ON BARATARIA BAY, La. - The wildlife apocalypse along the Gulf Coast everyone has feared for weeks is fast becoming a terrible reality.

Pelicans struggle to free themselves from oil, thick as tar, that gathers in hip-deep pools, while others stretch out useless wings, feathers dripping with crude. Dead birds and dolphins wash ashore, coated in the sludge. Seashells that once glinted pearly white under the hot June sun are stained crimson.

Scenes like this played out along miles of shoreline yesterday, nearly seven weeks after a BP rig exploded and the wellhead a mile below the surface began belching millions of gallons of oil.

"It's a nightmare," said boat captain Dave Marino, a firefighter and fishing guide from Myrtle Grove. "It looks like it's going to be wave after wave of it and nobody can stop it."

The oil has spread east, washing up in greater quantities in recent days, even as a cap placed by BP over the leaking pipe began collecting some of the escaping crude. Estimates vary on how much is being captured, but officials acknowledge it's a small fraction of the 23 million to 47 million gallons they estimate has leaked into the Gulf of Mexico since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers, making it the nation's largest oil spill ever.

In Gulf Shores, Ala., boardwalks leading to hotels were tattooed with oil from beachgoers' feet. A slick, hundreds of yards long, washed ashore at a state park, coating the white sand with a thick, red stew.

The oil's arrival coincides with the beginning of the lucrative tourist season, and beachgoers haven't been able to escape it. "This makes me sick," said Rebecca Thomasson of Knoxville, Tenn., her legs and feet smeared with brown streaks of crude. "We were over in Florida earlier and it was bad there, but it was nothing like this.At Pensacola Beach, Erin Tamber, who moved to the area from New Orleans after surviving Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, inspected a beach stained orange by the retreating tide. "I feel like I've gone from owning a piece of paradise to owning a toxic waste dump," she said.

After six weeks with one to four birds a day coming to Louisiana's rescue center for oiled birds at Fort Jackson, 53 arrived Thursday and another 13 Friday morning, with more on the way. Federal authorities say 792 dead birds, sea turtles, dolphins and other wildlife have been collected from the Gulf and its coast.

Yet scientists say the wildlife death toll remains relatively modest, well below the tens of thousands of creatures killed after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound, largely because the Deepwater Horizon rig was 50 miles offshore and most of the oil has stayed in the open sea.

Still, experts say the Gulf's marshes, beaches and coastal waters, which nurture a dazzling array of life, could be transformed into killing fields, though the die-off may take months or years.

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