Research website will take viewers deep into the Gulf of Mexico

December 13, 2010

University Park, Pa. — Researchers on an expedition in the Gulf of Mexico to view first-hand the possible effects of the oil spill on the sea floor are posting daily reports of their explorations on the Web. Charles Fisher, a biological oceanographer from Penn State, is the chief scientist on this research expedition. The research team's daily updates, photos and videos will be added to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's (WHOI) "Dive and Discover" website, until Dec. 14. To follow the activities during the expedition, click on the "Expedition 13" link at the Dive and Discover website.

The expedition is part of the effort to determine the full impact on the Gulf of Mexico of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from the Macondo 252 well, which poured oil into the Gulf for 86 days beginning on April 20. During this research expedition, the first dive site likely will be the same location where, on Nov. 2, researchers including Fisher were the first to find signs of dead and dying corals associated with the Macondo well.

"During one of the current expedition's dives, we plan to return to the impacted coral site that we discovered in November to check on the state of the animals there," Fisher said. "Another focus of this expedition is to discover and characterize new sites with communities of deep-sea corals and other animals close to the Macondo well. We expect to find coral and hydrocarbon-seep communities that never before have been visited by a remotely operated underwater vehicle or a submarine."

The team will make six dives during this expedition with the human-piloted submersible Alvin, which is owned by the U.S. Navy, to document the ocean bottom and collect samples of animals and sediment. The scientists also will use the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, for overnight missions to map and photograph the sea floor. The expedition is the first dual use both an AUV and a manned submersible in the Gulf since the blowout of the Macondo 252 well.

Also during this research expedition, the scientists will attempt to retrieve collections made by autonomous sediment traps put down in June. Similar instruments were deployed during September 2009, providing a time-series of samples that will help reveal the effect of oil and dispersants. "The combination of the exploration and mapping capabilities of the AUV Sentry, with the sampling and close-up imaging capabilities of the Alvin submarine, will allow us to discover, characterize and sample new deep-sea communities very efficiently and thoroughly," Fisher said.

This expedition to probe the Gulf for impacts of the oil spill on the organisms of the deep-ocean communities there involves scientists from many institutions and is led by Penn State University, Temple University, Haverford College, and WHOI. The co-principal investigators for this expedition are Tim Shank and Chris German of WHOI.

To see a video related to this story, visit online.

  • Charles Fisher on a research expedition in the Gulf of Mexico.

    IMAGE: Eric Simms
Last Updated March 21, 2011