I got off the WeatherBird II mid way through the cruise in Pensacola, Florida. Five days later, an e-mail arrived from chief scientist David Hollander, subject line: "Yuck!"
As soon as it was back out on the water, the WeatherBird II headed to Perdido Pass, about two miles from Orange Beach, Alabama. When the team pulled up the multi-corer, they were stunned by what they found: the cylinders filled with pitch black, gelatinous goo that looks exactly like crude oil. But it didn't act like oil: the scientists were able to wash it off their hands easily, and it smelled strongly of sulfur, not petroleum. "As a sedimentoloist I can tell you that none of us have ever seen anything like this in the Gulf of Mexico," Hollander says, "especially not in shallow water. It certainly didn't belong there."
The location was also interesting. According to Hollander, "this exact area was subjected to over two months of continuous oiling of the shoreline region and the widespread use of dispersants in near-shore shallow waters."
Back at the University of South Florida laboratories, the experiments began. It turns out the black goo is made up of dead plankton and other organisms that adhered to each other. But why did all these life forms die? John Paul, a professor of biological oceanography, tested the waters from the mud and they came back, in his words, "toxic as all bejesus." So there has been some kind of poisoning, but was it BP? Or did these organisms run into some other poison in the gulf?
According to Hollander, it's certain "that these unique sediments have accumulated within the past year and that their origin is contemporaneous with the timing of the oiling and use of dispersants" in the area.
Hollander's tests are ongoing and definitive results will take weeks. All he knows is that a whole lot of marine organisms died and formed a "toxic marine tumble weed," rolling around on the ocean floor until the Weatherbird team happened to poke it. Which kind of makes you wonder: what else are those supposedly healthy waves hiding?
Watch underwater video of the discovery: