Gulf of Mexico 2012

Ask an Explorer

During the expedition, we invited the public to send questions to the team at sea; questions and replies are posted here.

What percentage of the gulf will be mapped when you finish the expedition?

That is an excellent question. My personal estimate is that around 50 percent of the Gulf within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has been mapped, primarily because of strong interest toward oil and gas in this area. However, I am unable to give you an official answer.

Based on approximate calculations, the area of US EEZ in the Gulf of Mexico is ~ 712,000 square kilometers. The area that was mapped during the Gulf of Mexico 2012 Leg 1 is 14,914.6 square kilometers – though not all in the Gulf of Mexico. If we map for another 10 days, I speculate that we will end up with a figure close to ~25,000 square kilometers. In percentage, the ship will have mapped roughly 3.5 percent of the US EEZ within the Gulf.

Answer from: Mashkoor Malik, Physical Scientist OER

Do you use any lighting, etc. that could potentially cause harm to unknown species never exposed to that type of radiation?

Question from: Constantine

There are scientists who study the effects of bright lights on different species of deep-sea organisms. With regard to vision, what is known is that the results of exposure vary from little to no effect, to temporary effects, to permanent changes.

Because natural sunlight does not penetrate to the depths where we conduct our explorations, we use our lighting to see places in the deep ocean that no one has ever seen before. This is important to understand more about the Ocean Planet we call “home.”

We are also very aware that the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) thrusters (small propellers that make the ROV move sideways, forward, up and down) may make noises that attract certain organisms, and may cause others to stay just out of the field of view. You can find more about these topics online if you are interested.

Answer from: Paula Keener, Marine Biologist/Director of Education OER

Why was there so much Lophelia coral on the 3/29 shipwreck, but the 3/30 wreck had white anemones all over it? Thank you for all your hard work and for sharing what you are finding with us!

Question from: Carolyn, Teacher, Lexington MA

Good question! These two wrecks were within 40 miles of each other and at similar depths, so one might expect them to have the same assemblage of animals encrusting the hull. Yet, as you point out, this was not the case. One wreck had fairly extensive Lophelia coral while the other was completely covered with soft bodied anemones.

My colleague Dan Warren and I suspect the difference may be related to the construction materials used to build the ship. The first wreck appeared to be a iron or steel hulled sailing vessel. The second wreck was a wooden hulled sailing vessel. Lophelia coral seem to colonize more on iron wrecks than wooden wrecks. So, the lack of Lophelia on the wooden wreck may result from the lack of any extensive areas of iron. Tankers Gulfpenn and Gulfoil are two good examples of iron and steel shipwrecks from past Ocean Explorer explorations with extensive aggregations of Lophelia pertusa coral on their hulls. You can read about them here: Gulfpenn and Gulfoil.

Answer from: Dr. Peter Etnoyer, Marine Biologist, NOAA

Where is Tim Shank speaking from? I'm really enjoying following the Live feed- wish I could watch all day!

Question from: Mrs. Sheild, Middle Science School Teacher, Lexington, MA

Thanks for your enthusiasm! Tim is on the ship in the Gulf of Mexico.

Answer from: Susan Haynes, Education Program Manager, NOAA OER

I'm enjoying the live feed of your Gulf of Mexico expedition right now (3/27)! Thank you for sharing. I assume you are examining a shipwreck? Wondering why the Daily Updates have not been updated since March 20?

My question is to the scientists...what are your thoughts about James Cameron's dive to the Mariana Trench yesterday?

Question from: Mrs. Sheild, Middle Science School Teacher, Lexington, MA

Glad to hear you are watching with us! Yes, we are looking for a shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico at this time. We have been unable to update our Ocean Explorer website as we usually do because of an unfortunate electrical fire that affected our computer services. We hope to have this corrected as soon as possible.

James Cameron's dive to the Mariana Trench yesterday is certainly a huge accomplishment in ocean exploration and helps to focus the public's attention on just how little explored our world ocean is and how difficult it is to explore certain areas of the deep ocean. It is great to see ocean exploration get this kind of attention on national television. Please keep joining along in our expeditions! Thanks for your interest and dedication to ocean literacy.

Answer from: Paula Keener, Marine Biologist/Director of Education, NOAA OER

I was wondering what the depth of the unknown wreck was that was mentioned here:

Question from: Mike

Though NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer conducts non-disturbance underwater cultural heritage (UCH) exploration activities, project data and information may contain site location information that could lead to adverse impacts. A primary concern with UCH is potential harm that may be inflicted on the resource by revealing its location. We are sorry, but for this reason we are unable to answer this question.

Answer from: Susan Haynes, Education Program Manager, NOAA OER

Do you expect to have live video up soon?

Question from: Constantine

Currently, the internet is set up for scientists at a number of Exploration Command Centers around the country to communicate with the ship in real time, participating in the exploration as it is happening. You can follow along on the website.

Answer from: Susan Haynes, Education Program Manager, NOAA OER

Do you expect to find evidence of damage from the recent oil disaster?

Question from: Constantine

We really don’t know what we will find. Continue to follow along on the expedition with us.

Answer from: Susan Haynes, Education Program Manager, NOAA OER

Is the expedition collecting samples from the bottom?

Question from: Jim

The Okeanos Explorer operates via a three-step strategy in search of anomalies that can be further explored by other scientists at a later date:

  • Reconnaissance: Mapping the ocean floor and exploring the water column in transit
  • Water Column Exploration: Taking measurements top to bottom throughout the water column when stopped
  • Site Characterization: Collecting more details including still images and video

Key technologies involved with this strategy include:

  • Multibeam sonar mapping system;
  • A Conductivity, Temperature and Depth Meter (CTD) and other electronic sensors to measure chemical and physical seawater properties; and
  • A Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) capable of obtaining high-quality imagery in depths as great as 4,000 meters.
The ROV is not set up to collect biological or geological samples at this time.

Answer from: Susan Haynes, Education Program Manager, NOAA OER

How long does it take debris, wrecks, etc. to begin to be obscured by settlement, etc. at the deepest depths of the Gulf?

Question from: Constantine

Once a wreck or a large piece of debris sets down on the ocean floor, the deterioration processes begins, but this takes different amounts of time depending of what the structure is made of (wood, iron, etc).

With regard to deposition of sediments, fallen structures likely begin to be covered by marine snow within a few years. Depending on the site, it may take anywhere from hundreds of years to tens of hundreds of years for a structure to be completely obscured.

Answer from: Frank Cantelas, Maritime Archaeology Program Office OER

I teach Marine and Aquatic Biology. My students are curious about what you are studying and researching on your expedition. One of my students is also curious if any explorers would visit the school after they return and speak to the class or school about their adventures?

Question from: Ms. Lash, Teacher, Moss Point High School, Moss Point, MS

The NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer, “America’s Ship for Ocean Exploration,” is the only U.S. ship assigned to systematically explore our largely unknown ocean for the purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge. With 95% of our Earth’s ocean unexplored, this ship is literally exploring places never seen before. When the ship sets out on an expedition, the exploration team has a set of destinations planned, but in many respects, really have no idea what they might find!

As you know, the critical need for even basic information about deep-water habitats in the Gulf of Mexico was frequently highlighted in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident. The purpose of this expedition is to help reduce that large unknown. The exploration team will focus on exploring the water column using a collecting tool called a CTD, which stands for Conductivity, Temperature and Depth and they will focus on looking at the deep benthic environments in the northern Gulf of Mexico region, taking pictures and video with the Remotely Operated Vehicle, Little Hercules. The team expects to explore cold seeps, deep coral communities, undersea canyons, shipwrecks – perhaps even mud volcanoes and brine pools.

Unfortunately, the team members cannot commit themselves to visiting classrooms, however, you can follow along with the expedition in near real-time on the Gulf of Mexico 2012 web site.

Answer from: Susan Haynes, Education Program Manager, NOAA OER