Bigelow Underway, Looking for Subsurface Oil in Gulf of Mexico

Submitted July 28, 2010

We left Key West today onboard the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow at 1800 (6PM) after a whirlwind of planning, traveling, loading, setting up and stowing supplies and gear.

The Bigelow usually works on the continental shelf and slope between Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and Nova Scotia, Canada. In response to the Deepwater Horizon MC252 incident, she was dispatched to the Gulf of Mexico to assist in NOAA’s restoration and response efforts. She left on 18 July for the trip south and many of the scientist met the ship in Key West rather than making the nine-day trip down the east coast.

Our sailing represents the culmination of three weeks of intense planning to get the ship from Newport Rhode Island to the Gulf of Mexico and to outfit the ship with scientists, equipment, and supplies for acoustic monitoring, oceanography, water sampling for dissolved oxygen and hydrocarbons, and oil droplet size enumeration. In subsequent posts, I will describe these activities in more detail.

NOAA Ship at the shipyard, under construction

NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow under construction at VT Halter Marine

The Bigelow is a relatively new, state-of-the-art fisheries survey vessel. She was launched at VT Halter Marine in Pascagoula, Mississippi on 8 July 2005. In a sense her return to the Gulf of Mexico and to Pascagoula during our cruise will be a five-year homecoming for the ship.

While in the Gulf, we will use the Bigelow’s acoustic systems to detect seeps of gas and oil from the seabed and from the wellhead. We will also deploy equipment to near the bottom (~2000 m or 6500 ft) using the Bigelow’s oceanographic winches. The Bigelow can carry 35+ people, approximately 5 officers, 15 crew, and 15 scientists. This may seem like a lot, but all the people have different jobs: ship drivers, engineers, deckhands, cooks, oceanographers, acousticians, and water chemists among other jobs.

Because we ramped up very quickly for this cruise, most of our supplies were sent from the northeast directly to Key West, where the ship docked at the Coast Guard base.  Scientists converged on the ship from Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey, Washington, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Truckloads of supplies awaited us that needed to be loaded and then stored. Even though we are not expecting rough weather, everything needed to be tied down because you never know when the seas will pick up, throwing unsecured items around.

Several meetings were held during our first full day aboard ship. Because of the unique nature of working in the vicinity of the Deepwater Horizon MC252 Incident site, the Commanding Officer, Commander Anne Lynch, led an all-hands meeting (ship’s officers, crew and scientists). She emphasized our first priority was safety: safety of everyone on board and safety of the ship. She outlined additional safety procedures that will be followed during our work in the Gulf of Mexico.

She also described our need to conserve freshwater. Most ships make freshwater from salt water with desalination equipment. Because of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico, we will not be making freshwater. That means we only have the water we left port with: ~12000 gallons. To have enough water for our cruise, everyone onboard must conserve.

Following the all hands meeting, there was a brief for scientists conducted by Lieutenant Kyle Jellison, the Operations Officer. This brief covered all the things that scientists need to know: meal times, who the medical personnel are, abandon ship procedures, the ship alarms, and much more.

After the scientists’ brief, the scientists met to go over the scientific mission of the cruise. Our initial objective will be to conduct acoustic operations in and around the wellhead. Subsequent objectives will include water chemistry, oceanography, and more.

As a group, we identified what we needed to be done to get ready for science operations. Several scientists set up the deionized water maker for rinsing water sample bottles. Other scientists stowed gear in the chemistry laboratory and made sure all chemicals and equipment were tied down or secured in cabinets and drawers. Other scientists worked on the conductivity, temperature, depth instrument that will be deployed to depths near the ocean bottom.

After a day of meetings, loading and securing, we were all happy to push away from the dock and start the next leg of our cruise in the Gulf of Mexico. We are currently enroute to the Deepwater Horizon site making 12 knots (~14 miles per hour) on a heading of 312 degrees ( generally northwest). You can check out the ship’s location at: http://bit.ly/dtN0xQ

Jon Hare

Chief Scientist

Cruise number HB-10-006

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