Submarine Monitors Long-Term Effects Of BP Spill

In the Gulf of Mexico, scientists who are trying to monitor the long-term effects of the BP oil spill have their very own submarine, the Alvin. It can dive a mile below the surface. Guest host Audie Cornish talks with NPR's Richard Harris, who is onboard the three-person sub with researcher Samantha Joye, at the bottom of the Gulf.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Scientists still can't account for most of the four million barrels of oil that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP oil well. Samantha Joye from the University of Georgia says a lot of it ended up on the seafloor.

In fact, she's on the seafloor right now, in a research submarine, along with NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. They are among the first people to dive to the bottom near the BP oil well. And they join us on the line from the sub, which is called the Alvin.

Richard, where are you exactly, and what are you seeing?

RICHARD HARRIS: Well, we are about half a mile under the surface of the sea here, and we are about 10 miles from the Macondo oil well that blew out in April.

The submarine is called the Alvin, and this is it is a titanium sphere that holds three people. There are three windows about six inches across. We peer out. And lo and behold, when we look out the window when we hit the bottom, at first, it looks completely ordinary to me, having never seen the seafloor here before.

But as we stirred up the seafloor a little bit, it became evident that there's a light brown layer covering the gray mud here pretty much everywhere we go. We still see fish and clams and crabs and stuff like that all over the place. But clearly, there's also this brown tinge every direction we looked in.

CORNISH: Can you tell us how thick that layer looks, give us a sense of it?

HARRIS: The layer where we are right now isn't very thick, I would say half an inch or something, maybe even a little bit less than that. But it's everywhere you look. So when you consider that, you know, hundreds of hundreds of square miles were under the spill on the surface, there could be a little bit right here could translate to a lot of oil in total on the seafloor.

CORNISH: And, Richard, Samantha Joye is there with you. She's from the University of Georgia. Samantha, tell me - you've been monitoring this since shortly after the spill. What effect do you think the oil is having on marine life on the seafloor?

Dr. SAMANTHA JOYE (Department of Marine Sciences, University of Georgia): Well, it's surprising when you are collecting cores remotely with a multi-core, they come up, and there's really no marine life in them. All the fauna that we saw in September were deceased.

But now that we're in the bottom, the animals that are here, some of them don't look so healthy, but one thing that we haven't really seen a lot of is in the animals living in the sediment.

What we see is the mobile organisms that can sort of move and get away. The organisms that can't get away, we're not seeing so much of here on the bottom.

CORNISH: And is there any way to tell, in fact, how widespread this layer you're seeing is on the seafloor?

Dr. JOYE: Well, one of the objectives of this dive is to we're working in about a 900-meter-by-300-meter grid, and we're going to visit eight sites along this grid and sample randomly to see just how heterogeneous distribution of oil on the seafloor is.

CORNISH: Richard, the federal government has been downplaying the idea that a lot of oil from the BP blowout ended up on the seafloor. Do you think samples and videos from this dive can help settle this question?

HARRIS: Yes, I think this dive could actually very much help answer that question. We've just turned on a UV light during the course of this conversation. And as they shine the light out on the surface, the surface is turning bright green.

And Samantha Joye tells us that's a sure sign that what we're looking at here is actually oil. As you know, the federal government has attempted to calculate how much of the oil is out here and so on. And there's a lot that they can't account for. Actually, Samantha Joye strongly believes that a lot of what they can't find is right where we are right now.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Richard Harris, on the submarine Alvin at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico with researcher Samantha Joye.

Thanks so much to both of you, and have fun down there.

HARRIS: Thanks very much, Audie. Great to talk to you.

Dr. JOYE: Thanks a lot.

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