Captain’s Log — Arctic Sunrise

by Pete Willcox

August 23, 2010

The water is the deepest blue. There are clumps of Sargasso all round.  Where they are bigger than one square foot, they have schools of tiny fish, hiding from the sun. As we approach with the ship, the schools start to swim away, but quickly swim back.  

The jet boat is running a parallel course a mile or so away. Onboard is whale scientist Susan Rocca, from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. Every couple miles she stops and lowers a hydrophone.  

Plankton scientist Caz Taylor and Erin Grey from Tulane have done a second test of their gear, and are happy.

We are in the Gulf of Mexico. I thought I was going back to Svalbard on the Esperanza this summer. But BP changed that plan.  During the next two months, we will take on different teams of scientists, and let them determine, without any influence from BP or Greenpeace, what is going on here.

Arctic Sunrise (the same boat I was on in Greenland and the Amazon last year) arrived to St. Petersburg, Florida on August 8th. We did the inevitable press conference, and headed down to Key West. 

A view of corals, sponges, algae and hydroids

In Key West we picked up sponge scientists Charles Messing and Joe from Nova University. Many assumed that the oil would quickly spread to the Keys. It has not yet, but only because the currents are not doing their normal thing. The purpose of letting Chuck and Joe study the sponges is that they are filter feeders, and will show any contamination. So we went out to the Dry Tortugas which has healthier reefs than the Florida Keys.  

The coral along the Florida Keys is suffering. Most is bleached and dying. I used to think this was because of the over building and over population of the Keys.  That is true. But the Dry Tortugas reefs are also suffering. Most of the heads I saw showed some kind of bleaching or die off. This leads me to worry about the agricultural runoff from the Everglades, which would effect the Dry Tortugas to a slightly lesser extent than the Keys. Our scientist would not say one way or the other.  But if I have learned one thing on these research trips, it that it OK to speculate.  But that’s all it is…

The Dry Tortugas have a large fort called Ft. Jefferson. It was built in the mid 1800s and was mostly used as a stockade for Northern soldiers who got caught doing something bad. We got a tour from a park ranger (a woman who had been in the Peace Corps) who really knew her subject. It was a fascinating hour.  The most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the man who set the leg of President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Mudd did not go to jail for setting his leg, but for sending the Army off in the wrong directions and allowing Booth to escape for two weeks.  

Mudd’s cell in Ft. Jefferson was leaky, and today you can see the channels he carved in the brick to drain the water.  

We went back to Key West, and exchanged scientists.

Now it is Saturday afternoon. The crew is taking their shifts helping count whale.  (Still at zero.) Otherwise they are lying low after a pretty full on two weeks.  Routine maintenance stops. But bridge watches still continue, and off course Willy, our cook does not get a day off.

NOAA is trying to explain why their original claim that 50% of the oil is gone, has now been revised to 75% is still there. Scientists from both University of Southern Florida and Woods Hole have found huge patches of oil 3,000 below the service.    

One of the issues that will be closely studied for the coming months and years is the effect that the dispersant Corexet 9500 had not only on the spill but the environment in general. This dispersant is banned as a toxin in the UK.  At one point the EPA told BP to stop using it. BP came back and said no, and kept on using it.  This is only one of the examples of how BP got out of the blocks much quicker than the US government. That we will do better on the next spill is a given (I would hope).  But that does not do us much good now.  

Tomorrow we will keep on whale surveying. Monday morning starts the first of the plankton tows.    

— Captain Pete Willcox

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