Returning to the Gulf

USF’s R/V Weatherbird II Exploring Gulf's Deep Water for Oil Contamination


By Vickie Chachere


St. Petersburg, Fla. (Updated May 24, 2010) – The R/V Weatherbird II is exploring some of the deepest areas of the northern Gulf of Mexico in search of an underwater oil cloud that may have spread from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 


The R/V Weatherbird II departed USF's College of Marine Science complex on Saturday carrying four USF scientists as well as state researchers for the six-day gulf mission. Their research wll take them into largely unexplored areas of the gulf floor, including DeSoto Canyon, which one researcher described as an "abyss" that falls off from the Florida shelf due south of the Florida-Alabama state line.


The researchers are trying to track what might have happened to a vast underwater cloud of oil emanating fromt the April 20 spill, and whether the oil - which would move differently thorugh the deep, cold waters of the gulf - may be suspended on the gulf floor or trapped in the DeSoto Canyon.


The lead investigators on the research venture are USF chemical oceanographer Dave Hollander, geological oceanographer David Naar, and biological oceanographer Ernst Peebles.


The scientists will search several areas about 200 miles off the coast of Florida and south of Mobile, Ala., for oil below the water’s surface. 


“We’re not sure the sea surface is telling us the whole story,” Peebles said. “So we need to plumb the depths and see if we can find oil.”


During the voyage, the researchers will gather water samples at a series of stations in the deep waters of the northern gulf . Their journey wil take them as close as about 30 miles from the leaking well.


Enroute to those stations, the Weatherbird II will deploy a glider in the Gulf of Mexico Loop Current which will be able to gather data about underwater conditions and wirelessly transmit information back to the College of Marine Science. The glider is capable of operating for as long as a month before it will be retrieved.


A key portion of the research cruise will be an effort to look for oil contamination in the DeSoto Canyon. The scientists will be able to gather sediment samples from the canyon floor, some 3,800 meters beneath the water’s surface.


While recent focus has been on oil being trapped into the Loop Current, the fast-moving undersea stream that flows south toward the Florida Keys, scientists say the surface movement of the gulf waters can be quite different from the movement of water in the gulf’s depths.


While oil can break down naturally with the help of marine bacteria and water movement, the concern is the bulk of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill can’t be accounted for by the visible evidence of where the oil has gone.


Hollander said scientists need a clear understanding of that undersea oil plume, how it is structured and how it is interacting with the sea floor. He likened the undersea oil to recent ash cloud created when an Icelandic volcano erupted and created havoc as the cloud moved and shifted in the atmosphere.


The uncertainty of what is happening beneath the gulf’s surface has the researchers intrigued yet mindful of the unchartered territory and potential devastation this oil spill presents.


“This is a one-time event that man has created,” Hollander said. “We don’t know the solution to it. We don’t know the consequences of it.”


This is the Weatherbird II’s second voyage to investigate the impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill. The vessel returned on Monday, May 19, from a 12-day trip during which researchers gathered water and zooplankton samples from areas of the gulf not yet impacted by the oil. They then ventured into the heart of the spill to use a high-tech underwater imaging device to investigate the impact of the oil on marine life and to measure toxic oil droplets underwater.


Data and samples from the first research venture are still undergoing analysis.


The R/V Bellows is currently investigating the flow of oil into the Loop Current and returned from its voyage early Monday morning. Researchers did not see oil on the surface of Loop Current waters, but gathered water samples which will be analyzed. Results will not be immediatley available.



The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.