A shrimper traveling further out into the Gulf to find a catch; a duck hunter saddened by loss of native wildlife habitat; a member of the United Houma Nation grieving over her ancestors’ homestead subsumed by open water, and a geologist measuring 1 centimeter of newly built land – these are the compelling insights into Louisiana’s coastal erosion crisis, relayed in a five-part documentary, “Last Call for the Bayou,” airing free on Smithsonian Channel Digital Platforms in honor of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary.
The 11-minute episodes, directed and produced by filmmakers Dominic and Nadia Gill, vividly illustrate the tragic destruction of protective marshlands by oil companies and rising sea levels resulting from climate change. The Gills convey the region’s infinitely complex ecosystem through interviews and aerial photography. Specific vegetation that is visible from 50-feet above simply cannot be seen and understood from a plane, but are clear when photographed close range from a paraglider.
In the first episode, “On a Wing and a Prayer,” Ben Depp, a landscape photographer, has been examining the wetlands in a series of high-art aerial photographs taken from his 21-foot paragliding wing and 200HP motor driven propeller strapped to his back.
“When flying, I often have this feeling of overwhelming beauty with this deep sadness of what’s lost – two feelings at the same time, constantly,” Depp says.
“While the threat of damage to the natural world by industrial activity can be seen daily in the press, somehow the tragically fast disappearance of Louisiana’s wetlands remains an issue that most outside of Louisiana know nothing about,” poses Gill in his filmmaker’s statement. “Why? Possibly because there is no physical vantage point from which one can see this stunningly rich and beautiful landscape or the speed at which it is changing.” Outdoor sport photographers with social consciences, the Gills hope to alter the public perception. “We saw an absolute need to spread the message,” Nadia Gill says.
“Swamp” is a word evoking negative connotations. Dictionary synonyms include “morass,” “quagmire,” and “sump” – none inspiring awe. But the documentary’s visuals depict the extraordinary and serene beauty of Louisiana’s marsh, as well as its delightful soundscape. The fifth episode, “The Duck Queen of Plaquemines Parish” opens before dawn with chirping birds and trilling frogs, along with the whir of an approaching airboat. Avid duck hunter and former coastal plan manager, Albertine Kimble, who used to travel throughout the parish gathering water samples explains how the unintended consequences of human engineering through construction of the levee system has prevented the Mississippi River from depositing vital nutrients and sediment along its banks. The levees enabled commerce by controlling the river, while destroying the ecosystem of the marsh.
“No wetlands equals no ducks. That’s obvious,” Kimble states.
After two floods invaded her home in tiny Carlisle, La., at the mouth of the Mississippi, she raised the structure 22-feet off the ground. Over her 30-year career, Kimble has seen the land disappear.
“This is the top wintering grounds for ducks and it’s all going away,” says Ryan Lambert, a Plaquemines hunting and fishing guide.
Two thousand square miles of land have been lost since the 1930s, but also probably 10,000 miles of habitat because of saltwater intrusion, Lambert observes. Ancient oak trees died, leaving a ghost forest.
“If we lose this area, New Orleans is next,” Kimble says. “Because we protect New Orleans.”
But there is hope. Another episode introduces Dr. Alex Kolker, a geologist with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), who has been working to understand the mechanisms and impacts of coastal land loss. Kolker has studied subsistence and sea level rise to assess whether or not restoration projects outlined in Louisiana’s Master Plan will be sufficient to stem the land loss. Diversions may be able to add 1-½” of soil depth per year.
“A fresh water diversion is a gate in the levee, and the idea of that is to restart the land-building processes,” Kolker says. Between four and 13 million people will have to move if no action is taken on sea-level rise. The state’s 2012 Master Plan predicted a rise of 1.4-feet within 50 years, but its 2017 Plan adjusted that estimate to 1.4 up to 2.7-feet, so we need to act now.
“I don’t know what else we have to do to get the attention of the world to show them how vital it is for storm surge, for commerce, oil and gas – for everything. The wetlands are vital to the nation,” Kimble asserts.
All five episodes of “Last Call for the Bayou” are available free on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, as well as multiple streamings on TV provider websites, apps and free on-demand channels and online at www.smithsonianchannel.com through April.
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Films and the trailer are available to media outlets, nonprofits and companies to repost but must contain the web address www.lastcallforthebayou.com and state the project is a series.