HOUSTON – Samatha Joye came back from a nearly month-long excursion to the Gulf of Mexico with a surprising discovery: Aquatic life appears to be flourishing again at the bottom of the ocean near the site of the massive 2010 oil spill.
A ride in a submersible 5,000 feet below sea level revealed that eels, shrimp, various fish species, sea anemones and other deep-sea creatures are making a home in a Gulf region where Joye, a micro-biochemist at the University of Georgia, had seen only one crab in a similar seven-hour journey four years ago, months after BP’s blown-out Macando well had sent millions of barrels of oil into the ocean.
Joye and her team of researchers had been collecting core samples from sites around the Gulf spill about every six months since the disaster, and had found no evidence that the chemistry and microbiology under layers of deep-water sediment had changed, leading her to expect the sea floor would be largely unchanged, as well.
“Getting down there and seeing it with our own eyes, we saw that it was very different,” Joye said in a recent interview with Fuelfix. “That’s one of the reasons why submersibles are such a valuable asset: They allow us to see the bottom, and when you’re collecting samples remotely, you miss things and you’re under a completely different impression.”
As a micro-biochemist, Joye has studied concentrations of hydrocarbons in the sea-floor sediment for years, and has collected samples of earth in which weathered material – similar to crude that has been sun-cooked for weeks – has lingered underneath the surface near the spill like a layer of mulch in a garden. Much of her work focuses on why microorganisms have not eaten away at the hydrocarbons in the four years since the spill.
“There’s really nothing happening in these sediments; it’s just sitting there,” she said. As for the sea life above the ocean floor, things are returning to normal – at least, it appears that way, she said. “Are they there in the same numbers as before the spill? Are they healthy? I don’t know. It’s an improvement, but it doesn’t mean the system is fine.”
Joye said her team has not made final studies of why the microorganisms have not chomped the layer of hydrocarbons away, but said she believes it is because the layer is recalcitrant — it’s a meal more like cardboard than caviar, she said.
The team of scientists sailed for the site on March 31 and spent a few days near the spill site, traveling in a 2-nautical-mile radius around the sealed wellhead, and visited other sites before returning April 22. They went to the sea floor three times at different locations around the Macondo well and spotted a vampire squid, brittle stars and evidence that other deep-sea animals and plants had disturbed the soil. Still, the health of the region is unclear, she said.
“I’m a very conservative person, and I don’t have any confidence in extrapolating from one site to the area around Macondo,” she said. “It’s very patchy and heterogeneous around there. There are animals moving back into the area, and that says to me it means the area is less toxic than it used to be. Something has improved, and it’s making it more palatable for the organisms.”
Prior to joining the Houston Chronicle in 2013, Collin Eaton covered the local banking and finance scene at the Houston Business Journal. Before that, he held internships at newspapers in Texas and Washington D.C., writing about business, money or higher education. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2011.