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October 5, 2010

Mission accomplished in the Gulf of Mexico


© OCEANA / Carlos Suárez


Oceana’s first expedition in the Gulf of Mexico to evaluate the long-term effects of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe has concluded. For two months scientists, divers, ROV operators and support personnel on board the Oceana Latitude, sailed close to 4,000 miles – practically the distance from Miami (Florida) to Mallorca. Our team of divers completed 24 dives, and collected hundreds of photographs and hours of video footage. During the best dives, we explored the depths of marine reserves, to obtain information for subsequent comparison, when the less visible impacts of the spill become more apparent. We’ve explored the waters around operating oil platforms to film and photograph the surprising ecosystems harboured within the turbid waters of the Gulf. And we’ve done this at maximum depths for divers with compressed air in order to manually collect samples of sediments contaminated by oil in areas with zero visibility.

The underwater robots brought from Chile and Europe were used on a dozen occasions, in difficult meteorological conditions, to document the state of the seabeds in areas beyond the divers’ reach. In the deeper waters of the continental shelves of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, we documented abandoned oil drilling facilities, whale sharks swimming over maerl beds (calcareous algae) and sandy seabeds close to the Isla Tortugas and the Marquesas. The rich biodiversity of the seamounts known as the “Alabama Alps” was also documented. These seamounts were explored in detail because the sea surface was covered in oil and dispersants during the first weeks after the disaster.

Despite difficult conditions, including strong winds and heavy seas, Oceana scientists installed and recovered up to 18 toxic hydrocarbon measuring stations around the remnants of the Deepwater Horizon and hundreds of sensors which had been placed at intervals from the surface of the sea down to 1,800 meters deep. They also collected sediment samples at these depths.

Over the past weeks, we’ve compiled a catalogue of images of the offshore oil industry and its varying types of facilities and vessels. We´ve also witnessed first hand, the routine contamination and frequent accidents that occur in the thousands of oil drilling facilities in the Gulf of Mexico, although these do not receive media attention either because lives are not lost or because they are not notified.

We also worked in coastal waters filming manatees, turtles and otters, and dove in the artificial reefs created by wrecks – veritable oases of biodiversity. In addition, we documented suspicious fishing boats in areas where their activity is prohibited.

Images were taken of cetaceans and sea birds whose habitats are at risk because of the spill, including endangered species like Cuvier’s beaked whales and rough-toothed dolphins. Samples of plankton were taken to observe the impact of the oil spill on micro-organisms, as well as on the eggs and larvae of fish, molluscs and crustaceans.

We participated in a shark taggin programme along with scientists from the University of Miami and the National Aquarium, to study the health and migrations of these animals after the Gulf spill. And last but not least, we had to run away from tropical storm Nicole at the end of September.

All of this information can be found on our website, and it is we are convinced that no one has ever made such an intense effort to immediately publish images online.. Every day (every day!), we transmitted a two or three-minute video summarising the day’s activities via satellite internet. We also included a dozen excellent photographs taken by our cameras, as well as the ship’s log, a map of our journey and the ship’s daily position. And to top it off, we installed a webcam on the ship that transmitted our position and activities minute by minute. In short, we attempted to take the expedition into the homes and offices of all those who follow our work through the website and our press releases.

We also worked with celebrities on board: Morgan Freeman, Ted Danson, Almudena Fernandez and dozens of journalists in different ports.

The Oceana team that carried out this challenging campaign under the adverse meteorological conditions present over seventy-five percent of the expedition, was comprised of Oceana members from all regional sections: from Europe to the U.S., and from Central to South America. There were more than a dozen nationalities on board the Oceana Latitude, including researchers and crew.

It wasn’t always easy. Like any expedition, not only did we face meteorological difficulties, but also technical failures and problems, and even bureaucratic obstacles in some ports. But we were able to overcome these obstacles by staying calm and focused, and looking for alternatives.  We completed each and every project we planned, although some of these were more intense than we would have liked. At times, our programme was too dense and ambitious.

Now it’s time to analyse the results. It’s time to wait for the data from the laboratories and hope that our subsequent studies will, within a few months, constitute another piece of the puzzle, which is what the research on the environmental impacts of the catastrophe, this time at the hands of BP, has turned into.

The results of this Oceana expedition, what we have observed in the field, will provide additional elements that should promote society’s trend to quickly abandon energy policies based on the use of fossil fuels and decidedly embrace support for renewable energies, and in particular, offshore wind. These energies are clean, efficient and generate employment without the risk of environmental catastrophes.


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