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Moratorium Shuts Down Oceanographer's Research on Deep-Sea Life

The six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has had an unintended consequence for one scientist working there. Since 2006, Mark Benfield, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, has used Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) based on deepwater oil rigs to capture video of the strange creatures that dwell as far as 2400 meters below the surface. But now those same ROVs are busy shutting down exploratory wells so the rigs can move on, leaving his research stranded.

"So, sadly, at a time when we really need their underwater eyes, they're busy closing up shop," Benfield wrote in an e-mail. For the most part, only ROVs designed for rig work can descend below 1000 meters, and the few academic ones that can are busy elsewhere. Jason 2 of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, which will go to the gulf later this summer, is tasked with a project by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Most recently, Benfield's research piggybacked on ROVs on three Shell-operated rigs in the Gulf of Mexico—Deepwater Nautilus, Noble Jim Thompson, and Frontier Driller. On video taken at about 900 meters earlier this year, he spotted a giant jellyfish, Stygiomedusa gigantea, snaking its long "oral" arms--tentacle-like structures that grab and pre-digest food—around the well riser. You can watch the video on the BBC's Web site. Its bell, by Benfield's estimate, was nearly a meter long. "It's amazing that we found a huge animal in the Gulf of Mexico and didn't know it was there," he says. "We've seen it all over the world, but never found it in the Gulf of Mexico."

Benfield is now working with the last data he'll receive for a while—eight DVDs of video recorded since the blowout. He plans to lay satellite imagery of the shifting oil slick over the rigs' day-to-day locations to determine when the ROVs were in oiled waters.

Benfield also takes data with Acoustic Current Doppler Profilers, which measure currents beneath the rigs. "They're actually collecting echoes from the plankton [and other animals] in the water," he says. "You can see some pretty striking daily migration patterns." Deep-dwelling fish migrate at dusk to the surface to gobble phytoplankton and zooplankton and descend again come morning. This feeding pattern might be affected as the creatures encounter oil, he says.

Before the moratorium, Benfield was working on developing a collection system for sampling marine life at depth. Now he's keeping an eye on BP spill cams for the species he studies and pushing for time on ROVs stationed at Thunder Horse, a BP-operated production rig, he says. "I'm just hoping to get as much data as I can now because this is a critical time."