Review – NG’s Gulf Oil Spill

Violently burning for 36 hours, explosions, missing workers, environmental catastrophe around the corner, SMIT salvage is working against the clock the minute they get the call for this salvage. I had been anxiously waiting to get my hands on the National Geographic’s latest focus on disasters at sea, Gulf Oil Spill. The show is about the Deepwater Horizon drill rig, and this is a review of that show.

I suspect that the show’s producer did not anticipate such a disaster to happen on their watch, because to me, the show feels like it was a bit rushed to production. Not to say the production quality was inferior, but if you follow National Geographic’s Code Red, about salvage jobs, you will understand what I mean with the opening credits. They are very similar, but I guess they miss the branding of the other shows in the series, probably due to the large scope of the response. I suspect the documentary crew was actually on another, but related assignment, when the call came in to Houston’s SMIT office for the salvage of the Deepwater Horizon.

The producers also made the strange choice to call it “Gulf Oil Spill”, when within the first few minutes the focus of the show is explained, by the narrator, to be the first 36 hrs of the disaster, which deals with the fire and sinking, not the resulting spill. In that context, the show’s producers do a very good job at walking the audience through some of the actions taken. I say some, because I am sure it was a massive response from numerous parties, to deal with the emergency, and obviously difficult to present every angle in a limited frame of a tv show.

The audience is first taken through the United States Coast Guard’s response, and the logistic challenges they faced. We hear from a crewmember and his first hand experiences. The editing is not too nauseating and provides enough information to understand the situation with pictures, storytelling, graphics and some newsclips. The audience is then introduced to the salvagers, SMIT of Houston, with a backup team from Holland being mobilized.

The salvager’s goal: to bring the fire under control. To that aim, we follow salvage master on the initial response with an immediate dispatch to the scene, where it becomes pretty obvious that nothing can be done to bring the fire under control, because it is an oil well blow out, and not just a ship fire. Not to downplay a ship fire, but watching the video of the rig on fire, you’ll understand the gravity of the situation. In that video footage, from the time of the initial explosion to the sinking, the formidable firefighting effort did not appear to me to make a noticeable difference to the situation on the rig.

The salvager’s hopes were pinned on the success of the underwater operations to operate the blowout preventer, which, unfortunately were not successful, as we all know, and disappointingly not expanded on in the show. Successful operation of the blow out preventer would have isolate the well, and cut the fuel to the fire.

In the meantime, the gathering of the response equipment and mobilizing it to the scene is chronicled. Unfortunately, as the bulk of the response party leaves the dock in Louisiana, the Deepwater Horizon succumbs to the conflagration and slips beneath the surface, the event caught on film, ending the initial scope of the salvage for SMIT.

The show continue on with the disaster’s response efforts, going back to the USCG, this time aboard the USCG tender Oak, for skimming operations. Its gets a bit, well, military here, but interesting nonetheless.

I am thinking at this stage, of the dramatic response and ensuing court cases I have seen in the past, when an engineer is alleged to have discharged oil overboard a merchant ship. When you are faced with such a major spill, which has, for the most part been downplayed, “all traces are already gone from the spill” so says the government, probably due to its economic impact to this oil producing region, so I wonder if the punishment will be dealt in equal measure – but I doubt it, and I am probably digressing too much.

The show does a good job in not over dramatizing the situation, a refreshing change from other maritime shows, but then again there is no need to dramatize such a disaster to start with. With the time line model that the producer follow, this blends well to actually offer some good insight overall on the disaster. There is some great footage of the firefighting operations, a basic degree of technical knowledge is provided. There is obviously a great deal more action being done than we are made aware in the show, but there was obviously some major challenges to capturing a disaster of this nature.

The images and video are stunning that’s for sure. The overall quality of the production is good, and I would recommend you watch it, although the availability of it might be an issue – it was for me. The show last 45 minutes and was released a month after the start of the disaster, which probably was why it felt a bit unpolished.

Here is a time line of the accident. Here is the official website of the show. A behind the scene interview with the producer. Pictures are screen shots from the video.

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