Luckily, just as we arrive at our destination, about ninety nautical miles from the wellhead, the clouds part and the sea calms. A frenzy of floating science instantly erupts. First to be lowered overboard is the rosette, a cluster of four-foot-high metal canisters that collect water samples from different depths. When the rosette clangs back on deck, the crew swarms around its nozzles, filling up dozens of sample bottles. It looks like they are milking a metal cow. Carefully labeled bottles in tow, they are off to the makeshift laboratory to run the water through an assembly line of tests. Is it showing signs of hydrocarbons? Does it fluoresce under UV light? Does it carry the chemical signature of petroleum? Is it toxic to bacteria and phytoplankton?
A few hours later it's time for the multi-corer. When the instrument, twelve feet high and hoisted by a powerful winch, hits the ocean floor, eight clear cylinders shoot down into the sediment, filling up with sand and mud. The samples are examined under microscopes and UV lights, or spun with centrifugal force, then tested for signs of oil and dispersant. This routine will be repeated at nine more locations before the cruise is done. Each stop takes an average of ten hours, and the scientists are able to sneak in only a couple of hours of sleep between stations.
The WeatherBird II is returning to the precise coordinates where University of South Florida researchers found toxic water and sediment in May and August. At the second stop, Mary Abercrombie, who is testing the water under UV light in a device called a spectrofluorometer, sees something that looks like hydrocarbons from a sample collected seventy meters down--shallow enough to be worrying. But the other tests don't find much of anything. Hollander speculates that this may be because we are still in relatively shallow water and the recent storms have mixed everything up. "We'll probably see more when we go deeper."