January 6, 2011

As the research vessel Brooks McCall prepares to embark from Pensacola’s city dock for destinations near the BP Deepwater Horizon spill site, expedition co-leaders Thomas Shirley and Sylvia Earle discuss their goals for the week ahead.
Sylvia Earle with the Brooks McCallSylvia Earle with the Brooks McCall.

By Thomas Shirley and Sylvia Earle
Shirley: Sylvia, we’re departing on the Mission Blue: Survivors of the Spill expedition. What do you expect to get out of this?
Earle: I am really looking forward to using that cool little submersible that the Waitt Foundation is making available to us. It has the capacity to go down to 2,000 feet, and it will let us personally look around. And you’re going to try to get some core samples out there?
waitt-institute-deepworker-subThe Waitt Institute’s two-person Deepworker sub on the stern of the Brooks McCall.

Shirley: Yes. We want to take some core samples and some water samples to look for oil residues and for toxicity. We’re interested in finding out if we can document any damage to the deep benthic communities, particularly those that might be found around some of the deepwater corals.
Earle: These are places that the Harte Research Institute has studied before. Several students have been out there, really seriously looking at them, and the fish, too, that live around them.
Shirley: In fact, I’m really pleased that we’re able to get two of our doctoral students from the Harte Research Institute out on this cruise: Doug Weaver and Harriet Nash. This is a great opportunity for them. They’re both experienced, but this will be even more experience for them.
Earle: I love that this is a part of Mission Blue, in that we’ve got several institutions pulling together. National Geographic is involved. Google’s involved. The Waitt Institute is involved. Harte Institute is involved. And so many more…
Shirley: And ORCA, Edie Widder with her Medusa lander that’s going to provide us a good opportunity for some long-term photographing of some of the benthic fishes. She’s going to bait it and collect oceanographic data at the same time.
Ian-Griffith-Edie-Widder-MedusaIan Griffith and Edie Widder remove the Medusa from its shipping crate.

Earle: And go deeper than we can go in the sub.
Shirley: That’ll be deep water, out near the Deepwater Horizon wellhead site. Good stuff.
sylvia-earle-bryce-groark-answer-kids-questionsZachary and Barclay Zislin, ages 10 and 7, ask about diving and subs with underwater cameraman Bryce Groark and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle.

Earle: I really hope we see some Sargassumon the surface. It took a big hit during the spill, these great rafts, these floating forests of seaweed.
Shirley: A lot of people aren’t aware of that, how important the Sargassum community is, providing complex habitat for some of the early life-history stages of fishes and turtles. It’s a place for them to hide in, and also to find food, shelter, shade from the sun. A lot of fishes are attracted to them.
The fishermen know this. They fish alongside those sarghassum rafts. But a lot of the rafts were soaked up by oil and took a big hit.
Earle: They got burned, too, so many of the Sargassum rafts.
One of the objectives that I hope we’ll be able to achieve is identifying some places that are in good shape–the idea of really embracing those places that give cause for hope, that give back to the Gulf of Mexico and restore its health, that provide a jumpstart on bringing things back into good condition.
Shirley: We’ll be going back to some of the same places you went to several years ago to see if in fact they have been damaged or if they remain the same. That would be wonderful news, if we could determine that they’re still healthy.
Earle: That’s actually the principle objective of our first series of dives: To go out to some of the places that were first studied in the seventies, and then during the Sustainable Seas Expeditions that involved NOAA, National Geographic, and the Goldman Foundation.
We had about 100 cooperating individuals and institutions involved over five years in this very area. So for me, it’s a treat to be able to come back and have another look. I really have my flippers crossed that we’re going to find some good news out there!
A brown pelican finds a perch on the Brooks McCallA brown pelican finds a perch on the Brooks McCall.

Shirley: Good choice of words. It’s good that Marissa Nutall is going with us from the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, because she’s studying the deepwater corals for her Master’s thesis. She’ll be a great help for us in this study, helping identify some of the critters that we’ll see.
Earle: I want to get her out there in the submarine, to go down and see what it’s like deeper than divers can go. That’s one of the great benefits of the two kinds of equipment that we have along: The remotely deployed system plus the little sub. This is cause for hope. We’re really going to come back with some good news.
Shirley: It’s a gorgeous day to launch the expedition, and a great place to leap from. We’re looking forward to it.
Earle: Pensacola, Florida. Next stop Gulfport. Next stop Freeport. Well, no: The ocean is our next stop.
brooks-mccall-sunsetSun sets over Pensacola as the Brooks McCall prepares to embark.
Support for the Mission Blue: Survivors of the Spill expedition is provided by the National Geographic Society, Google Inc., the Waitt Institute, and Hope Spots LLC. Follow along in context by clicking on the ship icon near Pensacola, Florida using Google Earth.

Read all Mission Blue expedition coverage here.

Photos by Ford Cochran

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