Beyond Oil: Many ways to skin a (metaphorical) cat

by Dave Walsh

September 22, 2010

 The Arctic Sunrise is currently pitching her way through a healthy swell, somewhere south of Louisiana. I’d been facetiously complaining that I didn’t get anywhere near a rodeo while we were in Galveston, Texas – so now I get to be a buckaroo at my desk instead.

There’s a strong breeze blowing; for a change it’s actually refreshing to walk out on deck. My previous four Greenpeace ship expeditions have been to the Arctic and Antarctica, the humid weather of the Gulf takes some adjusting to.

The ship is quiet today; not because of any serious bouts of seasickness, but rather because many of the crew and scientists on board have worked through the night, doing experiments to track down the fate of the oil plumes from the Macando wellhead, following the BP oil spill disaster.

While they worked, a drama was unfolding at the other side of the Atlantic; two activists, Anais from Germany and Victor from Sweden, climbed aboard the anchor of a Chevron drilling ship, the Stella Carron, near Lerwick, in Scotland’s Shetland Islands. The Stella Carron was about depart to start exploratory deepwater drilling 1600 feet down in the ecologically sensitive Atlantic Frontier area. As I write this, the sun is getting low in the sky of the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s close to midnight in Scotland. I should not complain about the heat out on deck, here when Anais and Victor are spending a chilly night in a tent, 16ft above the waves.

[UPDATE: Since I drafted this blog, the activists in Shetland have added a ‘pod’ to the anchor – and increased their number! Now they’re looking for your input to add a slogan to the side of the pod.]

Put your slogan on our pod - see GPUK for details!

As that rather odd idiom goes, there are many ways to skin a cat (please don’t take this literally). While our friends are taking direct action in Shetland, we’re on a different tack in the Gulf of Mexico to the same desired destination – and end to oil. The Arctic Sunrise is here to support independent scientific research into the environmental impact of the oil spill; we’re also calling on the US government needs to continue its moratorium on deepwater drilling, get out of bed with the fossil fuel industry, and show some real imagination in determining a clean, sustainable energy future. Surely, that’s not too much to ask?

We left port early on Sunday morning, after several long days of loading equipment and preparing the ship for this leg; we have on board a team of scientists, led by Dr Rainer Amon, whose sampling program will require two large winches hooked up to the one of the ship’s “A-frames” – normally used for lifting the inflatable boats clear of the water. Sparks were flying until late on Saturday night, as a team of welders from Galveston helped ready the ship. This is not Rainer’s first time working in the Gulf of Mexico since the oil spill; in June he was on the National Science Foundation (NSF) vessel RV Cape Hatteras, tracing the movement of subsurface plumes close to the Deepwater Horizon disaster site, and blogged about it for Scientific American.

Now Rainer is on board with the Sunrise, along with his colleagues Cliff, Sally and Chuck, and they’re already pulling some long hours. They are studying the extent, composition and impacts of the oil and gas that has remained in the Gulf’s deep water, by gauging dissolved oxygen levels, and the ratio of stable carbon isotopes present in dissolved inorganic carbon chemicals, as a way to locate areas affected by the oil spill.

Going by the figures released in early August by the National Incident Command, of the 4.9 million barrels thought to have been released since the explosion, some 800,000 barrels were captured straight from the well head; another 400,000 barrels were burned or skimmed, leaving between three and four million barrels of oil still in the Gulf of Mexico environment. Over the past few months some of this will have evaporated and some biodegraded, much is likely to still remain in Gulf waters and all will have affected this ecosystem in some way.

The first piece of science work started on Monday morning and continued until first thing Tuesday – dropping a half-tonne apparatus that includes a  ‘CTD’, or “conductivity, temperature and depth” device, along with an array of water sampling containers and various other water monitoring instruments, down 1000m or so below the ocean’s surface. They will be sharing these samples with other scientists to help build a broad, and importantly, a more independent picture of just what is going on beneath the waves of the Gulf.

CTD Unit Retrieved on the Arctic Sunrise

Now we’re heading closer to where the spill happened, to run more deep tests on the Gulf’s waters; we hope to be able to share some of the team’s findings in the coming days.

This Friday, September 24th, we’ll be broadcasting live from the Arctic Sunrise at 1-2 EST. Greenpeace US Research Director Kert Davies is on board (and sitting right across from me as I write this) and he’ll be addressing the UN Week Digital Media Lounge via Skype. To find out how you can see the broadcast, and chat to us online, get yourself along to

– Dave

P.S. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @gp_sunrise

Shetland action photo by Will Rose. Arctic Sunrise science work picture by Mannie Garcia.

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