Posted on 17 July 2010.
Sometime before midnight yesterday, our expedition’s principal investigator, Ryan Smith, jumped up: “Hey, come look at this!” A monitor in the dry lab prints out continuous readings in lines of different colors for sea surface temperature, salinity, oxygen and chlorophyll. The blue line for salinity has just nose-dived, plummeting more than two parts per thousand. This was not evidence yet of oil; rather, it told us that we had run into the outfall of the Mississippi River, a 20-30 foot thick lens of freshwater sitting on top of the saltier Gulf. We were getting close…
After a fitful night’s sleep, I awake to find absolutely everyone energized and bustling. Normally, the ship’s crew works on a 4-hours-on, 8-hours-off cycle, whereas the science team works 12 and then rests 12. Today, however, everyone was up, and it was easy to see why. High on the flying bridge, I could see the Deepwater Horizon surrounded by its myriad support platforms and tenders. It looked like a distant skyline from a small city. At breakfast, one member of the science team was near tears describing first looks at the massive amounts of oil. Another describes with wide eyes a large “oil pancake” that she found during the night watch.
Our first station is 8 nautical miles east-southeast of the Deepwater Horizon. The Gulf here swarms with traffic. On the bridge, the radio crackles constantly with instructions, requests and warnings. A seismic survey vessel advises us to maintain at least two nautical miles of distance away from them. Helicopters fly by, and a few small planes buzz low overhead. Scanning the horizon, I count at least 37 vessels. These research and support ships are clustered so thickly together, even the radar console gives up and just stacks them all on top of each other.
When I looked down below the Nancy Foster, I see a thick sheen everywhere, in every direction, as far as I can see. The smell is perceptible but not over-powering; it reminds me of the odor of fuel and water from an outboard motor on a lake. The water looks un-naturally opaque, almost like thin paint, and I see dirty foam tinged yellow-brown floating on the surface.
Because of contamination, the science team and crew confer on how to deploy the CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth) rosette over the side without fouling it with crude oil. The high-pressure fire hose is deemed the best means to rinse the instrument as it comes back on board. Ultimately, though, everyone is resigned to losing this $107,000 instrument. NOAA chiefs have declared that the data to be gained are worth the loss of this and another vital piece of gear, the $70,000 MOCNESS trawl.
I stand an hours-long morning watch to see if I can find any seabirds here. It is a search in vain. I see no birds, no marine mammals and no large fish. Finally, just before noon, I see a bright green clump, no more than 10-12 inches in diameter, floating just below the surface. It is a plant, washed far offshore by the Mighty Miss from some land or coastal ecosystem. And swimming underneath it, defying fate, are a dozen small fish no bigger than minnows.