On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded resulting in an uncontrolled release of crude oil into the ocean. By the time the well was capped and the oil flow stopped, the disaster had become the largest environmental oil crisis in U.S. history and the second largest in world history. Superimposed on massive oil release, was the use of chemical dispersants that were sprayed on top of the oil in unprecedented quantities. The toxicity of these dispersants is unknown and it is uncertain how mixing with oil may modulate their toxicity.
One major concern is the impact of this crisis on wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico. Marine mammals are a particular concern because they serve as sentinels for human health and because they are key species for both the ocean ecosystem and coastal economies. There are two resident populations of large whales in the Gulf. One is a population of about 1,600 sperm whales with living along the 1000 meter shelf. The other is about 15-20 Bryde's whales that live along the 200 m depth line. Of course, there are also numerous resident dolphins from several different species throughout the Gulf. The impacts of the oil, dispersants and metals in the Gulf are a particular concern for all of these animals.
This crisis provides a unique and critical opportunity to understand the impact of ocean pollution on marine life. The data collected and the lessons learned will serve to inform us about the decisions made and the actions taken in the Gulf of Mexico, which will then, in turn, serve to inform us how to move forward in improving conditions in the Gulf of Mexico as well as inform us better on how to protect the Gulf of Maine and other important Gulf's from this sort of disaster. By comparing and contrasting conditions in the Gulf of Maine with those in the Gulf of Mexico, we will learn much about both locations. Thus, in response to these concerns and possibilities, we launched our Gulf Expedition to study the impact of this crisis on whales and humans.
Our plan is to study the whales in the Gulfs of Mexico and Maine for a number of years. This first fall voyage will establish a current baseline of conditions in both Gulfs. This baseline does not mean conditions are normal, but rather they reflect the state of the Gulfs as they are now. Specifically, we are collecting:
- Skin biopsies from whales. These biopsies will be used to:
- Measure the levels of chemical dispersants, petroleum products and metals in the whales, themselves;
- Determine the gender and DNA fingerprint of each whale; and
- Develop living and growing cell lines from each whale;
- Cell lines from whales. These cell lines will be used to:
- Measure the level of DNA damage in the whales;
- Determine the genetic karyotype for each whale;
- Evaluate the ability of chemical dispersants, petroleum products and metals to kill whale cells and damage whale DNA; and
- Serve as a tool for studying other factors and for long term genetic studies
- Environmental samples. These samples include:
- Marine air in the Gulf;
- Ocean water in the Gulf;
- Fish, krill and other marine species;
- Exhaled whale breath;
- Marine underwater sounds; and
- Marine sediments
- Visual data. These data include:
- Photo documentation of people, events and wildlife;
- Video documentation of people, events and wildlife;
- Photo documentation of pollution seen; and
- Maps of voyage travels and of information collected
This year will set the baseline. Then we will see over time if conditions improve or worsen and take steps to help them get better.
Our Gulf projects also serve an important education mission. Each expedition will include a number of educational components carried out by all partners. Data collected will provide scientists, policymakers, the general public, and stakeholders who rely on the Gulf, with a clear understanding of the immediate and long-term potential consequences of oil and chemical dispersants on the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic food chains. Undergraduate and graduate students will be fully engaged in all aspects of the Expedition. Education of the general public will include short video “news reports” and online science-based content covering the immediate and longer-term effects of the oil spill on Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean ecosystems, the research goals of the expedition; species that rely on the Gulf ecosystem; and ways that individual stakeholders, policymakers, NGO’s and the government can help promote the health of marine ecosystems.