A 170-foot research ship leaves Sunday from Dania Beach on an expedition to document the BP oil spill's unseen impact on ocean life.
Oceana, the largest marine conservation group in the world, is making final preparations for a two-month trip to study the undersea plumes of oil generated by the April 20 accident.
Although most attention has focused on the slicks invading coastal wetlands, coating birds and killing sea turtles, Oceana's scientists want to study the destruction they believe is taking place under water.
"The goal of the expedition is really to tell the story of the oil that didn't get as much attention as the oil on the surface," said Michael Hirshfield, Oceana's chief scientist. "We want to assess what the underwater oil might have done to corals, sponges, baby fish, big fish like sharks. For every animal that dies visibly in front of the cameras, there are probably tens or hundreds that die without being seen."
The ship, the Ocean Latitude, docked at Dania Cut-Off Super Yacht Repair, was donated at cost for the trip by its owner. Aside from a crew of 13, it will carry 12 members of Oceana, with occasional visits by scientists from various universities. Oceana is an international group, with members from Spain, Germany, Denmark, Chile, Argentina, Belize and the United States.
"It's not only of concern to the people of the U.S.," said Xavier Pastor, the expedition's director. "This could happen in the Med or other places where oil drilling is taking place or people want it to take place."
They will use two remotely operated vehicles, one of which can dive up to 3,280 feet and take high-definition video. Much of the research will be visual – does coral that should be green, for example, appear white? Are fish behaving normally? But they also will assess water chemistry in the vicinity of the plumes.
They will attach satellite tags to whale sharks,filter feeders considered particularly vulnerable to oil, to see if their movements change, if they avoid concentrations of oil or if an unusual number die. They also will tag hammerhead sharks, bull sharks and other species.
The BP blowout allowed more than 200 million gallons of oil to pour from the ocean floor. The flow of oil has stopped and BP plans to proceed with plans to pump cement and heavy mud into the bottom of the well, permanently capping it. But environmental groups such as Oceana say the accident was further proof that off-shore drilling carries unacceptable risks.
The expedition leaving from Dania Beach will be part research, part advocacy, as scientists attempt to assess the impact of the spill and undersea photographers document the ecosystems that could be damaged by off-shore drilling. They will take undersea images of the Keys, for example, to show coral reefs that could be at risk from a spill in the Gulf if the oil ends up in the loop current, the ocean pathway that flows from the Gulf past the Keys and up the east coast of Florida.
"We believe off-shore drilling will inevitably have spills," Hirshfield said. "We hope to convince people that off shore drilling is too risky to do.'
David Fleshler can be reached at dfleshler@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4535.
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USF research vessel to study effects of oil spill on ecosystem
ST. PETERSBURG – Researchers from the University of South Florida prepared to depart Friday on another research expedition to areas impacted by the Deepwater Horizon spill.
The research vessel Weatherbird II will go on a 10-day journey to the northern Gulf of Mexico. Researchers will return to the same area that USF scientists discovered clouds of degraded oil in the depths of the gulf. Those clouds were later scientifically established to be the results of the well blowout.
Researchers said this time, they will primarily study the effect of oil on the smallest members of the food stream — plankton and microscopic organisms. They'll also be looking for signs of dispersants and for oil in the sand.
"This is probably the first comprehensive study of this magnitude," College Dean Bill Hogarth said as crew members.
Scientists will investigate the British Petroleum oil spill's impact on the ecosystem in the area, focusing on plankton and microscopic organisms on the lower end of the food web. Scientists will then compare their findings to previous research during the late May mission in the same area and the July mission on the west Florida shelf.
It's hard for people to understand what the impact is on the ocean ecosystem because it's out of sight, said USF oceanographer Kendra Daly.
"We can certainly tell when there's an oil spill on land," she said. "But we can't see below the sea surface."