R/V Bellows Returns from Loop Current

As models show oil entering the Loop Current, researchers aboard the R/V Bellows investigate.


By Vickie Chachere


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Updated May 24, 2010) – As scientific models show oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill entering the Gulf of Mexico’s Loop Current, USF's R/V Bellows and a team of scientists ended a five-day voyage to the current Monday, but still have much work to do on water samples drawn from those waters. 


The Bellows is the second USF ship involved in the oil spill response. The R/V Weatherbird sailed Saturday for its second trip into the spill zone, a six-day mission to determine if oil from the ruptured Deepwater Horizon well has pooled in the depths of the gulf. 


The Bellows’  voyage involved collecting water samples from the Loop Current to determine if oil below the gulf’s surface is present in the fast-moving current that runs the length of the state of Florida. Scientists used high-tech underwater sensors to explore in depths that cannot be examined by satellite images.


Scientists also were on the lookout for tar balls and deployed drifters to estimate eastward movement of the oil in the Loop Current. No visible oil was seen on the current's surface, the scientists reported during their journey.


The gulf Loop Current is about 80 to 100 miles from Florida’s west coast. USF PhD students Peter Simard, who studies whales and dolphins, and Brian Barnes, an optical oceanographer who studies the coral reefs near the Florida Keys, were on board.


Simard said little focus has been on the whales and dolphins who populate the Gulf of Mexico, and he is attempting make a first assessment of how the oil spill has affected those animals.


"Marine mammals are known (to be sensitive) to toxins," Simard said. "It's reasonable to think there has been an effect." 


The 71-foot Bellows carried 10 scientists and three crew members. The vessel is operated under the auspices of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, an academic and research cooperative which connects marine science initiatives at Florida’s 11 state universities. USF manages the institute on behalf of the state university system.


The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute comprise the remainder of the scientific crew.


Since the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil well on April 20, USF scientists have been monitoring the movement of spilled oil toward the Loop Current, which now is expected to carry the oil toward the Florida Keys, into the Straits of Florida and up the state’s Atlantic Coast.


USF’s Ocean Circulation Group models have shown the oil spill entering the Loop Current during the past weekend. The forecast predicts that the forefront of the oil slick could reach the Keys as early as Sunday or Monday, provided Loop Current conditions remain constant and the oil does not disperse or evaporate.