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Stonington - The subtropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico may be some 1,400 miles from the Mystic Aquarium, but thanks to live footage of three very different research expeditions taking place in July, it's become part of the daily experience for aquarium visitors this summer.
Under the direction of oceanographer Robert Ballard, the research ship E/V Nautilus last week took a team of researchers to a region of the Gulf impacted by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to assess how deep-sea corals exposed to the spill have fared.
While Ballard kept tabs on the vessel via video and voice communication from his office at the aquarium, Eric Cordes, assistant professor of biology at Temple University, led the research aboard the Nautilus. At the aquarium's Nautilus Live Theater, visitors could watch the work in progress. Ballard's JASON Learning educational company is based at the aquarium, and both JASON and the aquarium are part of the nonprofit Sea Research Foundation. The foundation also includes Ocean Exploration Center, which focuses on marine science research.
Cordes, in a video about his research, said he has visited the same spots in the Gulf six times since the disaster spilled more than 4 million gallons into the Gulf, causing 11 deaths and costing oil company BP $25 million in cleanup and damage settlements thus far. Technology on the Nautilus enables him to visit "the exact same spots, the exact same corals," he said.
"Some have improved, and some have declined," he said. Cordes said he is looking at "the gene expressions of the corals exposed to oil," using an ROV - remotely operated underwater vehicle - to collect samples.
Ballard, in an interview Wednesday, said preliminary findings show most of the damage to the coral is being caused by the dispersant chemicals used after the spill rather than from the oil itself. Dispersants were used to prevent the oil from reaching the fragile bays, beaches and mangroves of the Gulf. Ballard said Cordes' research may contribute to a better techniques for dealing with a future oil spill.
"The question now is, what will the response be next time?" he asked.
This week, the Nautilus is off the coast of Texas in a part of the Gulf not impacted by the spill. Ballard said the 50-member crew is using new $3 million sonar equipment to map a 400-square-mile area in just seven days.
"This degree of detail was not possible before," he said, showing video images of the depth and contour maps being broadcast from the ship.
In addition to mapping this area, the work will also entail studying the bottom ecology of the area, where oil and gas seep naturally from sea floor vents and bacteria have evolved that consume it.
"We're interested in looking at mother nature's response to oil and gas," Ballard said. Isolating and studying the bacteria that have evolved in this area, he said, may lead to new tools and techniques for dealing with future oil spills.
Next week, the Nautilus will embark on a different kind of mission in the Gulf. It will visit the site of an early 1800s shipwreck discovered in 2012 by an oil company exploration team searching for a new pipeline route.
Underwater photos taken of the wreck show remains of a copper-clad wooden ship with cannons, old bottles and other debris strewn on the sea floor.
"We're going to go with an ROV and do 3D mapping of the wreck," said Ballard, "and will be able to recover some of the artifacts."
As with the other two missions, aquarium visitors will be able to watch the exploration of the wreck in real time in the Nautilus theater.
After the Gulf, Ballard said, Nautilus will spend three years on projects in the Caribbean, then undertake research in the undersea areas around the islands and territories owned by the United States in the vast Pacific Ocean.
"Our mission is to explore our own country, and to assess the mineral resources there," he said.