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Oceana Magazine Winter 2011: Into the Gulf

By Emily Fisher

Oceana spent two months on the water in the Gulf of Mexico investigating the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout and documenting the creatures and habitats at  risk.

Picture this: It’s 6:30 a.m. aboard the Oceana Latitude, but there’s no time to enjoy the sunrise over the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, the sun is nowhere to be seen – just flashes of lightning followed by crashes of thunder. There are 14 hours of work on deck to be done, complicated by pelting rain, bolting winds and swells that send the boat pitching from side to side.

It was all in a day’s work for the crew of the 170-foot Oceana Latitude. Dr. Jeff Short, Oceana’s Pacific science director and one of the world’s leading experts on oil spills, designed an experiment to map the oil plume around the Deepwater Horizon.

Over the course of 10 days, even during monsoon-like conditions, Dr. Short and his team dropped buoys with hydrocarbon sensor strips up to 6,000 feet deep near the site of the blown out well. After the team collected the test strips, they were sent to a lab to be analyzed for toxic hydrocarbons.

Dr. Short’s was just one section of Oceana’s two-month research expedition in the Gulf of Mexico this summer to assess the impacts of the oil well blowout and document the creatures and habitats that coexist with the maze of rigs producing oil in the Gulf.

The expedition was an international effort led by Oceana’s chief scientist and vice president for North America, Dr. Michael Hirshfield and Oceana’s vice president for Europe, Xavier Pastor, and it included scientists, divers and underwater photographers from Oceana’s U.S., Chile and Spain offices, as well as academic scientists.

“Most of the public’s attention was on the visible oil on the surface of the Gulf and the beaches and marshes,” said Hirshfield. “We want the public to understand the impacts of the unseen, underwater oil that damaged marine wildlife and habitats in the Gulf and will likely continue to do so for years to come.”

During the expedition, Matthias Gorny, Oceana’s science director for Chile, used an underwater robot to discover black “wormholes,” or piles of sediment produced by marine worms. Normally, they are white; the discovery of black wormholes could indicate that abandoned oil wells are leaking.

Oceana also collaborated with a university to tag sharks. Working with the shark team from the University of Miami’s R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, led by Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, Oceana tagged and sampled Caribbean reef sharks and nurse sharks near Florida’s Dry Tortugas.  In addition to collecting data from each shark, the tags can provide information on migration, abundance and mortality.

The tags can also help identify these sharks later as those that were near the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, which could help to determine the long-term impacts of the oil spill on shark populations.

Dr. Short’s experiment – and the entire expedition – was marked by long days. “We could not have pulled it off without the crew,” Oceana marine scientist Dr. Kim Warner said. “Everybody pitched in and worked really, really hard, from sun up to sun down.”

Now that the expedition is over, Oceana’s scientists have scattered back to their parts of the globe to analyze the results of their experiments. They hope to release findings in early 2011.


Timeline: The Evolution of An Offshore Drilling Disaster

A chronological look at the policy changes surrounding the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

July 14, 2008: President George Bush allows a 26-year moratorium on offshore oil and gas drilling to lapse, opening up thousands of miles of U.S. coastline to drilling.

February 11, 2009: Oceana board member Ted Danson testifies before a U.S. Congressional committee and calls for a reinstatement of the moratorium.

March 9, 2009: Oceana releases “Toxic Legacy: Long-term Effects of Offshore Oil on Wildlife and Public Health” to mark the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster.

March 31, 2010: The Obama administration lifts a moratorium on offshore drilling in the Atlantic from Delaware to the central coast of Florida, and opens new areas of the southeast Gulf Coast and the Alaskan Arctic.

April 20, 2010: The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and spurring a historic oil gusher.

May 6, 2010: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar suspends offshore oil and gas production on Virginia’s coast.

May 27, 2010: President Obama announces plans to suspend Arctic offshore drilling, cancel lease sales in the western Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Virginia, suspend activity on 33 exploratory wells and extend the moratorium on deepwater drilling for six months.

September 19, 2010: BP declares the Deepwater Horizon’s Macondo well “effectively dead.”

September 30, 2010: Secretary Salazar announces new rules governing offshore drilling for oil and gas, including stricter standards on drilling and workplace safety.

October 12, 2010: The Obama Administration lifts the deepwater drilling moratorium, originally set to expire on November 30.