Already there is evidence of at least one significant underwater die-off. In November Penn State biologist Charles Fisher led a NOAA-sponsored expedition that found colonies of ancient sea fans and other coral coated in brown sludge, 1,400 meters down. Nearly all the coral in the area was "dead or in the process of dying," Fisher told me. And he echoed something I heard from many other scientists: in a career of studying these creatures, he has never seen anything like this. There were no underwater pools of oil nearby, but the working theory is that subsea oil and dispersants must have passed through the area like some kind of angel of death.
We may never know what other organisms were trapped in a similarly lethal cloud, and that points to a broader problem: now that we are beyond the oil-covered-birds phase, establishing definitive links between the spill and whatever biogenetic or ecological disturbances are in store is only going to get harder. For instance, we know the coral died because of all the bodies: ghostly coral corpses litter the ocean floor near the wellhead, and Fisher is running tests to see if he can find a definitive chemical link to BP's oil. But that sort of forensics simply won't be possible for the much smaller life forms that are even more vulnerable to BP's toxic cocktail. When larval tuna or squid die, even in huge numbers, they leave virtually no trace. Hollander uses the phrase "cryptic mortality" to describe these phantom die-offs.
All this uncertainty will work in BP's favor if the worst-case scenarios eventually do materialize. Indeed, concerns about a future collapse may go some way toward explaining why BP (with the help of Kenneth Feinberg's Gulf Coast Claims Facility) has been in a mad rush to settle out of court with fishermen, offering much-needed cash now in exchange for giving up the right to sue later. If a significant species of fish like bluefin does crash three or even ten years from now (bluefin live for fifteen to twenty years), the people who took these deals will have no legal recourse. Even if a case did end up in court, beating BP would be tricky. As part of the damage assessment efforts, NOAA scientists are conducting studies that monitor the development of eggs and larvae exposed to contaminated water. But as Exxon's lawyers argued in the Valdez case, wild fish stocks are under a lot of pressure these days — without a direct chemical link to BP's oil, who's to say what dealt the fatal blow?
In a way, the lawyers will have a point, if a disingenuous one. As Ian MacDonald explains, it is precisely the multiple stresses on marine life that continue to make the spill so dangerous. "We don't appreciate the extent to which most populations are right on the edge of survival. It's very easy for populations to go extinct." He points to the sperm whales — there are only about 1,600 of them in the northern Gulf of Mexico, a small enough population that the unnatural death of just a few whales (which breed infrequently and later in life) can endanger the community's survival. Acoustic research has found that some sperm whales responded to the spill by leaving the area, a development that oceanographers find extremely worrying.
One of the things I am learning aboard the WeatherBird II, watching these scientists test for the effects of invisible oil on invisible organisms, is not to trust my eyes. For a few months last year, when BP's oil formed patterns on the surface of these waters that looked eerily like blood, industrial society's impact on the ocean was easy for all to see. But when the oil sank, it didn't disappear; it just joined so much else that the waves are hiding, so many other secrets we count on the ocean to keep. Like the 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico, and the network of unmonitored underwater pipelines that routinely corrode and leak. Like the sewage that cruise ships are entirely free to dump, under federal law, so long as they are more than three miles from shore. Like a dead zone the size of New Jersey. Scientists at Dalhousie University in Halifax predict that if we continue our rates of overfishing, every commercial fish stock in the world could crash by midcentury. And a study published in Nature in July found that global populations of phytoplankton have declined about 40 percent since 1950, linked with "increasing sea surface temperatures"; coral is bleaching and dying for the same reason. And on and on. The ocean's capacity to heal itself from our injuries is not limitless. Yet the primary lesson being extracted from the BP disaster seems to be that "mother nature" can take just about anything we throw at her.
As the WeatherBird II speeds off to the third research station, I find myself thinking about something New Orleans civil rights attorney Tracie Washington told me the last time I was on the Gulf Coast. "Stop calling me resilient," she said. "I'm not resilient. Because every time you say, 'Oh, they're resilient,' you can do something else to me." Washington was talking about the serial disasters that have battered New Orleans. But if the poisoned and perforated gulf could talk, I think it might say the same thing.
On day three of the cruise, things start to get interesting. We are now in the DeSoto Canyon, about thirty nautical miles from the wellhead. The ocean floor is 1,000 meters down, our deepest station yet. Another storm is rolling in, and as the team pulls up the multi-corer, waves swamp the deck. It's clear as soon as we see the mud that something is wrong. Rather than the usual gray with subtle gradations, the cylinders are gray and then, just below the top layer, abruptly turn chocolaty brown. The consistency of the top brown layer is sort of fluffy, what the scientists refer to as "flocculent."
A grad student splits one of the cores lengthwise and lays it out on deck. That's when we see it clearly: separating the gray and brown layers — and looking remarkably like chocolate parfait — is a thick line of black gunk. "That's not normal," Hollander declares. He grabs the mud samples and flags Charles Kovach, a senior scientist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. They head to the darkest place on the boat — one of the tiny sleeping quarters crammed with bunk beds. In the pitch darkness they hold an ultraviolet light over the sample, and within seconds we are looking at silvery particles twinkling up from the mud. This is a good indication of oil traces. Hollander saw something similar on the August cruise and was able not only to identify hydrocarbons but to trace them to BP's Macondo well.
Sure enough, after the sediment is put through a battery of chemical tests, Hollander has his results. "Without question, it's petroleum hydrocarbons." The thick black layers are, he says, "rich in hydrocarbons," with the remains of plants and bacteria mixed in. The fluffy brown top layer has less oil and more plant particles, but the oil is definitely there. It will be weeks or even months before Hollander can trace the oil to BP's well, but since he has found BP's oil at this location in the DeSoto Canyon before, that confirmation is likely. If we are fishing for oil, as Hollander had joked, this is definitely a big one.
It strikes me that there is a satisfying irony in the fact that Hollander's cruise found oil that BP would have preferred to stay buried, given that the company indirectly financed the expedition. BP has pledged to spend $500 million on research as part of its spill response and made an early payout of $30 million. But in contrast to the company's much publicized attempts to buy off scientists with lucrative consulting contracts, BP agreed to hand this first tranche over to independent institutions in the gulf, like the Florida Institute of Oceanography, which could allocate it through a peer-review process — no strings attached. Hollander was one of the lucky recipients. This is a model for research in the gulf: paid for by the oil giants that profit so much from its oil and gas, but with no way for them to influence outcomes.