Report — From the June 2015 issue
A Reed Environmental Writing Award finalist.
Chosen to appear in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 Anthology, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers.
Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea
Following the trail of BP’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico
in March of last year, I set out from Gulfport, Mississippi, on a
three-week mission aboard the U.S. Navy research vessel Atlantis.
The 274-foot ship, painted a crisp white and blue, stood tall in the
bright sunlight. On its decks were winches, cranes, seafloor-mapping
sonar, a machine shop, and five laboratories. Stowed in an alcove astern
was Alvin, the federal government’s only manned research submarine. “Research vessel Atlantis outbound,” A. D. Colburn, the ship’s captain, reported into the ship radio.
The water was calm and the bridge crew quiet as they steered us into
open water. For the next fourteen hours, we would sail toward the site
of BP’s Macondo well, where, in April 2010, a blowout caused the largest
offshore-drilling oil spill in history. Once there, Atlantis’s crew would launch Alvin
and guide it to the bottom of the ocean, reaching depths as great as
7,200 feet below the surface. Over the next twenty-two days they would
send the submersible down seventeen times, to gather animal, plant,
water, and sediment samples. Their goal was to determine how BP’s spill
had affected the ocean’s ecosystem from the seabed up. I would get the
chance to join them in the submarine as they went closer to the Macondo
wellhead than anyone had gone since the blowout.
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