Gulf explorers out to plunge the depths this week
A team of scientists assembled from across the globe are delving into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico this week in the first-ever deep-water exploration using state-of-the art equipment.
"Operation Deep Scope" will look for "fantastic life forms of four alien landscapes in the deep reaches of the Gulf," according to experts from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Ft. Pierce, "with the goal of revealing never-before-seen animals, behaviors, and phenomena."
The group of scientists left Panama City Saturday for a 10-day trek through the Gulf. Explorations will begin at Desoto Canyon, about 120 miles south of Pensacola, where the team will study unexplored deepwater pinnacles. Next stop is Viosca Knoll, a deepwater coral reef. Next will be "a community of chemosynthetic clams and worms that rely on methane-eating bacteria for nutrition." Yum.
Last stop is something called the Brine Pool, 150 miles southeast of New Orleans, "where salt deposits in the sea floor dissolve to create water so dense that it forms a shallow lake 2,100 feet below the ocean's surface."
And they've got all the modern toys to play with in their travels.
Something called "Eye-in-the-Sea" is a camera that will be deployed on the sea floor and left for 24 hours, clicking away using low levels of infrared light to illuminate what's happening down below. Since bright lights scare off most critters; the low-light infrared should show them in their natural state.
There is a deep-sea submersible that will be used to deploy special fish traps that, scientists hope, will allow the deep-sea creatures to be brought safely aboard ship for study.
There will also be bioluminescence studies, and work done with a variety of filters on cameras to better illuminate what's going on down there.
There's more than just critter study involved in the expedition, though.
Previous exploration of the depths lead to the discovery of a compound called discodermolide which has proven to be an effective cancer cell killer, even in tumors that are resistant to Taxol, one of the best treatments currently available for breast and other cancers.
Besides Harbor Branch scientists, the expedition includes researchers from Duke University, the University of Queensland, Australia, the Whitney Lab of the University of Florida, the University of Ulm, Germany, and Physical Science, Inc., in Andover, Md.
Hurricane forecast update
... and speaking of good luck, the 2004 hurricane forecast has been lowered slightly by Dr. William Gray of Colorado State University.
Gray, who has been offering hurricane predictions for more than 25 years in the Atlantic basin, has lowered his count due to a minor warming of the sea surface in the central Pacific Ocean. He is now suggesting that we'll have 13 named storms, with seven becoming hurricanes and three to offer winds in excess of 110 mph.
The new forecast is down from his previous estimate of 14 named storms, eight hurricanes and three becoming intense.
Despite the lowered forecast, the season is still above the average of 10 named storms, six hurricanes and two intense storms.
The chances of an intense hurricane hitting the U.S. coastline also dropped slightly, but is still at an unsettling 68 percent. The average is 52 percent.
The Atlantic hurricane season runs through Nov. 30.
Slow down for whales
A proposal has been floated to reduce speed and alter shipping routes in the Atlantic Ocean in an effort to protect right whales.
North Atlantic right whales are about the most endangered marine mammal there is, with an estimated 300 of the creatures roaming the ocean from Canada to Florida. Right whales are about 50 feet long and can live up to 70 years.
However, since their annual migratory path runs right through the shipping routes of most of the ports in the eastern United States, they run the risk of getting hit by ships entering or leaving port. On average, one or two whales a year are struck by ships and die.
When you've only got 300 of something, losing just one is a big deal, hence the proposed change to lower speeds of vessels passing through the nearshore coastal waters.
The U.S. Navy has already implemented a program to change its gunnery practice to take the maneuvers farther out into the Atlantic. The military used to use the area near the St. Johns River for target practice; now, it goes farther out to sea to shoot.
A decision on the reduced speed limit is expected in a couple months.
My colleague Julia Robertson sent me this little test, one of those things that makes my head hurt. As she puts it, it's a "left-brain, right-brain trick."
While sitting at your desk, lift your right foot off the floor and make clockwise circles.
Now, while doing this, draw the number "6" in the air with your right hand.
Your foot will change direction and there's nothing you can do about it - or, at least, nothing I can do about it.
We commonly recycle glass, aluminum, newspaper and cardboard, but oyster shells?
Environmental regulators in Louisiana are looking to start an oyster shell recycling program. The pilot project would take place at six processing plants in Terrebonne Parish, which handle about 1 million pounds of oyster meat a year. Yeah, meat - imagine how many tons of shells that would produce.
An influx of new shells is vital to the oyster industry. Oyster beds become depleted over time - hey, we're scooping up the shells - and need to have an influx of something upon which the new oysters can affix themselves. This new material, called cultch, can be almost anything, but oysters shells are the best.
The cultch is dumped on the beds, which are allowed to lie fallow for a while before harvesting begins again.
Louisiana officials had hoped to gather shells from all the raw bars in New Orleans, but discovered that the logistics of collecting and transporting the shells was just too unwieldy and expensive.
The Louisiana oyster recycling program, by the way, mimics what Florida oyster fishers have been doing for about 50 years. It's easier for us, though, since we've got a relatively small area of oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay upon which to seed the crustaceans.
The Gulf of Mexico encompasses about 600,000 square miles. The largest amount of the water, about 38 percent, is less than 60 feet deep. That's not to say that all of the Gulf is one big, flat pan full of water: The deepest part of the Gulf is the Sigsbee Deep, located near Mexico's coastline, at 14,373 fee.