For the scientists aboard the WeatherBird II, the recasting of the Deepwater Horizon spill as a good-news story about a disaster averted has not been easy to watch. Over the past seven months, they, along with a small group of similarly focused oceanographers from other universities, have logged dozens of weeks at sea in cramped research vessels, carefully measuring and monitoring the spill's impact on the delicate and little-understood ecology of the deep ocean. And these veteran scientists have seen things that they describe as unprecedented. Among their most striking findings are graveyards of recently deceased coral, oiled crab larvae, evidence of bizarre sickness in the phytoplankton and bacterial communities, and a mysterious brown liquid coating large swaths of the ocean floor, snuffing out life underneath. All are worrying signs that the toxins that invaded these waters are not finished wreaking havoc and could, in the months and years to come, lead to consequences as severe as commercial fishery collapses and even species extinction.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the most outspoken scientists doing this research come from Florida and Georgia, coastal states that have so far managed to avoid offshore drilling. Their universities are far less beholden to Big Oil than, say, Louisiana State University, which has received tens of millions from the oil giants. Again and again these scientists have used their independence to correct the official record about how much oil is actually out there, and what it is doing under the waves.
One of the most prominent scientists on the BP beat is David Hollander, a marine geochemist at the University of South Florida. Hollander's team was among the first to discover the underwater plumes in May and the first to trace the oil definitively to BP's well. In August, amid the claims that the oil had magically disappeared, Hollander and his colleagues came back from a cruise with samples proving that oil was still out there and still toxic to many marine organisms, just invisible to the human eye. This research, combined with his willingness to bluntly contradict federal agencies, has made Hollander something of a media darling. When he is not at sea, there is a good chance he is in front of a TV camera. In early December, he agreed to combine the two, allowing me and filmmaker Jacqueline Soohen to tag along on a research expedition in the northern Gulf of Mexico, east of the wellhead.
Ah, don't you just love the smell of corporate bullshit in the morning?