Monthly Recurring Subscription Donation

Enter Amount

2012 April 12-24
Gulf of Mexico

Chronicles of the Endeavor:  A Look from Below
Reports from scientists assessing the Gulf from above and below

 -- UPDATED April 26 with new information about the instrument and sensor packages!  -- 

In April 2012, a large collaboration of scientists including many from Gulf Coast states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida began a long-planned voyage to carry out in situ studies of the state of the ocean floor in several strategic areas of the Gulf of Mexico.  All of these are places of known natural gas and oil seeps within 200 miles of the Macondo area -- site of the massive Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit (rig) fire and subsequent oil pollution disaster of April 2010.  Maps of these places together with recent significant sightings of surface oil are shown below.

A large (approximately 60 m) vessel called R/V Endeavor operated by the University of Rhode Island set sea from Gulfport, Mississippi April 12 to study these seeps and the "state of the seabed." Another larger vessel, the NOAA Okeanos Explorer, has also been in the Gulf during April; they have been studying seeps in the Biloxi Dome area, 8-10 miles west of the Macondo well.  (Photos of both vessels with discussion can be found in the article about our Gulf flyover April 18.)  This article will report on the day-to-day adventures of the ship Endeavor, which left Gulfport April 12 and returned April 24.  Scientists supporting the Endeavor include Gulf coast "local heroes" Drs. Samantha (Mandy) Joye, Ian MacDonald, and Vernon Asper, among others. Vernon served as chief scientist on Endeavor, and it is largely thanks to his regular reports that this chronicle is now available to the public.  

While the mission was an amazing success in many ways, it also fell short of expectations. This was due largely to adverse weather conditions throughout most of the two-week voyage and partly to a malfunctioning of the remotely-operated vehicle (ROV). However, because there was such a wide variety of instruments and an extremely resourceful and determined crew of scientists onboard, not a minute was wasted.  Schedules were altered and other instruments were given priority.  One of the most fascinating features you will note about this "reality" chronicle is the fast pace at which circumstances changed, and how flexible and clever the scientists had to be on almost an hourly basis.  This is experimental science in the real world!  It is no game for the uninitiated or the easily discouraged, for even the best-laid plans inevitably require back-up plans.

VernonReport3-ThursdayEve20120419-DSC_8606

2a-GulfMapOfEndeavorWithRecentOilSites-20120418

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several novel instruments and approaches to observing and collecting samples from the
surface, water column, and sea floor were planned and used for the Endeavor mission.  Most of the instruments are designed to study the biogeochemistry of the water and sediments and, in particular, to understand properties of oiled sediment from areas of natural seeps and how they differ from areas oiled by leaks or blowouts such as occurred in the Macondo area two years ago.  Some of the instruments are attached to moorings, which are stabilized to the seabed wth a 1500-pound anchor.  On the moorings are instruments such as a meter to measure current, sediment traps that collect particles as they settle toward the seafloor, and 12 floats which are 17"-diameter hollow glass spheres.  These are separated by wire and connected by shackles and pear link connectors. The deployment process is an exercise in managing tension:  The floats go in first, the ship moves along slowly (at about 0.5 kt) while they stream out the wire, instruments, releases, and then the anchor.  The anchor is held by a special quick release link, which they pull to make the anchor drop to the bottom when they're located where they want to be.  When the anchor drops, it pulls the mooring with it.  The mooring is about 150 m tall, sitting in water that is 1300-1500 meter deep, so its top is far below the surface. 

Other instruments are placed on "landers"  deployed in very specific sites on the seafloor.  Sites for the landers are usually chosen with the help of a submersible, or ROV, so that the lander can be placed directly on a feature of particular interest. The ROV might also be used to lift some sensors from the lander and place them at specific locations on the seafloor for precise "pinpoint" sampling.  You'll see some photos of the landers below.  Landers deployed on this mission will be picked up in the fall (about six months from now).  Descriptions of some of the sensors and instruments are given below, when they are discussed. They include the following:  


1) "CTD" sensors to measure conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water.  Conductivity bears a direct relationship to salinity. Since most major ions in seawater are "conservative" (nothing affects them much, so their ratios neer change), measurement of conductivity permit one to estimate the concentrations of ions such as Na, Cl, Ca, Mg, SO4, and so on.  These measurements are made throughout the water column, from the surface down to as close to the seabed as is practical.  The CTD sensor package has an altimeter on it that allows the crew on the ship to "see" the bottom acoustically.  They lower it steadily at about 1 meter/second and sample at 24 Hz, which equates to about one sample taken every 4 cm or so.  When they get close to the bottom, the slow the lowering rate and stop it at about 3-5 meter above the mud.  The depth sensor is extremely accurate, but the latencies of the various sensors limit absolute depth accuracy for a given measurement to about 10 cm.

2)  The CTD package also has sampling bottles attached to it, which are triggered on the way up in order to sample features that were seen on the way down.  Other samplers interfaced with the CTD include chlorophyll fluorometers, oxygen sensors, optical backscatter sensors, and so on.  There are numerous applications of all this data, but one of the most reasons for measuring these quantities is that phytoplankton produce oxygen in the water and chlorophyll in their cells.

3)  There are a couple of different kinds of instruments affixed both to the landers and to a fixture on the ROV by which they can be inserted into sediment, whi are time-series traps for sediment or water.  Dr. Laura Lapham's "MIMOSA," for example,  uses another gadget called an "osmo pump" to draw water very slowly into a capillary tube.  This gives a time series sample of whatever was in the water, and since there are no moving parts except for the water itself, they always work!  Dr. Uta Passow's "Kiel trap" works to trap sediment.  

4)  Current meters measure currents as three-dimensional vectors, giving both direction and speed.  Current is sampled every 4 meter of height starting about 5 meteres above the seafloor and going up to 110 meters. The current meter has with it both a pressure sensor and a tilt sensor, which tells wehther the moorings were leaning in the current -- a fact that could affect the hydrodynamics of the sediment traps.

5) Sediment samples are taken as "cores."  A photo of one of the multi-corers is shown below; it takes eight small cores at once and does so very gently.  Each core is about 24" long, depending on the type of sediment and the amount of weight used.  The sediment samples are analyzed for many different things -- methane, organic  matter, microfossils, and so on.   

One of the novel approaches was to coordinate the use of satellite data, aircraft aerial imaging data, and use of submersibles, or ROVs.  Unfortunately, Envisat, the satellite whose data were to be used, suffered a catastrophic failure just prior to the start of science operations.  The only feasible alternative satellite, RadarSat-2, was cost-prohibitive.  So the task of spotting areas of significant surface oil went solely to aircraft. The aircraft supporting the Endeavor came from On Wings Of Care, a nonprofit that has been providing aerial imaging and surveying in the Gulf of Mexico since April 2010.  They (or "we" if you're reading this on the OWOC website) use high-wing aircraft specially equipped with opening photo-windows and a "belly viewer" that allows remote control and monitoring of cameras by the pilot or passengers.  OWOC flights to support the Endeavor's mission are described in detail with photos and videos in the section of this website devoted to the Gulf of Mexico, specifically in the articles for April 12 and April 18

In this special article, we are providing a chronicle of live reports made from the team of scientists involved with the Endeavor mission.  These are not the highly technical discussions about the instruments or data. These are the day-to-day communications and reports among the team members about what was happening and what the crew members and instruments were seeing.  More informative descriptions will come after the instrument data have been analyzed and interpreted.  But we thought it might be interesting for students and other interested public to "watch it live" as if you were right there every day with the team.  Get ready, because it was a pretty wild ride!

 

20120410 Tuesday:  The Plan
Four sites were chosen as top priorities for study by the Endeavor crew:  "GC600" located in the Green Canyon are of the Gulf, about 150 nm southwest of the Macondo well; "AT357" about 100 nm southwest of the Macondo; "OC26" about 2 nm south of the Macondo well; and "VK906", a site where coral has been sampled extensively passed, in the Viosca Knoll area about 20 nm north of the Macondo area and about 40 nm due east of the southern tip of the Louisiana delta.  The first Google Earth map below shows these four areas plus the site of the sunken Deepwater Horizon (hereafter referred to as the Macondo well), relative to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.  

The remaining maps add to those points all locations where On Wings Of Care has documented sightings of significant surface oil slicks or sheen.  These are the red circles associated with four-digit dates between August 2011 and April 2012 (e.g., 0418 refers to a sighting made April 18, 2012); some of those circles also have a four-digit GPS waypoint number associated with them, for ease of correlation with the descriptions on the OWOC website articles for those dates.  No flights were made near AT357 during that timeframe, so the lack of red circles near that known seep do not necessarily reflect an absence of surface oil. Similarly, only two flights were made near GC600 in that timeframe. Clearly there are consistent sightings of visible surface oil near these locations of known natural seeps.  And there also have been a large number of sightings around the Macondo well.  Readers might remember that the sightings in August-September of 2011 were so significant that the US Coast Guard required TransOcean to perform inspections of the area for leakage.  Much work by BP-contracted vessels went on in that area throughout the rest of 2011; flights since March of 2012 have seen only sporadic lines of surface oil in the Macondo area, of size and nature as to be consistent with natural seepage. The Endeavor mission was intended to reveal the facts about this area and more.


20120411
Wednesday: A new oil slick reported by Shell along the Endeavor's route
In an email to the team on April 11, Dr. Ian MacDonald (Ian) proposed the following plan to complement existing plans for research with the ROV and make use of the combined eyes from aircraft, satellite, and submersible. ("OSO"s refer to "Oil Slick Origins.")

As part of this plan, Ian was going to join us for a reconnaissance flight out to the Macondo area to obtain precise locations of significant surface oil slicks along the ship's route and in areas of known seeps that the team hoped to study. The inclement weather and rough seas that challenged the Endeavor's voyage were also keeping us on the ground, but it looked  like we were going to get a window of decent visibility to fly on Thursday April 12.  So Ian drove from Tallahassee, FL on Wednesday afternoon for a flight the next morning.

It happened that on this same day, Shell reported a "light 10-square-mile oil slick" located between two of its major production sites in the Gulf marked by the Mars and Ursa oil platforms.  These are located about 80 nm off the coast of Louisiana and 125 nm south of New Orleans. This area is about 70 nm southwest of the Macondo area, and it lay directly in the path that the vessel Endeavor would take from Gulfport, MS to GC600. Dr. Asper (Vernon) shared with the team:
"This is right in our study area, as you know.  Do you think we should investigate?  It would be great if we could collaborate with Shell, the Coast Guard, and the Okeanos Explorer to see where the oil is coming from."

Dr. Joye (Mandy) responded quickly also:
"I do think it is worth investigating if the slick continues to persist, but I did not send out hazmat sampling gear with my crew so what we could do will depend on how thick the surface oil is (my understanding is that it is a thin sheen at this point)."

The rest of the team agreed, and in fact, we had already heard the same report and had included it in our flight plans for the next day.  The report  and the photos and video from that flight can be seen here.  Another NOAA vessel, the Okeanos Explorer, and her team of scientists had just arrived in the Macondo area  to study seeps around Biloxi Dome, several miles west of the infamous Macondo well.  We had hoped of connecting with them and of their possibly getting samples of significant surface oil in their vicinity.  But as it turned out, we were unable to see much visible surface oil in their vicinity when we circled them.  When we returned and found the team's emails about wanting to have the Endeavor sample this slick, Dr. MacDonald (Ian) wrote ("OE" here refers to the NOAA research vessel Okeanos Explorer):
"We got some good pictures of it.  Definitely an oil source--and pretty good sized because the seas were rough enough that we didn't see much from the natural seeps.  Doubt that OE will want to get involved.  May be hard enough to get a wipe sample."

We returned from our flight April 12 and found confirmation of other unfortunate news: there would be no overhead satellite imaging possible for this mission.


20120412:
Loss of Envisat
By April 9, team member Chris Jackson had set up an observing schedule with the environmental satellite Envisat that involved three separate dates for obtaining SAR (synthetic aperture radar) imagery over the primary areas of interest -- GC600 out in Green Canyon, about 160 nm southwest of the infamous Macondo well, and the Macondo area ("MC252").  Two of the three times were at night, but the third was 11 am CDT, so we planned to fly the aircraft simultaneously with the satellite observation.  On April 9, Chris wrote to the team to give the observation times and lat/lon points of the scene center point:
"Everything else was "'rejected' for one reason or another.  Time is in UTC (so two of these are at night):

Scene Start    Selected scene center
4/21/2012 4:15    27.19 -90.28
4/24/2012 4:06    27.15 -90.42
4/22/2012 15:55    28.72 -88.4 "

On the morning of April 12, team member William G. Pichel shares with the rest of the team the bad news, which later became the final word that the Envisat satellite would not be able to provide any imagery:
"I wanted to make sure you know about the ENVISAT anomaly.  There is currently no communication with the satellite as of April 8.  They have not been able to re-establish control of the satellite, so I don't think it likely that the collections you need will be taken.  We get updates every few days, so will keep you posted.  This will have a major impact on many projects if the satellite cannot be reacquired. "

The team looked into getting RadarSat imagery as an alternative, but that is a commercial satellite. It was noted that the team did not have a ready mechanism to order or pay for RadarSat data.  However, team member Oscar Garcia had looked into the options of using RadarSat1 or RadarSat-2 imagery earlier, as part of planning for this mission, and he had submitted detailed technical proposals.  Pursuing those further now, the team encountered the next challenge -- the cost would be about $3600 per image, if they could be scheduled and paid for at this late notice.

It was decided to rely more fully on what could be done from the air.

Bonny wrote to the team:
"Our plane and I are at your service to the max of our abilities.
We're refining the belly viewer to give us a better FOV [field-of-view], and if we use good cameras we can fly at higher altitude and survey a good-sized area.  But probably our forte is giving you a really close look from above at areas we've already identified.  Slicks are not hard to see with the eye; the challenge is usually to position sun and plane and camera to make them show up on the lens."
 

20110413-17Endeavor departs and On Wings Of Care prepares for the mission

Much was learned on the reconnaissance mission of April 12.  The belly viewer worked well, but we needed to build a mount that would hold the camera down lower, in order to give us a wider field of view.  The photo-windows in the airplane worked beautifully.  No more wind or noise, and no speed limit for opening these windows; much better than the old days when we had to slow down in order to open the front side windows in flight.  Ian was enthusiastic and fearless from the start, and he was an agile photographer working both rear side windows as well as monitoring the belly camera.  Videographer and pilot Brayton Matthews from New Orleans joined us and shot video from the right front seat.

During this week between flights, we made a mount to lower the camera securely, and we found software and another mount for a viewer for the belly camera, so that the pilot (me) could have the viewing screen up front.  That will be a powerful tool for doing surveys and forming mosaics of areas of interest.  We also ordered a large photo-window for the right front window!  Soon we'll have three windows that open for photographers, with no speed limit and no wind or noise.  The pilot still can open her window fully, provided she slows down to 85 kts or less and her rear-seat passengers don't mind the breeze.

The Endeavor team left Gulfport Thursday April 12 and spent much of this week battling rough seas and rains!  But they also managed to get some very good work done.


20120413 Friday:
Report from the Endeavor at VK906
By Friday mid-morning, the team was working in the Viosca Knoll area of the Gulf, about 70 nm due south of Petit Bois Island or 80 nm south-southeast of Pascagoula.  The site they had targeted is called "VK906" and its approximate latitude and longitude 29° 5' N and  88°22.6'.  This was about 30 nm north of the area where we had noted the strange-looking sargassum the day before.

Vernon sent this brief report and photos to his Introductory Marine Science class at USM:
"Greetings from 29° 5’ N, 88°, 21’ W!

We are at a site called VK906 which is actually a shipwreck that we’ll send the ROV to later on today. Well, actually, we’ll try to sample some coral at a site nearby, but it’s fun to say that we’re exploring a shipwreck.  Attached is a photo of the deck and all of our equipment. Over the next two weeks, almost all of it will go into the water and most of it won’t come back until next fall.  Right now, we’re calibrating our acoustic tracking gear using an “ultra short baseline” transponder so that all of the errors can be accounted for and the navigation is as accurate as possible.

As you can see, the weather is wonderful right now but it’s expected to deteriorate over the next few days, so we’re trying to get as much done now as we can."

VernonReport1-120120413_123359

PHOTO: VernonReport1-120120413_123359

Answering our question about the sargassum, Vernon said:
"We sampled some sargassum just now, here at the VK906 site.  The sargassum itself looks pretty normal but there is some other stuff mixed in with it that does give it a very slimy, stringy appearance.  This stuff looks like seriously degraded water hyacinth but it could be something else.  The “bulbs” look almost like anemones in the water and the roots stream along behind so this might be what you’re seeing. I’ll try to get some photos of it in the water but the connection here is pretty slow so I might not be able to send them.

ROV should go in the water momentarily; all systems are go.  They want to do a ‘soak test’ first and that will include maneuvering to see what the ballasting is like.  They’ll also try the Niskin bottle and we’ll exercise the tracking system, so lots to do...."

Referring to a question about the sargassum and a note from us that the strange-looking sargassum we photographed the day before was in blue water about 30 nm south-southwest of their current position, Vernon replied:
"The water is surprisingly blue here.  Not blue-blue but at least green-blue-blue.  I guess there must have been some strong north  winds?  We’ll keep an eye on it and see what we see further to the southwest."

John Amos, who supplies MODIS satellite imagery to the skytruth.org blog site, echoed appreciation for what our eyes had been able to see from the plane the day before, which satellites often cannot. He had this to say about a failed attempt to get images of the Shell slick:
"Wind at Mars yesterday was east at 18-19 kts when this MODIS image was taken (1:50pm local) - explains why it's a total wipeout despite good sunglint in Miss Canyon."

I mentioned to him and the team that in addition to our eyes and our cameras, I would like to have a small imaging spectrometer looking out of the belly of Bessie (our plane)!

John replied:
"MODIS isn't detailed enough to see platforms.  It does show slicks from natural oil seeps regularly, so any human-caused spill of at least that size we have a chance to spot. 
Imaging spectrometer would be great.  Put it on your xmas list...."


20120414 Saturday:
On to the Shell slick and AT357
Seas were rough for the team their first few days out.  In fact, the forecasted weather didn't hold much promise for the next week, so plans were having to be reviewed by the minute. By Saturday midday they realized they could not proceed as previously planned at the VK906 site.  They decided to finish up what they could do there and then head down to AT357, the area of known seeps and prior study located about 100 miles southwest of the Macondo well and about 50 miles northeast of their ultimate target area GC600.  The Shell slick (near Mars and Ursa production platforms) was between the Macondo area and AT357, and hopes were that the crew could get some good surface samples of the oil on their way through.  Mid-afternoon, Vernon wrote the following:
"After a flurry of emails, several phone calls, about an hour on deck with a tape measure, and several productive discussions (Chris was especially helpful), we have decided NOT to deploy either lander until the weather gets better and, hopefully, we have some ROV reconnaissance on which to base our siting decision.  The weather is supposed to abate by Wednesday so we will fill our time between now and then as follows:

  1. Rearrange the deck so that the lander is not in the way.  Yes, it can be done but it will require some stacking (nothing on top of the landers!); thanks to Jan for helping engineer this Tetris masterpiece.
  2. Make all possible preparations for Uta’s mooring (Kiel trap) to go in: (program the timer, fill the bottles, attach both bridles etc), program and activate the current meter, re-wrap the mooring lines, and prepare all of the hardware and tools.
  3. Go to bed (we’ve been up since about 3:00 and we need to be wide awake for a mooring deployment in bad weather)
  4. Overnight: steam the 100 miles or so to AT357 which is our chosen site for this mooring.
  5. After breakfast, when everyone is fresh, we deploy this mooring
  6. Steam to either GC600 (my preference) or OC26 and do some multi-coring, CTDs, cameras, whatever.
  7. If GC600: it’s closer to AT357; we can deploy the other mooring and free up more deck space; it also means that we do OC26 on the way home so that makes planning easier.  But can we do that ROV work before the GC600 work?  That means making this our first lander deployment?  Let me know.
  8. If OC26: it’s a bit further and it means backtracking to go back to GC600 (going past AT357 on the way) but the lander deployment there would be easier and it’s our bread and butter station for oil impact; if the ROV breaks and we miss sampling there, it would be bad.

Note that the VK stations are seeming less likely as are any operations atop the well head or in response to Bonny’s observations, but that could change if the ROV ops go quickly enough.

Okay, that’s the current plan; discuss it amongst yourselves and let me know what you think we should do after AT357."

Mandy wrote back:
"I would definitely go to GC600 after AT357 as it saves a lot of transit. I am cc-ing Bonny and Ian as this means the work at GC600 will proceed significantly sooner than they were planning. Hopefully it will work out so their flyover can happen before the 17th.

Sampling that Shell slick ranks pretty highly for me as well. What do the rest of you think?
Hope things improve weather wise and that you all get some rest."

Team member Jeff Chanton emailed back and seconded the motion to sample the "Shell slick."

20120415 Sunday: At AT357 and then on to GC600
The next day, Endeavor made it to AT357 and set up their mooring as planned, in preparation for studies they planned to do there on their way back from GC600.  The seas had been so rough and winds so strong that getting good surface samples at the Shell slick had not been feasible. In the late afternoon, Vernon wrote to the team:
"The AT357 mooring was deployed this afternoon without a hitch at 31.460’N, 89? 42.561’W.

We are now readying the deck and equipment for the GC600 mooring.  There is a lot to do, including un-stacking some things so that we can get to its anchor.  We hope to have the preparations made this evening; we are hove to, facing the wind for good deck conditions right now.  Once complete, we’ll steam for GC600 and deploy the second mooring.

After that, we can do some multi-coring but we’ll have to have some locations.  Mandy, can you coordinate providing some ideas for that to the “corers” here on the ship?

We’ll probably do work like that until at least tomorrow night and hope to get the ROV in the water as soon as conditions are favorable."

Team member Zena Cardman replied with a request for some sampling at particular sites near GC600:
"The Teske lab has a few cores close to GC600 from a November 2010 Atlantis/Alvin cruise, so I'd put in a request to re-sample at least one of those spots.

One location is 27º21'54.6"N  90º33'50.4"W, roughly 0.1 miles from the "official" GC600 coordinates. Our next closest core was about 20 miles SW from there."

When asked if they had been able to collect samples of the Shell slick, Vernon replied:
"No samples passing the slick; it was night time and pretty rough.
The sargassum out here is perfectly normal.  We definitely have samples of the stuff that was mixed with the sargassum, but the sargassum  itself looked normal...

Here the sargassum looks normal but at the other station it did look like the streamers you photographed and the stringy stuff was what I’m calling water hyacinths but it could be something else.  It looks like jellyfish in the water."

Ian replied:
"That's good to hear.  Visually from the air it looked 'off' but the photographs looked normal.  It's worth checking."

On Sunday afternoon, Bonny emailed the team a Google Earth map showing recent significant surface oil sightings from OWOC flights that might be relevant for the Endeavor's route.:
Just FYI (positions in degrees and decimal minutes):

1.  One significant oil sighting by us late last August (Aug 25, 2011) about 20 miles west of GC600: 
0110825, GPS#9133:  N27° 25.866', W090° 52.533', 1528'agl, 1328 CDT.
Lines of sheen, approx four, each ~150 m wide, west to east.

2.  As you return northeast past AT357 on your way to OC26 in the Macondo, you'll pass by the Shell slick.  Here are the southeast and northwest edges of the visible slick as of last Thursday Apr 12, 2012:
-- SE: 28° 6.916'N,  89° 8.806'W
Info from our flight log:  [20120412-GPS#0226 17:06Z Ross Chouest here, between Mars & Ursa platforms, good-sized slick running NE-SW]
-- NW:   28° 12.108'N,  89° 21.708'W
Info from our flight log: [20120412-GPS#0227 17:17Z, west end of same oil slick between Mars and Ursa platforms (and vicinity).]

-- Here is an NRC report of visible oil in that vicinity about 15 nm east-southeast of the Ursa platform:
28° 8.033'N,   88° 56.376'W    [20111204- OIL-NRC report:  900' wide x 1 mi long ]

3.  As you approach OC26 and the Macondo area, here are the most recent surface oil sightings by us.  They are east-northeast of OC26 about 2 miles, in the vicinity of the lat/lon given below. We also noted significant visible oil there last December 09.  
--  28° 43.185'N,   88° 19.748'W
We noted this point as GPS#0212 on 2012 Apr 06, and reported the following about it:
'
Surface slick, light sheen, silvery color, running southwest to northeast, about 1/4 nm long.'"

The team was busy planning all that they could do in the coming days despite the bad weather.  Laura Lapham would be leading the effort to perform an echo-sounder survey of the GC600 area to look for (gas) bubble plumes.  Ian would help in developing that plan.  Sunday night, Ian communicated the following to the vessel crew:
"Optimally, we should have calm seas to be able to spot the oil slick origins and collect samples of the surfacing oil.
Here is my rough idea for operations during 2 or 3 over-flights involving 6h of flight time and about 4 hours of wire time on the ship--ROV bottom time TBD:

1) Pick day/time for operations--nominally plan to have aircraft overhead by mid morning (Bonny, does this make sense?)
2) On day in question, ship should communicate to aircraft to confirm that weather will permit operations offshore -- same applies for flying.
-> If weather not favorable, proposal secondary date.
3) Ship arrives on station in vicinity of ops area--prepares for rosette sampling, wipe sampling.  Watch for surfacing oil.
4) Aircraft overflies site and spots active surface oil  (Oil Slick Origins--OSO).  Establish communication with ship (how?) Direct ship to biggest OSO.
5) Ship arrives at OSO.  Puts CTD rosette in the OSO.  Collect water samples in upper 50 m (many bottles).  Collect wipe samples. Photograph/video of everything.
6) Plane photographs operation from air.

What are the weather predictions for Monday flight ops?  Tuesday?
How is the ROV working?  Will it be able to search for the seafloor sources?"

Unfortunately, news from the Endeavor was not so reassuring.  Vernon wrote:
"So far, the ROV has not worked at all; the ship has been unable to hold station well enough for to reach the bottom, even at VK906.  We are hoping that better weather will allow it to do so, but so far, it’s just taking up a lot of space on the deck.  The weather forecast for tomorrow is about the same as today (6-8’ seas but we did get one mooring deployed) but we’re hoping that it will lay down enough in the evening that we can get the ROV in the water.

My opinion would be to delay this work until we are more confident of the ROV’s ability to work and the weather is better.
I have an aviation radio here; we can talk to Bonny in the air."

Ian agreed that we should wait for better weather:
"Hello Vernon, sorry to hear about the problems with the ROV.  Thanks for the update.
By all means, let's wait 'til we have more favorable weather conditions before attempting the coordinated overflight and slick sampling.
From my end, I need enough advance warning to drive over to New Orleans in the evening for a morning take-off. Conceivably we could do an afternoon flight, but that's Bonny's call as to flight plans etc.  Say when and I'll scramble."


20120416 - Monday morning
: Mooring #2 placed at GC600
Mid-morning Monday April 16, Vernon reported to the entire team from GC600:
"Mooring #2 is in the water; the operation went quickly and smoothly; no glitches and both officers and crew executed the process perfectly.  The trap is timed to complete its 13 samples on September 4th, just in time to be recovered on the Endeavor cruise when we’ll recover and re-deploy it with a new camera system installed.  The position is:
27° 22.466’N, 90° 30.689’W
This is to the east of “the box” (the area we want to keep clear to ensure safe ROV and AUV ops) and is clear of pipelines etc.

Our next operations are:
~12:00   Multicore at “control” site: 27° 21.886N,  90° 33.238'W
~15:00   CTD to the bottom at multicore site
~18:00   Multicore at Main Target: 27° 21.888N,  90° 33.840'W
~21:00   CTD to the bottom at multicore site
~23:00   ROV, weather permitting.

These coring sites were provided by Laura and are about 0.5 miles apart.  We are planning to use 16 pounds of lead on the corer.  Please let me know if you have any recommendations on improving this plan."

('CTD' refers to underwater measurements of conductivity, temperature, and depth.  From what we could glean from weather forecasts, it looked like the first window of weather for flying might open midday Wednesday.  Thursday looked like a beautiful day.  But time was wasting for the vessel crew, so we decided to try to fly on Wednesday April 18.  Ian agreed, and wrote to me:
"I'm planning to drive over to NOLA tomorrow night.  If you still think the weather will be favorable, we can meet up at Lakefront airport on Wednesday morning like before.  Mandy said she thought the team would still be operating at GC600.  We can scout oil slicks for their sampling and also observe what is happening at Mars and Ursa.  Possibly I can stay over Wednesday night for a second operation on Thursday as it would be good to collect surface oil in the Mississippi Canyon area to get a comparison between light Louisiana crude and the Green Canyon oil families.

I'll put together a target list for our flight tomorrow--tho I think you have the general idea where things are."

The Endeavor crew was stressing. They wanted the aerial information, but their immediate problem was with the ROV.

Vernon wrote:
"Right now, we’re working hard to get the ROV operations to flow well. We’ve had weather issues, as you know, and ship issues, and now a technical issue with the ROV (on deck now and in pieces). We’ll be happy to sample slicks, of course, but we really don’t have good sampling gear along and we REALLY need to get the landers in so I would think that breaking out of our schedule to sample a distant slick is not going to happen.  Keep in mind that we have not yet visited OC26, which was fully half of our objective area, so we are way behind schedule and expectations.

Still, it will be nice to have more information on where the slicks are etc."

Mandy was more optimistic, although everyone was working on contingency plans should the ROV work at GC600 have to be cut short and the Endeavor head back toward the Macondo area ("CTD" refers to an instrument package including sensors that measure conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water):
"The ROV is in the water and things are going pretty well. If things continue to go well at GC600 I assume they will be there through Thurs. Vernon, would you agree?

If things go south however, I agree that coupled flyover, surface collections, and CTDs around MC118 and MC252 would be a very good thing."

Ian agreed:
"Yes, if things go well, we should be here through Thursday.  The ROV is all back together and ready to go; they're doing the final testing and "should" be back in the water momentarily.  It looks like the main problem was just some water in one of the fiber optic connectors; easy to fix.

If things do "go south" with the ROV, it sure will be nice to have some options in terms of sampling. So, I agree with Mandy; let's focus on the ROV work now, giving them top priority but if something terminal happens to the ROV, we will rearrange our priorities and sample slicks as seen from the air."

So our plan was to fly on Thursday.  But like all great plans, this one changed. Because the ROV stopped communicating, and it was determined that the repair was straightforward, but a part was needed that they didn't have on the ship.  So by Tuesday afternoon, we were all hard at work preparing for a flight that wouldn't just find surface oil slicks from above; it would also deliver the needed part for the ROV!

20120417 Tuesday: ROV Woes
Tuesday morning's email from Vernon was not very cheery:
"Last night started off pretty well but ended rather poorly. The weather is laying down nicely so we opted to put the ROV in at GC600 with the primary mission of finding a suitable location for the lander.

Dive 1: The vehicle was lowered to 1000m in its TMS and, after the ship brought us back to the spot after some drift, was ready to work but then the camera died, so it was brought back on deck.  Problem was traced to water in the fiber bulkhead connector.

Dive 2: repeat of the first dive except this time the bulkhead connector was replaced (Mike, correct me if this is incorrect)

Dive 3: repeat of dive 2 except this time the vehicle exited the cage and was happily surveying when the entire vehicle lost all telemetry (that’s on a separate fiber).  It was hauled back to the surface with the vehicle not in the TMS.  Once at the surface, the vehicle was tied off while the tether, which had slackened in the process, was pulled out and re-wrapped.  When the vehicle was recovered, it was discovered that the tether (between the TMS and the vehicle) had been damaged and would need to be re-terminated. At this moment, the vehicle is on deck and the tether is being worked on; no prognosis on when it will be ready, but it won’t be all that soon.

So, we have few possible activities left (a CTD was done while the vehicle was being repaired between dives 2 and 3).  We can multicore.  But we did three multi-cores yesterday and recovered zero sediment.  We are using all of the lead that is available (18 bricks) except for some that has small holes and won’t fit the rack.  We tried the normal approach of lowering the last few meters very slowly (10m/min) but, after retrieving no sediment, decided that the pitching (deployed over the stern) could be causing the corer to hit the bottom, trigger, lift up, and then hit the bottom again but with the corers closed.  We also estimated that perhaps the ship was not holding station well enough and perhaps the corer was being dragged, but on the second attempt, the ship held station PERFECTLY (within 12-28m for essentially the whole time and without using the bow thruster; Shannah at the helm!).  On the final core of the day, we lowered the last 25m at 25m/min in an attempt to overcome the vertical motion induced by the ship’s pitching but still no sediment.  In a good core, there is sediment smeared up the side of the core; these have a few globs of sediment inside the tubes but “smear” only 5-10 cm up the sides, possibly indicating that the core tubes were inserted into the sediment with the bottom lids closed.

If we get to core again today, we’ll try whatever method or rig any of you suggest; we’d really like to make it work.  The weather is getting better and better but there is still some pitching (almost no roll, though).

Another possibility would be for us to chase and sample slicks that Bonny and Ian find from the air.  That is quite a diversion from the main goal here at this station but it’s a possibility.

Any other suggestions until the ROV is repaired?"

The team began scrambling to decide what else to do to salvage the mission and acquire as much information as possible.
Jeff Chanton of Florida State said:
"What about hydrocasts near the MC 252 for methane and DIC.  i know that was supposed to be coring and casts, but half full is better than none.   chasing slicks is also good.  do methane profiles in the water column.     and DIC."

Vernon noted:
"Yes, sampling at OC26 and MC252 (or even MC118) would be great but they’re all more than 100 miles from where we are and that could mean abandoning all sampling here at GC600.  I’ll do whatever the group decides, but I hate to steam all the way back east without getting anything from this site.  The “Shell Slick” is also over in that area but almost “on the way” so we can sample it if/when we head that direction."

Chuck Fisher from Pennsylvania State thought it would be worth the 20-hour round-trip to take the ship back to port to get the needed ROV part:
"100 miles is only 10 hrs steam.  In my opinion, better to burn 20 hrs (round trip) than go to 3rd order priorities.
Another thought, and I admit it is a bit self serving.  If you go east to do surface work and get the ROV back up and running, you might do your test dive at VK 906.  It is 400m depth and a simple small mound.  collecting only should go  quickly and it is a chance to test cameras, manips, their collecting box, and of course tethers at moderate depth.  You would then know exactly how much time you need to repeat this at the end, so would not need to schedule much in the way of "buffer" time.  with this efficiency, the time commitment might be a wash."

Ian offered some alternatives as well:
"Sorry to hear about your ROV woes.  Bonny and I will work around whatever support makes most sense for you are able to do with the equipment.

We could fly Wednesday.  The plan would be to spot slicks and sample the surface layer (upper 100 m) with the rosette as well as the wipe sampling.  We could repeat on Thursday at another site.  I will need to drive to NOLA tonight if this is what we decide to do.

I heard from Laura that you were able to sample the surface slick earlier.  Did you also collect water samples in the plume?  That kind of sample is actually more important than the surface oil.

One thing about GC600--there is a lot of shallow hydrate at this site--like solid layers under <3 cm of sediment.  The multi-corer will not work under any circumstances if you hit that type of area.  You might try moving north to hit softer (and shallower) conditions."

Vernon agreed with Ian's idea to take some core samples:
"I think we’ll try one right here at the head (south end) of the slick that we’re sitting on.  If that doesn’t work, we’ll head north and see what happens.  Is there much carbonate at this site?  That could do a number on those plastic core tubes.  We do have spares…."

By this time,  we had determined that all of the parts needed for repair of the ROV could be packaged in a way that we could deliver.  Vernon noted that in his next reply, which included text from a weather forecast that warned  of 7-10 ft seas by Saturday and 9-14 ft by Sunday, with winds to 30 kt:
"We have some severe weather coming on Saturday and Sunday so we will have to get our work done here at GC600 now or cancel it for the trip.  Burning an entire day steaming to the east and back while the weather is perfect is really hard to stomach.

Regarding the shallow test of the ROV, they think that the problem is pressure-related and that it only shows up below 1000m.  Oh sure, that's fine for you and working at VK906 but it sure is a pain for all the work we want to do at the other two stations!

Our current plan is to finish the CTD cast that we have underway now, then head back to the slick at GC600 and do more shallow CTDs until the ROV is ready and then immediately cancel the CTDs and put the ROV to work.  If we can find a good place for the lander, we'll deploy it tomorrow; everything is ready for that at a moment's notice.  Then we'll spend some time using the ROV to service the lander items (Mimosa and chimneys) and for pinpoint coring.  Once that's finished, we'll head for OC26 and that should be about the time the weather slams us."

The team agreed with Vernon that they should remain at GC600 and use the next few days of good weather to maximum advantage.

Vernon sent this report and three photos to his marine science class mid-afternoon Tuesday April 17:
"Things are going medium well out here; not great but not awful either.  The bad news is that the ROV broke down.  No, it failed catastrophically.  We had it down about 1,000 meters and lost all communications with it so we had to just haul it back using the winch. But the ROV was out of its cage so the umbilical that connects the two got tangled and then damaged and then, after we had it alongside, it parted.  Yes, separated into two pieces but we didn’t  lose the vehicle (see attached 7451). The ROV is in the foreground to the left and the cage it usually rides in is on the right.  Pieces of the old umbilical are on the deck.  They’re installing a new umbilical now and have been since 3:30 this morning so, hopefully, they’ll be done soon.

In the meantime, we have been working with the “multi-corer”; see attached 7449.  It is supposed to gently collect sediment in each of the 8 tubes that you see in photo 7449 but we lowered it to the seafloor 5 times and came up empty each time. We tried lowering it rapidly, slowly, you name it; nothing.  We finally consulted the assembly manual and noted that we had neglected to install the 8 “bricks” of lead on the “spider”; we had installed the 18 “blocks” of lead on the “lower weight platform” (each one weighs 50 pounds) but not those on the spider.  Well, after installing them as the instructions directed, we got a perfect set of 8 cores (see photo 7455).  So, you have to follow the instructions; who knew?

Our weather has been kind of lousy over the last few days but today it’s wonderful.  You can go to http://techserv.gso.uri.edu/EndeavorNow.asp to see where we are and what the weather is like, if you’re interested.  It’s supposed to be really nice until Saturday when it will go downhill really rapidly; they are expecting 25-30 knot winds and 6 to 9 foot seas.  Lovely.

The site where we are now is called “GC600” = Green Canyon Block 600, which is a name given to this block of real estate by the Minerals Management Service that rents these to oil companies on our behalf.  Just to the south of us is the “Hereford Rig” which is painted somewhat like a Hereford cow.  Kind of.  Well, you have to squint but that’s what they tell us.  Right under us is a very prolific natural seep so there is a lot of oil on the surface, all of it coming up on its own and not related to the oil well.  But there’s a good bit of it and the smell is pretty impressive, even when it’s windy."


 

20120418 Wednesday: OWOC Aerial Imaging and air delivery service
The critical repair parts for the ROV were determined, gathered, packaged, and delivered to us.  The weather system passed as quickly as we had hoped, bringing clearer skies to New Orleans by noon Wednesday.  Ian also arrived Wednesday  morning, and we busied ourselves setting up the new camera mount for the belly viewer and getting things arranged in the plane for the flight, and by 1:30 pm we were in the air and bound for 180 nm south to find the Endeavor!  The article with photos and video of what we saw on this flight are at the OWOC website here.  Here is a photo of Ian in the back of the plane, looking quite at home surrounded by cameras, video cameras, laptop, life raft and life vests, and ROV repair parts.  

*20120418-Ian(3)

Before we left, we saw a very encouraging email arrive from Laura Lapham telling about their morning dive at GC600:
"Some good news from the ship.  We had a "successful" dive this morning and were able to see the seafloor for about 15 minutes before telemetry cut out.  But during those 15 minutes, whoa, GC 600 is so very cool.

The dive started just east of our main target to find lots of carbonates and shells, and bacterial mats.  The look of them was different though, a bit fuzzy.  Like it had recently been dumped on by sediment.  We  noticed this same thing on the previous nights short dive but didn't have time to investigate before losing video.  The layer was probably not thick, just a thin veneer, but definitely fresh.  After flying a bit, we then found probably why.  We saw little round blow-out-like features.  Well, I say little, but I'm not too sure how big.  The ROV doesn't have lazers so distances are hard to say.  We saw a few of these features, most of which had bacterial mats in the center.  The sonar showed a lot of hard targets, which we followed to find more carbonates.  Then we saw a little depression with one of those tell-tale ledges that looked like undercut hydrate. It wasn't a huge feature, the ROV sat down right in front of it and looked in it.  You could see bacterial mats coating the edges and then the ROV moved a bit to release oil!!!  Woohoo!  Paydirt.  Hydrate also came out and floated a way, small bits, but still visible.  The video was recorded the whole time, so we can all enjoy this soon.  Then we started to see pink little features that were the ice-worms.  We saw a handful of them, and one might of even had little hydrate chunks on his legs.  Very cool stuff.  We were able to get  a fix on this station before video cut out, so maybe we will try to core it today. It is real rocky around there, though and hydrate throughout, so it might be risky with the MUC.  Any opinions on that?  Regardless, it was an exciting dive and definitely put some hope back in us.

Now for some reality check....I just talked to the ROV pilot and what happened was when we were sitting on station the boat drifted and yanked them, kinking the tether and losing communications.  They said it should be a few hours to fix, but fixable.  That is good news. But, on the down side, I am worried about how the ROV was flying.  It was pretty bouncy, and am not sure how they will be able to do the lander operations.  I told one of the ROV pilots my concern just now, and he said that he is also concerned about this.  He said without DP, it'll be real hard for them to do any operations on the seafloor in one place for any length of time.  Argh.

I think once everyone is awake, maybe we need to have a 3-way conversation between the scientists, ROV and ship."

This, plus knowing that help was on the way today, energized the team. Jeff Chanton wrote:
"Laura, have you gotten a sucessful multi-core deployment anyplace yet?   Might be better to start on soft mud?  Maybe that's why its not working, hitting hydrate or rox?"

Ian added:
"You have definitely found a good spot.  Glad for any progress. I would counsel you to be cautious about a sub-standard or rushed deployment of mimosa.  I've done those and they rarely end well. I know you want to get your gear in place, but the cruise would still be a success if you come away with a detailed picture of the deployment area and a much better idea of how to successfully deploy the gear in a future dive. One issue will be implanting the probe if there is extensive shallow hydrate."

Chris Martens had this to say:
"If the lander and just get nudged into a good spot we can get good ambient data. Placing the two chimneys near or in hot spots would be the cat's meow. HOWEVER, it is critical that the chimneys get placed upright because the pumped sample intake ports (we use SeaBird 600ml/min pumps to flush the METS sensors) are on the sides of the chimneys about 40 cm above the lead pellet bottom skirts used to seal the chimneys against the seafloor. The chimneys only weigh 10lbs in the water and their green ball floats help them stay upright and so even a small ROV should be able to place them.

Laura, would you check out the chimneys yourself to see those pump intake spots? We can talk about them as needed. It would be great if you were able to review them with the ROV pilots..."

Mandy added:
"We have MUC-Ed all over GC600 and unless you land on a hydrate mound or carbonate - which we are patchily distributed (and we have never managed to do!) - you will be OK. I would shoot for coring oily spots for sure."

With a very strong (30-kt) northerly tailwind pushing us along in our airplane, we made fast progress over th Gulf and within 90 minutes we found the Endeavor -- sitting in a large slick of oil!  And that was the third large slick we saw along our direct route to her.  The delivery went fine, we used the belly viewer to take photos for a mosaic of the slick, and then we went on to overfly what would be the Endeavor's route home, so that we could give them information about the locations of surface slicks near their intended study sites. 

With the ROV repaired, the fun science begins -- not that the other work is not fun, it is great fun for the scientists.  But for most of the rest of us, we don't know quite what to make of the graphs and tables of data, but we sure love to watch a video of what things look like on the ocean floor.

Here is what Vernon had to say by Wednesday mid-afternoon:
"The air drop went extremely well this afternoon; Bonny did a superb job of piloting and the package landed precisely where we wanted it; the small boat team had it aboard in less than a minute so it’s all safe.

The ROV was in the water this morning for two dives: on the first, very short one, the HD camera faulted again so the vehicle was recovered and the HD camera was swapped for a normal color camera that is not so demanding of fiber bandwidth.  While the part that was just delivered should eliminate this problem, if installed, we do not anticipate installing it unless some other fault develops.  Our reasoning is that it is far more important to have the vehicle working so that the landers can be deployed than it is to have top notch video of these operations.

On the second dive, the ROV went all the way to the bottom and started a survey in some really fascinating scenery with oil, gas,, hydrates, clams, all of the features we all know and love.  However, after about 15 minutes of survey, the system faulted and had to be hauled back in with no power again.  On recovery, it was clear that the tether had been damaged so it was reterminated and, as I write this, the team is refilling the oil in the junction boxes and should have it ready to go in about an hour.  In the meantime, Johanna will be conducting a precision CTD cast right at the main GC600 coordinates and will collect water as close to the bottom as possible.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.  Our priority is to use the ROV to survey, sample, and service the lander, once it is deployed.  Given that we have accomplished only 15 minutes of useful ROV work so far, it could be said that confidence is not high so we are looking for other activities.

This morning’s box core was nearly perfect (7 of 8 tubes had good samples and the water was crystal clear above several of them) but the samples were rather short, perhaps because the sediment is more consolidated here and perhaps there is a harder layer (carbonate or hydrate) just below the surface.  Regardless, we are confident that we can core a CTD and obtain samples that will be very useful. 

We are also planning to deploy the first lander tomorrow at 13:00, weather permitting. Unless we see something else tonight, we will place it at the site that Laura saw this morning.  The specific deployment technique is still under discussion but be assured that we will place it on the seafloor as gently as possible.

The weather is supposed to go downhill rapidly on Friday night (9-14; seas on Sunday) so we do not expect to conduct ROV operations on either Saturday or Sunday.  Instead, we will probably head towards OC26, sample the “Shell” and other slicks on the way, work at OC26 for awhile (deploy the lander on Monday, if weather permits) and then hit VK906 on the way in, if the ROV is functional and weather permits.

The Captain said this morning that we should expect to arrive back at Gulfport on the morning of Tuesday April 24th.

In other news, I was hoping to deploy my camera last night.  I had checked it thoroughly back at the lab and it worked flawlessly.  Out here, it worked but would not communicate with the laptop so it could not be programmed.  We fiddled with it for more than an hour, trying to figure out the source of the trouble.  I came back to it later and it now will not even turn on; something is fatally wrong with it so we do not expect to obtain any aggregate profiles and of course it cannot be used for other purposes either.

Please continue to work with our on-board team to provide a list of station to be sampled here at GC600 and beyond:
Laura and Cedric are working on CTD plans.  Johanna and Barbara are deciding on coring plans."

And by Wednesday night, more good news from the ship:
"For some good news: the latest multicore produced some exciting samples: one of them has only a little sediment but there is about 4mm of oil floating on its surface; you have to wonder how it got there.  Another is bubbling and the rest are foul smelling so these will be some useful samples.  We plan to sample these tubes and the, perhaps, do yet another core in the same location.

Also good is that the crew found the problem with the ROV; it was a simple short circuit between two connectors in the TMS tether reel slip rings.  This is easy to fix but it will take some time to put everything back together and refilled with oil.  We anticipate a launch just before midnight and we’re optimistic."

Mandy replied:
"Awesome!!! Re the oil on the top, if the core penetrates an area where oil is actively seeping, the oil tends to travel up the side of the core liner upon penetration. I've watched this happen when coring with the ALVIN and JSL. So, floating oil on the top means you hit a spot where oil is coming out of the bottom at a good clip. Exciting!"

Vernon replied to Mandy:
"Okay, but the lid isn’t supposed to close until the tube is pulling out, or nearly so.  So what traps the oil inside?  I guess it’s just from the time between when the top closes and when the bottom closes and the pullout is complete. In our case that was almost exactly 2 minutes so the oil must be coming out at a VERY good clip and we must have really nailed it!"

After we landed back in New Orleans, we emailed the team the locations of more slicks that we saw along what would be their return route in the coming days.  If you look at the article from April 18 on the OWOC website, you'll see the photos and video corresponding to these two locations, labeled as GPS waypoint numbers 0242 and 0244.
"Two more slicks you might want to check out, which are on your way home.  
They are in the attached log and labeled as the following waypoints:

0242.  1524 CDT. N28 07.742 W89 09.255  (southwest of the URSA platform.)
OIL slick, 0.5 nm long by 800 m , wide. (Actually the slick was a bit east of gps#0242.)

0244. 1606 CDT. N28 41.143 W88 28.587 (northwest corner of Biloxi dome.  The Okeanos Explorer was almost five miles south of here.)    OIL slick, ~0.2 nm x 150 m."


Some Questions about natural seeps
Since Shell declared the cause of the slick between the Mars and Ursa platforms to be a natural seep, some new questions came from concerned citizens about such phenomena.  Dr. Ed Cake from Mississippi, emailed Vernon with some questions on Tuesday April 17, with cc to me because he wasn't sure that Vernon could receive emails while at sea.
"Is it possible to tell the difference between a "natural" seep and one released from any of the thousands of plugged and abandoned oil and gas wells throughout the northern Gulf of Mexico?

Why hasn't the public been apprised of the "natural" seeps and their locations before now?  It seems strange to many of us that the "seeps" seem to be more numerous and more active now that attention has been focused on the Gulf because of the BP spill.

Are there any engineering studies underway to address those seeps such that their contribution to the the Gulf's oil burden may be reduced in the future?"

I gave a quick reply to Ed, which later was improved and expanded by Vernon:
"If Vernon could answer any of those good questions, he surely would.
My guesses would be:
1.  How to tell natural seep from a leak from a plugged or abandoned well:
Use an ROV and look at the seabed source.

2.  Why hasn't the public been apprised of the natural seeps?
Probably because they didn't clamor to know.  There are satellite images of slicks associated with seeps dating back to 2004..

3.  Are there engineering studies underway to reduce the effect of natural seeps on the Gulf?
Ha!  Doubt it.  Unless you call application of subsea dispersants one of those studies.  But seriously, maybe there are thoughts of introducing more oil-eating microbes.  But probably we should let nature take its course."

The next morning, Vernon gave us both some clearer insights:
"Believe me, we try to talk about the seeps!  We’ve been studying them for a long time and know lots about them but the public doesn’t seem to be all that interested.  The cool thing about them is that they support a lush and very specific fauna so we have lots to study when we visit them, as we’re doing now. This site is called “GC600” but that’s just the block name; the main feature is called “oil mountain” because of all the oil coming from them.  In a natural oil/gas seep, the colonization starts with bacterial mats; they cover the sediment surface (various colors depending on the species) and trap the gas/oil as it’s trying to escape. They metabolize it using oxygen from the water but below them, the oxygen quickly goes to zero so there are other bacteria there that use oxygen from sulfate or other compounds, including CO2.  This results in a cool layering of bacteria but the really neat thing is that a byproduct of this metabolism is that the bacteria secrete a hard calcium carbonate substrate that is very much like coral reef carbonate.  Once that is in place, corals, tube worms etc, all show up and they all consume the oil/gas or something that does.  There are also clams, mussels, crabs, etc that eat the bacteria or the worms so there is a whole reef community.  I spent 9 days at 3,000’ in the NR-1 watching one of these communities in the Gulf and it is just amazing.  I could go on and on with all of the incredible findings but, because it’s at the bottom of the ocean, we have trouble getting much press.  And then there are the gas hydrates, which are our excuse for studying this; that’s a topic in itself.

The best estimate for the amount of oil coming from natural seeps is about two supertankers per year in the Gulf alone.  If you want to see one of these seeps yourself, go to Coal Oil Point near Santa Barbara, CA. There you can see the bubbles at the surface and smell the oil, even on shore if the wind is right.  Anyway, this is a well studied topic and one that is near and dear to all of us on this ship."


By this time (Tuesday April 17), the Endeavor was at GC600.  Vernon had this to say, still replying to Ed's questions:
"... there are impacts that we might not fully appreciate for years.  I’m out in the Gulf, maybe 150 miles SW of New Orleans at a natural seep called GC600.  There is a substantial slick at the surface and strong oil odor; both of these took me back to what we were seeing two years ago but at least this is natural and not caused by man."


20120419 Thursday, 5pm CDT:
The Lander has landed!
A heartening report from Vernon on the day's success!
"The lander has landed!  After a picture perfect operation in picture perfect weather, the lander is in position at 90°33.8578’W, 27° 21.8904’N which is right where we wanted it.  It was released from approximately 15 meters above the bottom and we are confident that it settled slowly and is okay but we’ll know for sure soon because the ROV is being prepped for launch now.

For those of you who are interested in the procedure we used, it was a combination of all our best ideas. Arne conducted a test of activating the releases in the presence of a pinger so that we could monitor altitude through the process.  The pinger definitely interferes but, if separated by a sufficient distance, it can be done.  So, we combined his pinger idea with my “soft line” idea and put the pinger on the end of the trawl wire; below that was 30m of polypro followed by 2 floats and two releases.   Because the lander was so light (only 200 pounds negative) we had to lower it painstakingly slowly to the seafloor: 10m/min so it took a long time.   I was in the small boat and, when everything was in position, I commanded first one release (4 times, no joy) and then the other (released on the 3rd try).  The ship’s officers held position perfectly throughout the operation and the deck crew was smooth and competent in making the connections and moving things over the side.

All in all, it went as perfectly as it could have and now we’ll check it out “in person” with the ROV."

And an additional comment from Vernon late Thursday night:
"For the lander deployment today, I was in the small boat for about 3 hours and we were right in that slick part of the time.  There seemed to be more sargassum in it than around it but the sargassum all looked fine, at least to me.  There were also several man-o-war around and they looked normal too so perhaps marine life has learned how to deal with the small amounts of oil that come from the natural seeps.

The ROV is down working on the lander now; having video problems but, overall, the system is working and the work is getting done."

Here was Vernon's promised report and photo on the "Lander", received Thursday evening:
"The ROV is in position and working on the lander.  The image above is just a photograph of the monitor in the ROV shack but I thought you’d all want to see it.  The lander is upright and in a very good location, actually about 20m from the GC600 lat/lon that we use to mark the station.  It is right on the edge of a rather steep dropoff which you can sort of see to the right, but it is firmly seated and the landing pads (on the bottoms of the legs) have barely penetrated so recovery should not be an issue.  Just behind the ROV  is a crater that is about 2m across and nearly 1m deep and there are some bacterial mats nearby so Laura is happy.

The ROV driver first circled the lander to get good video of the general location and then went in to cut the bungees, which took less than 5 minutes.  This dexterity bodes well for them being able to do whatever we need done with the landers.  Next he will position the chimneys and Mimosa and then we’ll see what happens next but there is likely to be more surveys and, we hope, some coring overnight and into tomorrow.  I promise not to sent zillions of these photos but I thought you’d want to know what the lander looked like and what it’s environment contained.

Our current plan is to spend the rest of the good weather (about 24 more hours) here doing these tasks and obtaining cores with the ROV, something we have not yet tried."

VernonReport3-ThursdayEve20120419-DSC_8606 

PHOTO: VernonReport3-ThursdayEve20120419-DSC_8606


The team was ecstatic.
This from Mandy:
"I think it is safe to say that you just made all of our weeks with this fantastic news!!!  The lander is perfectly positioned.    Kudos again to you and Arne for pulling this off!"

Ian had this to say:
"The hard substrate is almost certainly gas hydrate.  So the lander is in a hot spot."

And from Chris  Martens:
"Vernon, this is just what we'd hoped for as optimists! It will be interesting to see how well the ROV pilot can lift off and transport the individual chimneys- they can travel a max of something less than 10 meters from the lander as you know and have a strength member so that they stay off during recovery and just dangle on the way up. We'll also be interested in what happens if the ROV accidentally drops a chimney and hope that IF that occurs, the chimney lands on its lead pellet skirt, sealed against the bottom and ready to take data. It would be best not to drag them across the bottom to avoid stirring of surface sediments.
Thanks for the photo! This is a great relief!"

Vernon replied:
"I didn’t get to see the event but I think they are already positioned and it was not an issue.  The video here in the lab wasn’t working at the time and the control van was very crowded so I worked on email and missed that part of it.  The video is now on again here in the lab so I’ve been watching.  At this moment, they are working with the MIMOSA probes.  One of them went in just fine but the other won’t penetrate all the way, in spite of repeated hammering by the arm.  I’m thinking there must be some hard substrate down there.  They are also having video problems ( the video is off more than it is on) and the arm has been a bit stubborn (they had to tap the side of the lander with it to make it move in one direction) but they’re getting the job done.  The weather is perfect and the ship is rock solid on target so they’re doing their best to use this time productively.

If all goes well, we’ll keep working with the ROV overnight and tomorrow, including using the coring device (next) and, perhaps,  doing more survey work.  It’s tempting to run for OC26 but we won’t do that as long as the ROV is working and there is a chance we can get some targeted cores.  We are still planning/hoping to get some coral samples at VK906 on the way in but that will depend on the weather, which isn’t so good."

He was right about the coming weather -- seas promised to be 7 ft by Saturday afternoon and 13 ft after midnight, with strong northerly winds.

One further reply to an interested friend from Vernon, which lends some insight to the programmatic and logistical challenges to this kind of research:
"The “lander” is on the bottom and we used the ROV last night to position its sensors so it’s working right now.  Our next goal is to get some pinpoint sediment cores using the ROV but it’s taking a long time (12 hours so far) to get the corer installed and functioning so that’s frustrating.  Once we get that done and have some cores in hand, we’ll head over to OC26, which is just south of the Macondo well head.  The site we’re on now is a natural seep while OC26 is an area affected by the oil spill so we’ll contrast those results.  In between the two is VK357 which is neither a seep nor affected by the spill.  We have one set of instruments there now (my mooring) and will put more in place in the fall, if everything comes together.

Keep in mind that we are doing this using the BP GOMRI funding and that money just arrived in late February so we’ve been scrambling to get everything in place.  There is a lot involved in staging these research cruises, especially when you get university purchasing policies involved and then try to transfer funds from BP to GOMRI to Ole Miss to …..  So, I think we’re doing a pretty good job but we’ll get better as we get more and more of the program in place."

20120420 Friday: The Plan for now
Vernon wrote about a successful ROV dive this morning and the plan for the weekend ahead:
"Our ROV dive this morning was moderately successful; we collected 2 partial cores that Barbara and Johanna shared so that made them grin. But the ROV suffered more failures and came up dead again.  This time, I insisted that they install the part the Bonny airlifted out to us, so we did a multicore while they were installing that part. It is now in place and all systems are go but the confidence is only moderate that this part will solve all of the telemetry issues from which the ROV is suffering.

Our current plan is to put the ROV in here at GC600 one more time to collect a better set of cores.  Once the vehicle is back on deck, we plan to pull the transducer pole and head straight back to VK906 to collect some coral for Chuck, Dannise, and Miles before the weather shuts us down. If all goes well, we should arrive there tomorrow late morning so we could be in the water as early as noon.  If all goes well…..

From there, we’ll go southeast to OC26 where we will do whatever the weather allows.  If it is reasonable, we will deploy the lander.  If less so, we’ll do some multicoring.  If it’s totally wretched, we will just heave to and wait it out.

In other news, I suggested to the folks on the Okeanos Explorer, who were just a few miles away, that it would be really nice if they could come over to GC600 and do a survey of our study area and the lander.  I even offered that they could use the transponder on our lander to calibrate their USBL system, something that has never been done.  So far, they aren’t going for it but hope springs eternal. They have a world class HD camera on their ROV (lil’ Herc) so it would be wonderful to get that kind of video of our study area."
 

20120420 Friday night: PLANS CHANGE AGAIN - The ROV DIES!
Oh, this was sad news that came Friday night.  Vernon wrote at 9pm:
"How quickly things change. The ROV is dead.  There was no telemetry; they didn’t even leave the cage; very sad and frustrating for all involved.  Thus, there is no point in going to VK906 right now (Chuck, we tried!).

Instead, we will head for OC26, prep the lander overnight, and deploy it as soon after arrival on station as we can.  If the forecast holds (see below) we’ll do a deep CTD to get some water for Laura but that is a call we’ll make then.

Once the lander is in, he said optimistically, we’ll do some CTDs and multicores until the weather shuts us down. We expect to be hove to on Sunday.

If weather allows, and if the ROV can be repaired, we’ll stop at VK906 on the way in on Monday.

I’m sorry the plan changes so much.  I mean I’m REALLY sorry the plan changes so much but without an ROV, most of our plans are moot."

About the only good news here was that the forecasted weather was not quite as bad as previously predicted -- the seas by midnight Saturday would only build to 10 ft, not 14 ft.  Not a lot of difference, as it makes for a rough ride either way, and such rough seas preclude deploying instruments or finding oil from the air.

All team members back on terra firma chimed in encouragingly.  Dr. Peter Girguis, Loeb Associated Professor of Natural Sciences from Harvard, wrote:
"Vernon, my goodness there's no need to apologize.  You're the one on the front lines and I'm flat out impressed by how well you (and Laura Lapham!) have been getting info to those of us shoreside (or, in my case, Atlantic-side).

... Focusing on the present...your plan sounds entirely reasonable.
Good luck out there."

All team Chuck Fisher, Professor of Biology at Pennsylvania State, wrote:
"No worries Vernon,
I have no doubt you are doing your best to meet everyones needs and will be happy to buy you a beer or three for your efforts when next we meet.Meanwhile, keep smiling."

Chris Martens said:
"Vernon and Arne, your leadership of the cruise team will produce meaningful results for the whole ECOGIG project, even with crippling equipment and weather issues. So we're all grateful for your tireless efforts and know that these are the first steps of important work. Get some rest....you deserve it!"

Joe Caba from SeaTrepid, Inc., who supplied the ROV, explained that they were troubleshooting the problem with the ROV.  It apparently was an isolated issue that manifested itself only at depth. 


20120421 Saturday:
The Phoenix Rises and Happy Landings Again!
The weather system passed through faster and farther east than forecasted, much to everyone's relief. The Blue Angels' airshow in New Orleans scheduled for this weekend still cancelled (although they did give an early performance on Friday, so some folks got to see a fantastic show; for some photos and video, see here!).  Cold winds gusted to 35 kts throughout New Orleans Saturday afternoon and night, and some of that front made it down to where the faithful crew were holding steady out at sea.  But nowhere near as severely as feared.  By mid-afternoon Saturday, we received good news again from the Endeavor crew!  Between 2:30 and 3:00 pm, Vernon wrote:

"Lander #2 is on its way down, configured for collecting background data with no intervention from the ROV which is still dead.  We’re lowering at 10m/min so it’ll take about 3 hours to get to the bottom.  The weather is very rainy but the wind is still about 17 knots so the seas are tolerable.  Because of the presence of storms in the area, we elected to not launch the small boat.  When the time comes, we’ll attempt to release from the deck and launch the small boat only if absolutely necessary.

More later; Laura might want to add some details about her preparations, just for the record....

The winds are up to 25 knots, as expected, with currents about 90 degrees off of the winds.  The ship is pitching a little bit; we are glad for the shock absorber. The lander is down about 300m.  Shanna is on the helm and doing an amazing job holding position.

I hope I have some fingernails left when this is over; this is pretty stressful!"

Several of the team chimed in again with thanks to Vernon and the loyal crew, promising them celebrating drinks and meals on their return. A couple of hours later, at 5:15 pm, Vernon wrote:
"We sent the release command with the package about 15m above bottom according to our calculation.  Because of the weather, we did this from the ship and it was really hard to hear the replies from the releases.  But both Arne and I are sure we heard the proper 4 ping response, even though the deck unit did not register it.  We are now recovering the lowering cable and we are not seeing any increase in tension that would be caused if the lander were still attached so we are optimistic that it released on command and is in position.  If conditions were better, we’d go out in the small boat but it’s really nasty so that just isn’t possible.

We’ll send a position and more information once the rest of the gear has been brought back on board."

At 6pm Saturday, Vernon wrote:
"All of our deployment gear is back on deck safely and the lander is on the bottom.  Although we commanded both releases, only one released and we cannot be 100%  sure exactly when it released but we feel that it was just before we heard the 4 ping confirmation.  If so, the position is:
88° 21.707’W, 28° 42.403’N

If not, it is close by; we were moving very slowly at the time; Shanna had relieved Richard so that he could eat dinner.  Weather is not great but it was not dangerous either; we’re glad to have this operation finished and the deck remarkably clear.

Next on the schedule is a test of the ROV.  The wind is such that the ship will not be able to hold position well enough to do any coring but the ROV crew really wants to at least send it down to depth (we have 1600m here) to test for problems.  If everything checks out, we will come up with a sampling plan but it probably won’t happen today.  Or tomorrow, for that matter.

Other possibilities are multicoring and CTDs until the weather abates.
Thanks to all for your help and support."

Echoing feelings of the whole team, Chris  Martens wrote:
"Fantastic, Vernon and Arne, this could not have happened w/o your steadfast determination and skills. I would never have guessed that both landers would get down in this sort of situation. Now we all hope that the weather breaks enough to allow coring to continue.

We also heard from Matt Lowe and Ken Sleeper that ROVARD was recovered at MC-118 with a CSA system on board since last October.

So now all of us in ECOGIG will get to include seafloor time-series sensor measurements in our project thanks to you guys."

A few hours later, Vernon issued a small correction to details of his earlier statement:
"A quick note: after some careful consideration and discussion with Laura, we determined that the position I sent earlier is not the most accurate. It is close but the one that Laura marked is slightly better:

88° 21.6216’W, 28° 42.2714’N

So, please make a note of this; the two positions are about 100m different but that’s significant in the ROV world.  When 'we' go back to it in the fall with an ROV, we’ll want to do some more reconnaissance (pinging the release from various locations) to further pinpoint the position so that the ROV can drive right up to it.  Unfortunately, only the lander at GC600 has a USBL transponder so this one will be a little harder to locate, perhaps requiring the use of the ROV’s sonar."

At 6:22pm Saturday, Vernon wrote:
"Arne has made contact with the TR6000 release on the lander and its slant range agrees very well with the position I reported below.  Moreover, the fact that he can contact it at all means that it is ON THE BOTTOM, most likely sitting upright, and in good position to be recovered when the time comes.  This means that the release is working properly and the anchor is in place;  had the anchor fallen away, it would be on the surface and we would not be able to contact it.

So, high fives all around!

Also, the ROV crew has had second thoughts about deploying in this weather.  The concern is that the umbilical might slacken, possibly causing it to “jump sheave” meaning that it could lift up high enough that, when it comes back down under tension, it could press in between the sheave and the block and become jammed in place.  This does happen and it is rough enough for this to be a concern so I concur that cancelling this test is appropriate.  We are hoping for better weather tomorrow night or Monday so that we can test and perhaps use the ROV to collect some coral at VK906."

Mandy spoke for the entire team when she replied immediately:
"High fives indeed! You guys rock!"

20120422 Sunday: Mother Nature cooperates!
Sunday dawned clear and sunny, and by midday Sunday, winds and seas were showing promise of taming down.  At 09:30 am Sunday, team member Laura Lapham issued the requested elaboration about the lander at site OC26 in the Macondo area.  Her excitement was contagious:
"... here are a few details of the OC 26 lander configuration.

The chimneys were left in their original position on the lander deck.
They are ready to be moved by an ROV.

For MIMOSA, I moved the probe tip from the ROV position to just below
the lander deck.  This way, if the ROV can not visit the lander, we
will get some meaningful data, being just 13 inches off the seabed.
This will have to be verified by an ROV during recovery.  On the
advice of Chris, I also set up a calibration experiment where water
samples will be collected right next to the methane sensor.  This will
be a very exciting comparison!

All in all, this is very exciting to have these landers down.  I feel
very lucky to be able to benefit from this success and also to be
working with such a great team, both on the ship and on land.  Without
the help of Vernon, Arne, Matt and the Ole Miss shop, Chris and
Howard, the MIMOSA team (I am not working alone, Cedric and Kathleen
have helped out here and Beth, Pete and Geoff have been giving remote
advice), this could never have happened.  Thanks also to Mandy and Ray
for their support all along.

Now I think we need to discuss an ECOGIG logo..."

 

20120423 Monday: Homeward Bound!
While the weather was sunny and clear and winds relatively calm on land, at sea the winds were still whipping the Endeavor around, and seas were still a walloping 7-10 feet.  The crew was tired, and attempts to use the instruments were seriously challenged by the rough seas and winds.  Vernon finally let the team know that it was time to fold up operations.  At 2:30 CDT, he wrote:
"The weather is simply not on our side and we have run out of time so we're headed in.  We expect to pick up the pilot at 07:00 tomorrow morning and could be at the pier as early at 9:00.  The welder is expected to come at 11:00 to cut the walkway off of the ship and the crane to offload the ROV van and LARS (both just bolted to the deck) will arrive at 13:00 so we should have all of the science gear off of the ship by COB tomorrow.  That will leave the ship a whole day to get their stuff out of the warehouse, remove the transducer pole, and configure for the next cruise.

For those of you who haven't been receiving the coring or coral emails, we recovered an excellent set of Multicore samples from VK906 (actually just a bit to the south) and made a valiant attempt to get a coral sample last night.  For that effort, the ROV team agreed to put the vehicle into the water in what were, at the time, pretty reasonable conditions: 3-4' seas and 15 knots of wind.  After a quick "engineering" dip to check on the reliability of the coms fiber, we re-positioned to the coral site and headed for the bottom.  All was going well until the wind suddenly (within a few minutes) picked up to 30+ knots (Janna said she saw 36 knots in the middle of the night.)  Under these conditions and without a bow thruster (the ship was pitching too much), there was no way to hold station so, even though we got t good glimpse of some coral, none could be sampled. After being in the water for about 45 minutes, the video dropouts became so frequent that the ROV was unusable and was recovered safely. This communication problem plagued the ROV the entire cruise, even though they repaired or replace just about every component that could be a likely culprit so they were extremely frustrated.  This morning, the seas continued in the 5-7' range and we took one final look at conditions after lunch and decided that the constraints on using the ROV (sea state, holding position in the wind, ability to put the sample in the bio box if we got one, and the reliability of the ROV) all combined to result in a no-go decision by all involved.
This has been a frustrating cruise for many of us but it's worth noting that we did accomplish a lot:

- We safely deployed two landers at the positions originally set for them 

- We used the ROV to position both the chimneys and the Mimosa probes 

- We obtained roughly 4 hours of usable video from the ROV (none of it is HD, however) 

- We obtained two partial ROV push cores that were eagerly studied by Barbara and Johanna 

- We deployed two moorings with sediment traps and current meters 

- We obtained as many CTD and Multicore samples as anyone wanted. 

Thanks to everyone both on the ship and off who contributed to these accomplishments.  We can look forward to building on these as the ECOGIG program becomes more established over the coming months."  

 

All of the team on terra firma felt that the mission has still been a success and all chimed in with their thanks and congratulations.  Chris Martens wrote:
"Vernon and hard-working company: Thank you for putting up such a great fight and meeting some our critical goals under such trying circumstances. Your achievements have gotten ECOGIG going and there will be tangible results from this work to present at the January 2013 meeting."

Uta Passow of UC Santa Barbara wrote:
"Wow, I can't imagine who would not be impressed with what you guys got done out there!"

By end of day Tuesday, April 24th, the Endeavor and her crew were back in Gulfport, MS.  And onshore work begins!