Most research cruises require years of planning and grant-writing, then take place far out at sea with nobody but the dolphins and seagulls watching. Not so for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Dive and Discover Expedition 13 – an exploration of the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on deep-sea life in the Gulf of Mexico. As Ken Kostel writes in the first daily update for the mission, this cruise is the epitome of rapid response science:
… this cruise is different. It was on no one’s schedule six months ago. Two months ago Alvin became available. Sentry was added to the cruise plan less than a month ago. Two weeks ago an ocean bottom time-lapse camera became available and the expedition’s chief scientist, Chuck Fisher from Pennsylvania State University, decided to bring it along before he knew if researchers would have the money for it. They found it. “We have to be flexible and take advantage of opportunities in what we do,” Fisher told me soon after he arrived on Atlantis. “But this is unheard of to have everything come together like this.”
That’s a big help to the scientists and crew on board Atlantis, but it also means that today everyone’s pressed for time.
Kostel explains that this unusual expedition is being made possible by a RAPID response grant from the National Science Foundation’s RAPID response grant system – a program specifically designed to enable researchers to respond quickly to unanticipated events such as earthquakes, underwater eruptions, and oil spills. But Kostel says the “rapid response” aspect of this cruise goes beyond the funding source.
… the information Chuck and the other scientists are using to select potential dive sites is still very new. In the beginning of November, a remarkably successful series of dives by the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason visited many of the sites Chuck had picked for this cruise.
On its last dive, however, Jason found a patch of dead and dying coral near the Deepwater Horizon wellhead that spilled so much oil into the Gulf. That, said Chuck, pointed to the need for more exploration around the well, so he scrapped his plans and began looking for sites that would give him a better picture of how the oil might be affecting life in the deep ocean. Photographs from a deep-sea camera only came back last week to help the team create a short list of places they’d like to visit. Capt. Arthur “A.D.” Colburn has said Chuck can put off making a final decision on where to go first until we reach the sea buoy Monday night.
“This is the nature of rapid response,” said Chuck.
The Dive and Discover team aboard the Atlantis will be posting daily updates, slide shows and videos on the expedition website between now and December 14th.