He used to canoe down the Des Plaines River and swim as a lifeguard in suburban pools. Now his love of water is prompting Kristian Anders Gustavson to venture to a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Gustavson was in New Orleans Thursday to begin documenting the effects of the BP oil spill that was spewing an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf each day.
A Libertyville native and founder of the waterway conservation group Below the Surface, Gustavson is working with camera crews to film sensitive areas of the Gulf Coast, such as the Gulf Islands National Seashore and barrier islands, before they get hit by the spill, and after, if necessary.
The goal is to get a baseline picture of the coast, how it's affected by the oil, and how effective cleanup efforts are.
Just as when he watched film of games as a football player at Libertyville High School, the 25-year-old Gustavson hopes the film will help us learn from mistakes.
Gustavson is one of many current and former suburban residents who have volunteered to respond to the oil spill, which began with an oil rig explosion April 20.
The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana registered more than 100 Illinois residents to help with the cleanup, but they had not been mobilized because the spill had not reached landfall.
Likewise, the National Audubon Society is signing up volunteers but not mobilizing them, as weather patterns temporarily held the oil slick off shore.
The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago also is gearing up to respond to the spill, spokesman Roger Germann said.
Gustavson, who now lives in San Diego, was already familiar with the New Orleans area because of a previous project.
In February, Gustavson explored the Atchafalaya River, which branches off the Mississippi River and runs through the largest swamp in the country to the Gulf, where its deposits are helping to rebuild the coastline.
The area is Cajun country, home to 800-year-old cypress trees and a prime candidate for flooding, so Gustavson was studying conservation efforts there. He said his work will be featured in the June issue of Reader's Digest.
"The Gulf coast has sort of lured me in," Gustafson said. "It's a phenomenal place with a lot of history that's often overlooked. I've really come to respect and cherish this area."
Closer to home, the Shedd Aquarium has contacted officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as local conservation groups, and is waiting to see what expertise is needed.
When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ruptured in Alaska in 1989, the aquarium sent a team of experts to help clean and rehabilitate oil-fouled sea otters.
Three of those orphaned otter pups, unable to be returned to the wild, still live at the Shedd.
The Shedd also helped with an oil spill that affected penguins in South Africa in the 1990s, and this past winter with mass sea turtle strandings during the cold snap in Florida.
In the Gulf coast, two endangered species of great concern to marine ecologists are the Brown Pelican and sea turtles.
"We're prepared to go down there," Germann said. "We're just waiting for the call on how we can help."