Researchers Prepare to Return to Site Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

A University of Georgia marine scientist will lead a research expedition back to the site of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico to examine the seafloor and assess the long-term effects of the oil spill.

(From The Red & Black /by Gabe Cavallaro) — “The main thing that we want to find out is are these chemicals persisting in the environment and we want to figure out why they’re not being degraded,” said Samantha Joye, a UGA marine scientist and professor who will be the chief scientist on the cruise.

Natural hydrocarbon seepage is the main source of oil entering the ocean — not oil spills — but the ocean is not “awash with oil.” The reason, she said, is that there are organisms that degrade it.

However, it’s not degrading near the Macondo site and Joye and her team want to figure out why that is.

“There’s a number of things that could be going on and there’s just no way to tell other than to keep collecting samples and do more experiments,” she said.

Joye said the research team, which includes 24 scientists — 11 from UGA — will travel aboard the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s research vessel Atlantis and will depart from Gulfport, Miss., on March 30 and will return April 24.

“When I first joined [Dr. Joye’s] lab, I was really interested in some of the deep sea floor extreme environments and I actually get to see these things firsthand now,” said Ryan Sibert, a research assistant and Ph.D. student going on the trip. “I don’t have to imagine them in my head anymore.”

The scientists will be using the human-operated deep submergence vessel Alvin for their deep-sea dives, which has both portholes and cameras for viewing — Joye’s choice over other automated or remotely operated vehicles.

“There’s a lot of benefit for having humans on the seafloor, so that you see things that you wouldn’t ordinarily see,” she said. “I really prefer Alvin because of the eyes on the bottom issue. I just feel like it’s an intangible, but it’s very very critical for getting the work that I want to accomplish done.”

This 2014 cruise is a follow-up to the 2010 trip Joye made about 10 months after the spill began in April 2010 and is being sponsored by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and the National Science Foundation.

Joye said she has returned to the site multiple times since to collect some samples and that they know there are “interesting features” on the bottom because they saw them with Alvin in 2010.

When they took the submersible down then she said they saw no sea cucumbers or animals like them, as the hydrocarbon levels probably made it an “unpalatable habitat” for them.

“Anything that was mobile I think sort of cleared out of areas where there was a lot hydrocarbon on the bottom,” she said.

She said the organisms she did see on the seafloor exhibited strange behavior, such as the black and brown stained crabs that acted like they were drugged, not scurrying off when they saw the submarine cameras.

“They weren’t afraid — and they should have been afraid,” she said. “They should have treated the submarine like a predator, and they didn’t.”

Joye said she hopes there’s been recovery in the last four years.

“My hope is that we see some recovery, that we see some changes in the faunal communities, that we see more diverse infauna, that we see larger animals cruising around and grazing, as opposed to a barren desert, which is what we saw in 2010 around the wellhead,” she said.

Realistically, Joye said she expects to see something in between the “barren desert” and a “fertile oasis,” but doesn’t think it will be like what they typically see around a natural hydrocarbon seep on the seafloor.

The ship will have Internet access and Joye will be live-blogging with updates on her website.

“I don’t know how people did it before Internet,” said Joye, gesturing to the three young children’s faces adorned the walls of her office. “I can’t imagine being away from my kids for six weeks.”

The cruise will also feature Antonia Juhasz, a leading voice on oil and energy and investigative journalist, on board. She will be writing three articles on the expedition.

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