Where Did the Gulf Oil Go?
Produced by Nova Safo, June 2012
Narrated by Dr. Chuck Fisher, Professor of Biology, Penn State University

Newly-discovered damaged coral is solving some of the mystery surrounding vanishing oil from the Deepwater Horizon accident.

The ocean bottom is a foreboding place — a deep, inaccessible graveyard that human eyes only rarely see. When human eyes do manage to look, it’s often with the assistance of mechanical probes sent to unravel some closely held secret. Submersibles found the Titanic. They peered at the wrecks of the Lusitania and Bismark. They’re looking for Amelia Earhart’s long vanished plane. And in the autumn of 2010, two probes named Jason and Alvin found that a lot of Deepwater Horizon’s oil had settled onto the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

The ocean floor is muddy, so much so that even sophisticated underwater cameras have a hard time deciphering what’s there. But cameras attached to the two submersibles photographed one of the few things that is visible amidst all the silt – communities of coral.  Coral, of course, is normally colorful, like a bouquet of flowers, and Jason and Alvin saw some of that. But the probes also discovered something disconcerting, something not at all usual: bunches of unhealthy coral coated in brown.

Charles Fisher, a scientist with Penn State, was the first to notice the aberration. He did so in October, 2010, when he sent Jason down to the Gulf of Mexico floor in a location near the Deepwater Horizon. Later on, Fisher and a group of other scientists, under the aegis of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, dropped Alvin, the second submersible, into the tainted coral. Alvin brought back samples of the brown material that Jason had discovered. Subsequent analysis by Helen White, a chemist at Haverford University who accompanied Fisher on the Alvin dives, confirmed that the brown stuff was oil from the Deepwater Horizon well. “The chemical fingerprint matched,” Fisher said.  Fisher said nobody knows how much of the spilled oil wound up on the ocean bottom. But the discovery of tainted coral provided one answer to the question: “Where did all the oil go?”