It was the world’s worst offshore oil spill: 5m barrels spewing from the BP-run Deepwater Horizon rig into the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people, marine life and devastating hundreds of miles of coastline. From a Cessna floatplane 3,000ft above the Louisiana coastline, photographer Daniel Beltrá captured the carnage. It was only from this height, he said, that the magnitude of the spill – and the futility of the clean-up operation – became apparent. “It was like trying to clean an Olympic pool full of oil while sitting on the side using Q-tips.”
An environmental specialist who often works for Greenpeace, Beltrá prefers aerial photography, because it offers a humbling perspective, shrinking the scale of the planet to more human proportions and thereby revealing its fragility. This lofty viewpoint often shows the beauty of the natural world: in the case of a disaster, though, that can be unsettling. Here, the surface of the ocean is marbled with spectacular, iridescent blue and flashes of orange that resemble molten rock, and the rig, at first glance, might be a Hindu temple.
In the two years since the wellhead was sealed, the fallout has continued. BP has embarked on a selling spree of oilfields and refineries in an attempt to raise funds for the clean-up bill – estimated at $38bn. The company is working towards a settlement with the US government, with both sides trying to establish how much damage was done, and how much BP should pay.
The environment is counting the cost, too. Most recently, waves caused by Hurricane Isaac in August dumped oil from the spill on two Louisiana beaches. Beltrá, meanwhile, is documenting low levels of sea ice in the Arctic. He is one photographer unlikely to be out of work any time soon.