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CCU Atheneum: Rich Viso inside the deep submergence vehicle Alvin 830 meters below the sea surface.
Rich Viso inside the deep submergence vehicle Alvin 830 meters below the sea surface.

CCU scientists travel on Atlantis to study oil in ocean

by Mona Prufer
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While most of us were carving our Thanksgiving birds, Coastal Carolina University's marine scientists Rich Viso and Rick Peterson were aboard the research vessel Atlantis in the Gulf of Mexico, trying to determine the extent of the 2010 BP oil spill damage suffered by the ocean at its deepest.

On Nov. 6, they embarked on a 29-day cruise, part of a hand-picked team of 20 scientists from around the world – from the University of Georgia, University of North Carolina, Florida State University, University of Southern Denmark, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Harvard University. The National Science Foundation-funded expedition was formed to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Media folk from NPR, the University of Georgia and ABC joined the cruise to report on the findings.

The initial findings were not particularly conclusive. Dead worms and oil-encrusted crabs came up in the sediment samples that researchers collected from the sea floor thousands of feet down. This is news that could be considered positive if you are a scientist looking to document the negative impacts of the spill. But, for most of us, it is not good news.

The research cruise was an unforgettable opportunity that Viso and Peterson hope to replicate in the spring of 2012 if they are awarded an NSF grant that would allow them to continue their studies aboard the ship. “It was an experiment, what Rick and I did,” says Viso. “It's never been done before. We needed to learn if we could adapt our techniques to this deep-water setting. We want to get back out and map the sites we explored. It would involve five or six Coastal people and students going with us.”

Their original goals were to characterize the diversity and activity of the microorganisms living in deep sea environments, to understand the biogeochemical scenarios by which those communities can thrive, and to examine the interaction of the microbes with the brine pools. The samples they collected – involving large volumes of saltwater – are still being analyzed by marine science undergraduate and graduate students in their lab at the University's Burroughs & Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies.

But, while the scientific news was not the best for the environment, the trip itself was unparalleled for the two CCU researchers, worth missing Thanksgiving dinner back home.

“The continental slope in the northern Gulf of Mexico is proving to be a really amazing place,” Viso wrote in his blog during the trip. “Unfortunately, we had rough weather for a couple of days and therefore missed a dive. But we were treated to a spectacular display of flying fish being chased and eaten by a large pod of dolphins. The sheer number of animals and the rough seas as a backdrop made this an impressive display that lasted throughout the entire night and into the morning.”

But the real highlight of the month-long cruise was the dive aboard Alvin, the slightly cramped Human Occupied Vehicle (HOV) that for 40 years has carried scientists and explorers to the sea's depths – three people at a time – to study what lurks beneath. There were 24 Alvin dives on the trip, and both Viso and Peterson were thrilled to get the chance to ride on the historic little sub that Robert Ballard used to explore the wreckage of the Titanic. Following this November trip, the Alvin was scheduled for retirement.

 “It's difficult to even describe,” says Peterson. “But if you're in this line of work, it was the ultimate experience. It was hard for me to equate my scientific needs down there with my personal need to just sit and stare at what I was seeing.”

Peterson described the Alvin dive in his blog: “It took about an hour and a half to get down to the bottom, and a similar time to ascend back up. We had a rigorous dive plan, as that was the only scheduled dive for this site, so we collected push cores, brine fluids, niskin bottles, macrofauna (mussels and urchins), and measured water composition with a mass spectrometer. Our four and a half hours of bottom time flew by in a blink, and before I knew it, we were headed back to the ship. But the site was absolutely amazing. You almost feel like you are in a spaceship exploring the surface of some other planet. Words cannot describe the feeling of wonderment just sitting there looking out at this landscape, knowing just how little we understand about how the bottom of the ocean works.”

Following the eight-hour trip on the Alvin, tradition dictates that the crew celebrates a first dive by dumping buckets of iced seawater on the returning scientists. “It was so cold, it hurt,” recalls Viso.

In his blog, Peterson describes: “Being able to be on the seafloor with the human eye, watching, observing and thinking about what is happening, is an invaluable commodity to the scientific community. The conversations we had about the processes occurring at that site while we were on the bottom were quite fruitful, and I certainly learned more about these sites during those four hours than I ever thought.

“What a wonderful experience, and I absolutely encourage all young scientists out there to work hard to make this sort of dream come true for themselves.”


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