A team of marine biologists plumbing the depths of the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of BP's massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill made a brief stopover today in St. Petersburg.
The researchers from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University set sail July 11 from Fort Pierce on Florida's east coast and are exploring estuaries and ecosystems along the Continental Shelf from the Keys to the Panhandle. They're looking for visual signs of oil and chemical dispersants and collecting sealife samples to provide a baseline snapshot of marine life before and after the largest oil spill in the history of the Gulf of Mexico.
"This is the first look we're actually getting under the surface, where human beings are actually going under the surface in deep water to see what's going on in the deepwater ecosystems," said Shirley Pomponi, chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research and Technology.
Tuesday, the team explored the waters 75 miles west of St. Petersburg and found a pleasant surprise 1,500 feet below the surface.
"We discovered a brand new deep coral reef that was not known to exist," Pomponi said.
Researchers said they saw no visible signs of oil or dispersants during the first 10-day leg of their 22-day research mission on board the R/V Seward Johnson, a 204-foot vessel equipped with cranes to enable deployment of a submersible vehicle on board.
"I haven't seen any oil so far," said Don Liberatore, chief pilot of the submersible.
The four-person sub provides a nearly panoramic view at depths of up to 3,000 feet. The 27-foot-long, 11-foot-tall underwater craft is equipped with a manipulator arm and suction device, as well as 12 collection bins for underwater samples.
Scientists call the current mission a "pre-impact assessment" that so far is encouraging.
"The fish look great. The ecosystems look great," Pomponi said.
The remainder of the expedition, which takes the team to the Panhandle and waters off of Alabama, may be a much different story. But for now, researchers are optimistic about the spill's impact on Florida.
"It's beautiful. The waters are looking really, really good." Pomponi said. "It's good news for fisheries, good news for economy, and good news for divers,"
The research mission will wrap up Aug. 2 after exploring waters as close as 60 miles from the Deepwater wellhead.