In Search of Oil

Sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico with a tanker and an oil rig in sight.Andrew Carter looks for passing vessels Sunset through a port hole in room 7. A quick fix Splicing the becketGathering samples Jeopardy on the Walton Smith Tracking oil rigs Blow hole Grilling on the shipA long way from homeThe last sunsetCaptaining View from the Walton SmithFinding currents at nightWatching the CTD drop Carrying the samples Dolphins at the bow Oil in the water Night drop Lifting the CTD


On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, causing one of the worst environmental catastrophes the world has seen. The spill, which was a BP operation on Macondo prospect killed 11 men, injured 17 and released about 4.9 million barrels of crude oil. An average of 53,000 barrels were released into the ocean per day from the well. The leak was eventually capped on July 15, 2010, but the spill had caused tremendous damage to marine and wildlife habitats, fishing and tourism industries, and enlightened the American people on how poorly managed the oil industry is.

The RV/F.G. Walton Smith, with captain Shawn Lake, has navigated to the Gulf of Mexico three times since the oil spill occurred in order to study the affects on the ocean and marine life. Wilson Mendoza, a Phd student at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, wrote a research proposal and received a grant from BP to take water samples throughout the Gulf of Mexico to study how the oil has spread with the currents. Over 25 institutes applied for the grant. After months of planning the RV/F.G. Walton Smith left port on October 3, 2010. Although NOAA supplied scientists with water samples from the gulf the previous year, this trip would offer scientists around the world with new insight on how the oil has been distributed. This is Mendoza’s first trip to the Gulf of Mexico since the spill. “I’m hoping to finish by January, but I will still continue to work on this project until I get my post doc,” says Mendoza.

Captain Shawn Lake has seen how the Gulf has changed since the oil spill. “It was kind of stressful because we had these media people on the ship and it was unhealthy to be that close to that kind of a situation, very dangerous,” he said. There were three drill ships and over 100 vessels near the site. “We were a third of a mile away fromt he drill rig when they capped it the first time,” he added.

The water samples collected were surface and vertical samples. Every four hours the team would take horizontal water samples and bottle them up. Particular sites were picked out based on previous testing sites and a CTD (Conductivity Temperature Depth) device was dropped thousands of meters into the water in order to collect water near the bottom.

These samples will be analyzed by Wilson and other volunteers the next few months and the results will be available to the public.