R/V Weatherbird II To Return Friday

Focus will be on collecting marine life samples to determine any exposure to sub-surface oil from the Deepwater Horizon well.


By Vickie Chachere

USF.edu News Manager


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Sept. 2, 2010) – Researchers from the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science set sail Saturday, Sept. 4 for a seven-day research venture examining the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on fish, shrimp and other marine creatures in an area of the Gulf of Mexico where deep-sea oil plumes have been discovered.


The ship is scheduled to return Friday.


The R/V Weatherbird II will carry a team of 10 scientists and six crew members to the DeSoto Canyon, a key deepwater feature in the northern Gulf that is critical to marine life and where clouds of degraded BP oil have been found. The research team  will revisit the sites identified on previous Weatherbird II cruises with a focus on marine life that are important food sources for larger fish – such as tuna, sailfish and mahi-mahi  - and marine mammals.


Biological Oceanographer Jose Torres is leading the expedition, which will include a series of stations where researchers will deploy large nets capable of collecting small fish, shrimp and other specimens from as deep as 1,000 meters below the Gulf’s surface.


“Each day these creatures undertake a migration to near-surface waters to feed.  During their journeys up and down they will be passing right through any plumes that are present in the mid-depths,” Torres said.


“As important members of the ‘business-end’ of the food chain these deeper living species form a critical link in the ocean’s economy.  We will be sampling to look for evidence of exposure to sub-surface oil and to compare present abundances with those obtained in years past, prior to the spill. Using both strategies we should be able to get a good measure of the spill’s impact. “


Friday’s research cruise will be the fourth trip the Weatherbird II has made to the spill zone since the April 20 rupture of the Deepwater Horizon well. Previous cruises by USF researchers have yielded key observations in findings on the extent of the BP oil contamination in the Gulf, the depth and concentration of degraded clouds of oil and the spill’s impact on phytoplankton, the base of the Gulf food web.


This cruise comes less than three weeks after USF researchers returned from the DeSoto Canyon area where they discovered what appears to be oil in deep-sea sediments and observed evidence that the oil has become toxic to phytoplankton. The canyon is a critical area that provides nutrient-rich waters that support the spawning grounds of commercially important fish species on the West Florida Shelf.


Objectives of the current cruise include:


  • Determining the hydrocarbon concentrations in water column samples and characterizing the chemical composition of oil (chemical fingerprinting).
  • Assessing mesopelagic (middle-depths) species at two reference stations and one within the plume with respect to abundance and distribution.
  • Obtain frozen specimens of 10 target species for laboratory determinations of evidence of exposure to oil.

 To view a gallery of the organisms being studied on the research voyage, click here.


 The Weatherbird II is scheduled to return to St. Petersburg on Sept. 10. The research project is funded by a $147,696 Rapid Response Grant from the National Science Foundation.


Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.