressing conservation issues for North American birds,” he says. The organization is actively seeking funding for this position, which he says, “looks hopeful, knock on wood.” Because as he’s already shown, Wheelan will certainly be knocking on the forces that make it harder for birds to survive.