Wed November 24, 2010

Researchers Sample Sea Life At Site Of Oil Spill

Scientists in the Gulf of Mexico are taking daily dives in a submarine to get a close look at exotic ecosystems that could be at risk because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. They will be the first researchers to see the seafloor in person near the blown-out oil well.

The research boat, Atlantis, is currently about 95 miles off the coast of Louisiana in an area called Green Canyon, says NPR's Richard Harris. It's still a good distance from the site of the spill, so scientists haven't seen any damage yet, but the expedition has already catalogued a vast array of undersea life, he says.

"Scientists onboard have found weird and fascinating things like lakes of brine and little mud volcanoes and all sorts of wild and interesting animals," he says.

The expedition was planned in 2007, long before the oil spill, to study the deep-sea ecosystems. But the chief scientist on the mission, Samantha Joye from the University of Georgia, is now focused on studying effects of the spill. She found oil residue on the seafloor in a large area around BP's well on previous expeditions.

"We're diving in an area where [Joye] took core samples before, so there are these big deposits of fluffy, oily material a few inches deep on the seafloor, and the life below that in the mud had been killed," Harris says.

Joye says she expects to see more mud on the seafloor on this expedition. She will collect samples from the seafloor using a research submarine called Alvin.

Her observations about oil on the seafloor have been fairly controversial, Harris says. The new samples may help put some of that controversy to rest. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.