Pisces – Packin’ it In

The weather turned rough overnight and didn’t improve in the morning.  Gusty winds made operations difficult and dangerous, and since we only had a few more hours till it was time to head for home we decided to call it a day.

The crew scrambled to get everything ready – the officers preparing the ship’s bridge, the deck department getting the mooring lines out, and the engineers putting another engine on line performing extra checks on the propulsion system, and the science team breaking their gear down.

Packing up weights from the multi-corer

Packing up weights from the multi-corer

We saw the usual assortment of marine life as we were pulling in, as well as a handful of monarch butterflies, perhaps blown over the ocean by the strong winds.  And, this being Sunday, that means barbecue day!  We’ve been listening to Erik Quiroz from Texas A&M brag about his baby back ribs, so we decided to make him put his money where his mouth is.  Dave Newman contributed coconut shrimp.  Everyone was pretty impressed.

Erik Quiroz shows Dave Newman how ribs are done

Erik Quiroz shows Dave Newman how ribs are done

At the moment it appears as though the Pisces’ will be going back to our fisheries science mission next time we head to sea.  It’s been a pleasure serving the nation in this time of crisis, and we wish the best of luck to all the other ships who continue the search for oil under the sea.

Posted in Life at Sea, People, Pisces | Tagged , , , | 164 Comments

Pisces – Remembering the Men of the Deepwater Horizon

We steamed away from the Deepwater Horizon site at sunset under a cloudless sky.  As the rigs and ships receded over the horizon, it was difficult to picture the very different scenario that was occurring the night of April 20.  Sometimes, with so much attention focused on the environmental damage and the economic impact of the spill, it can be difficult for many people to recall the eleven men who lost their lives in the accident.

Ryan Harris, a crewmember on the Pisces, wanted to ensure these men were not forgotten.  “Shortly after the disaster first happened, the Commanding Officer (CDR Jeremy Adams) and I thought it was sad that there was hardly any talk of the eleven people who died,” Harris said.  “One night, we started a Facebook page, not really thinking it would go anywhere, but within a week we had over 1,000 people and it kept growing.  Then, I started getting e-mails from the family members of the eleven guys.

Ryan Harris performs memorial service near the Deepwater Horizon site

We were quite surprised that there was no talk of doing any kind of memorial service out at the site.  So, when we found out the Pisces would be going to the site back in July, I asked the CO if we could do a service out there.  I talked to the family members to find out what they wanted to see at the memorial service, and there were lots of requests for eleven yellow roses.  Out at the site, we had a moment of silence on the Pisces, as well as radio silence on the other ships out there.  Everyone on the other ships was very supportive of it – these were their co-workers who died.

Harris also helped set up a bank account in Pascagoula for the families, and is hoping to find a way to bring them out to the Deepwater Horizon site for another memorial service. If you want to check out his Facebook page, it’s called “In Memory of the 11 Workers from the Deepwater Horizon RIP.”

Posted in Life at Sea, People, Pisces | Tagged , , , , , | 131 Comments

Pisces – Meet the Chief Scientist

Our chief scientist, Dr. David Valentine, is a professor of Geochemistry at University of California Santa Barbara.  We managed to tear him away from his work long enough to ask him a few questions.

Chief Scientist David ValentineHow did you get involved in subsurface monitoring?

It started shortly after the Deepwater Horizon sank.  I do a lot of work on the geochemistry of methane, of gas hydrates and of oil.  Fairly soon after it was realized there was a significant leak, I started getting phone calls, largely from the media, asking questions about what was going to happen.  Soon thereafter, John Kessler (the chief scientist on the Pisces’ last mission) and I started talking about what was going on with methane.  We studied the area around the wellhead for about two weeks in June, looking at methane and other gases.  Then, John got a call to serve as chief scientist on the Pisces on the last leg, and since we’ve been collaborating on this for many years he gave me a call and we marshaled resources to man that project, and then they asked me to serve as chief scientist on this leg.  Six weeks of ship time later, here I am!

You mentioned methane hydrate.  Can you explain what exactly methane hydrate is?

Methane is normally a gas. Under very high pressures and cold temperatures, its preferred state is in a trapped structure with water.  It forms a water-ice structure where the water molecules will entrap the methane.  It’s technically called a methane clathrate, where clathrate is a word that means “cage.”  It’s methane that’s caged in water-ice.  Clathrates are stable in conditions like the deep water in the Gulf of Mexico.  At about 600m of water depth, you only need to be down to about 5 degrees Celsius for methane clathrates to be stable.  Therefore, it’s typical when you have gas emanating into the deep ocean waters for it to form immediately into that structure.

So is this the form in which they’re coming out of these seeps that we’re mapping?

There’s definitely methane hydrate forming at the seeps.  The bubbles that we see are probably bypassing methane hydrate formation in the subsurface.  Normally when they come into contact with water they form hydrate but what often happens is that as you have gases migrating up through the sediment in the ocean floor, they will form methane hydrate and will do so until there is no water left, so you have a gas pathway that’s going through that’s basically coated with solid methane hydrate.  It then comes out at the seafloor and begins to bubble up, and if you were to look closely at those bubbles, you would see that they actually form a skin of methane hydrate around the outside. As they rise it will decompose, but the methane hydrate will actually prevent the gas from dissolving rapidly into the water.

What do you think of the results you’ve seen so far on this project?

With the coring, I don’t think we got enough cores to say too much.  We haven’t seen oil in the ones we have gotten, by way of the analyses that have been run so far on the ship.  So that’s good.  If we’d been hitting oil everywhere it would be really disconcerting.  The fact that we’re not doesn’t mean it’s not there, it just means it’s not everywhere, which is a good thing.  We’ve been doing a lot of CTD casts looking at oxygen anomalies and fluorescence peaks.  Most of the more severe fluorescence anomalies and oxygen sags are not in the area of the wellhead.  They’ve moved largely off to the southwest, which is what we saw on the last trip.  The last day and a half we’ve been sampling extensively for oil in the water.  These samples are being stored to be analyzed as soon as we get back.  We’re collecting about 18 samples for oil analysis on every CTD cast.  At a rate of 12 casts a day, it’s adding up in a hurry.  Somebody’s going to be doing a lot of oil analysis when these water samples arrive.

What are some of the challenges you face in this research?

Doing things on a very short fuse.  We had about six days of advance notice for this particular mission.  Bringing together everything that you need for one of these projects is a big challenge.  You really have to pack for everything.  You’re on a boat.  No magic wand is going to make something appear that you need, so you have to bring it, you have to plan for it.

How do you feel about the work you are doing here?

I feel fortunate in that my area of expertise has become an area of importance in responding to this disaster.  At the same time, there was a lot of environmental damage that occurred.  I wish the oil spill had never happened, but I feel fortunate that I have been able to use my expertise to help out in some way.

Posted in People, Pisces, Water Sampling | Tagged , , , | 370 Comments

Gyre – We are a sediment sampling machine!

Here on the Gyre we really know how to party. We spent Friday night coring sediment only about 420 meters from the well head, right in among the drilling rigs, ROV boats, standby boats, and supply boats. (Quite the wild and crazy Friday night, right? We know!)

Captain Mike Harkreader, Chief Mate "Shorty", and Second Mate Kevin Phillips

Captain Mike Harkreader, Chief Mate "Shorty", and Second Mate Kevin Phillips

Sampling in and among lots of other vessels can be a tricky operation for us because the Gyre is an older boat, meaning her crew members have fewer technological aids to utilize when it comes to navigating and especially steering her. For instance, most of the vessels out here are DP-enabled (dynamically positioned). Nevertheless, we are in the very capable and skilled hands of Captain Mike, Chief Mate Shorty (AKA Joe Perez), and Second Mate, Kevin Phillips. They are able to get us on-station with near-accuracy and hold us there long enough to take our samples. We were able to recover three multi-corer loads, totaling 47 cores. This is a fantastic haul.

Shorty holds the Gyre on our station while we collect sediment samples

Shorty holds the Gyre on our station while we collect sediment samples.

So far, the Gyre’s science team has taken over 230 full, core tubes from 21 locations. We’re pretty proud of those numbers. The cores we are taking near the well head appear pristine and undisturbed with very little oil if any, but they are chilly when they come up as it is only about 4 degree centigrade on the sea floor. The water in the cores is pumped off the top and filtered for bacterial population analysis by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, and bacteriophage research by Ecolyse. The cold, cold mud is extruded and carefully sectioned off for description and various chemical analyses. We have also frozen whole cores, still in their tubes. They will go to other laboratories for a variety of research and analysis.

Sea floor sediment sample

Sea floor sediment sample

We also were able to deploy the underwater camera yesterday. A description and pictures of what we saw down in the deep, to come!

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Pisces – Seep Mapping

In addition to CTDs, core sampling and camera-tow operations, another aspect of our mission includes the mapping of natural hydrocarbon seeps in the vicinity of the Deepwater Horizon site.

The Pisces was designed to be used as a fisheries research vessel, and was outfitted with acoustic gear that is used for finding schools of fish.  It uses sound, which refracts (or bends) when it passes between substances of different densities – such as between sea water and the air contained in the swim bladders of fish. Think of how a straw in a glass of water appears to bend at the water’s surface.  This is due to the refraction of light waves as they pass between the air and the water.  Sound waves work the same way.

Scientist examines seep model

This same equipment can also be used to find gases escaping from the sea floor.  We spent the morning over a plateau in the ocean, very close to Mississippi Canyon, where the oil spill occurred.  We made several passes back and forth over this plateau in a pattern that scientists sometimes call “mowing the lawn.”  Scientists can see the returns from the acoustic equipment on computer monitors, where the seeps show up as vertical lines of dots.

Later on, once we had surveyed the entire plateau, the scientists were able to put the data together to create a three dimensional map of the seeps.  Pretty cool, huh?

3D Seep Model

3D Seep Model

Posted in Pisces, Sea Floor, Sediment Sampling, Water Sampling | Tagged , , , | 232 Comments

Meet the Gyre!

We’ve been really busy onboard the research vessel Gyre. Today we are sampling about 10 nautical miles northwest of the Deepwater Horizon well head in the Gulf of Mexico where our primary job is to take sediment samples using our 12-tube multi-corer. (So far we’ve had fantastic luck and have managed to pull up nearly 12 full cores every time!) In our onboard lab, we analyze the sediments to assess their toxicity (if any) and analyze sediments and water for the presence of oil or other contaminants. We also assess any bacterial response. This can help us learn how an increase of oil in the deep water environment may have affected the resident bacteria and other organisms.

The science team hard at work processing sediment samples

The science team hard at work processing sediment samples

But, in addition to sediment, our team is also conducting CTD casts, gathering acoustic data, and even using an underwater camera to take deep water photographs of fish, crustaceans, and other sea life. (We’ll have more details about that project later.) In charge of our fine vessel is Captain Mike Harkreader and the research team is led by Chief Scientist Neil Summer of Ecolyse, Inc. Altogether there are 31 of us on board.

Tomorrow we have plans to deploy the underwater camera and collect more sediment samples. We are also in the process of building a gimbal table to stabilize our onboard standard analytical scale. Check back tomorrow for photos and more details about operations aboard the research vessel Gyre!

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Ocean Veritas – Deep Sea Creatures and Muddy Sediment

There are days when pulling cores of mud out of the Gulf of Mexico and processing them might not seem all that thrilling. We, aboard the research vessel Ocean Veritas, heartily disagree.

Bringing in the multi-corer and a full carousel of sediment samples

Bringing in the multi-corer and a full carousel of sediment samples

Our Chief Scientist Ian Hartwell is very interested in an odd trend we’ve noticed the closer we sample to the well head: there is an ever-increasing layer of strange, fluffy, brown mud in our sediment cores. This is the opposite of what we think should be happening. Typically, as we sample deeper offshore, we would expect the soft, mud layer on the sea floor to decrease; it settles out as energy from the rivers dissipates. And, at first, this is what we were getting: as we sampled further from shore, the cores came up with less and less sediment because we were reaching the more compact clay layer under the mud more quickly and the cores could not sink down as deep.

Processing a sediment sample

Processing a sediment sample

But, at the last several stations, the fluffy mud layer grew, instead of decreased, as we got closer to the well head. There were no visible oil globules in the mud and we only saw a slight sheen in the cores at the actual well head site. Also, as opposed to the normal muddy layer, which is similar to pudding in consistency, this sediment was more loose with the first centimeter or so practically floating near the surface of the sample. It’s too soon to make any conclusions about what this means, but it is an interesting observation.

And then there are the strange and curious deep sea creatures that occasionally get collected along with the sediment. When we take our sediment samples, the multi-corer is lowered down very slowly by the winch. The apparatus settles gently on the sea floor (so that there is minimal disruption to the loose top layer of sediment) and then the tubes drop straight down into the mud. Each tube has a lid. When they close, anything directly above the mud will get caught if it doesn’t get out of the way fast enough. If the creatures are in one of the five cores that we use for chemistry analysis we just let the creatures go. We also let them go if they are clearly pelagic (meaning that they live in the water column).

Goby fish in sediment sample

Goby fish in sediment sample

See, never a dull moment when it comes to sea mud.

Posted in Ocean Veritas, Sea Floor, Sediment Sampling | Tagged , , , | 1,024 Comments