Dr. David Vaughan (Executive Director of the Tropical Research Laboratory & Director of the Center for Coral Reef Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in the Florida Keys)

Dr. David Vaughan

From your perspective, what marine life is at greatest risk in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?
Dr. Vaughan: That’s a tough question, because it needs to be qualified by where. We work in the Florida Keys and our concern is the coral reefs. So far, they have not been affected. It seems like the biggest impact is for the animals at the upper Gulf coast. Those animals include sea turtles, marine mammals, many birds, as well as the fish and their eggs and larvae.

What about the mollusks?
Dr. Vaughan:  Well, I usually tell people about the large biomass. The oil spill is just past the continental shelf. Probably some of the biggest damage is right near the blowout. Most people really have no clue of what effect the dispersants have on the animals. We have done tests on the dispersants here and found that some of the dispersants have worse affects on the animals than oil.

Do you think the Keys will see any oil?
Dr. Vaughan: Right now I do not. At the beginning I thought “absolutely.” There is normally something called the Loop Current which runs through the Gulf and it sometimes goes past where the blowout was. It then passes south of the Keys, sometimes between Dry Tortugas and the other Keys. If that had happened, and the oil spill was inside that current, we would have had the oil coming into the Florida Keys, into the beaches of Miami, and eventually toward Jacksonville. The only reason it didn’t happen is because the Loop Current changed directions. At the time of the BP blowout, the Current hadn’t reached the blowout. The upper portion then pinched off into what is known as the Franklin Eddy and trapped any oil from the well that did enter the Current.
We have two Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) out there testing the waters off of the Keys. One AUV, Waldo, has been deployed a second time with new batteries for another two to three week round. I’m predicting two weeks before we know if any residual is coming. There are about four more AUVs that are going deeper in the area of the spill. Then the data, and actually our data, goes to Rutgers University Coastal Ocean Observation Lab (RUCOOL) for analysis with [those from] the other autonomous vehicles.
I didn’t know how well they would work up until now. But now I would tell you they are very dependable submersibles, which are a lot cheaper than manned submersibles at about $120,000 to $130,000 and can go out for up to a month to collect data every three seconds and send it back for analysis 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for a few weeks. These things use very little energy. They don’t operate like a typical sub. These things look like torpedoes with no propeller system. They are naturally buoyant gliders, with two glider wings. When it gets the signal, it pumps air into a chamber to move the center battery forward which makes it sink as it moves forward.  It then does the reverse to rise up as it glides forward. All this is done with several 12 volt batteries. They’re very efficient.

Can you give me some additional coral-specific details concerning the spill?
Dr. Vaughan: One of the reasons we are concerned about the corals is that even though the oil is near the surface, and if it was fresh, it would go above the coral, a problem happens when they use dispersants which are vary lethal to coral larvae. And two times a year, the coral reproduce. Some brood and then some spawn a few days after the full moon of August. The first type brood and they develop eggs and release sperm. The sperm swim to the top for a few hours then go down to find eggs to fertilize. The second type is broadcast spawning, which takes place after the full moon in August where they release gamete bundles which are positively buoyant and they float to the surface. It’s kind of like upside-down snow. As soon as they come to the surface, they burst and release their sperm and eggs. At that time, if there were oil and dispersants, it would go through the fertilized larvae which stay there for a week before they travel back to the bottom again to start growing.
We just did a biopsy on the brooding corals and found they were not very susceptible to oil, but very susceptible to dispersants and the combination of oil and dispersant. We’ve had a few, very difficult years for the coral. In the winter, we’ve had some cold spells where we had the shallow-water temperature drop about 30 degrees Fahrenheit and we lost several corals then.

Are there any other details you could share regarding the coral?
Dr. Vaughan: We’re mainly concerned about the dispersants on the hard corals. Since the oil usually goes to the surface, it may not be a problem except when coral spawn. When the oil is treated with dispersant, it may cause a problem. Corals have the unique relationship with the algal zooxanthellae in their tissue. There’s a film of mucus on the coral polyps where a layer of bacteria live and provide a natural antibiotic for the coral. If the algal component leaves the corals, they will bleach. They don’t die from bleaching but die from disease that comes after. This is because, from what we have found, the algal component doesn’t give all its energy to the coral but also gives some to the bacteria, which produces the naturally occurring antibacterial that protects the coral.

So it’s almost like AIDS with humans?
Dr. Vaughan: Yes it really is. And a lot of people don’t know what coral is. Whatever they think, we know they are very complicated organisms that depend on up to three different phyla. We’re worried about the dispersants because it breaks up the oil so it won’t float. And we are concerned it may have the same effect on the bacterial layer on the corals.
There is a little bit of good side to this. And it’s good for some of the natural oils as opposed to the refined oil. In the Gulf, there are a number of locations where oil, methane, and hydrogen sulfide seep into the ocean. There are organisms that have adapted to live in these conditions. There are naturally occurring bacteria that attack the oil and use it as an energy source. A little less known is that some animals utilize the methane gas by utilizing the bacteria that use it for energy. These happen at the cold seeps in the deep ocean, which are similar to the hydro-thermal vents in the deep ocean. There are animals that are similar to those who live near hydrothermal vents, and there are some crustaceans and bivalves that can live there and make use of the naturally seeping gas.
I was very lucky to have a chance to go down in a submersible to visit one of these brine-pool cold seeps. It was reported by some of the people exploring for petroleum deposits when looking for salt domes that occur under the ocean where salt deposits and hydrocarbons collect. Those are the areas they like to find to drill a well for natural gas. In this area, we saw both methane and liquid crude coming out. This one had water flowing into the salt dome that caused the salinity to go up 3 times that of normal ocean water and made a pool of water almost separate from the ocean water. It looked like a black oasis ocean pond. Around that pond was covered with cold water, black methane mussels that lived near the brine just far [enough] away from the methane to get oxygen.

Have you seen a change in your work as a result of the spill?
Dr. Vaughan: Oh yes. Up until this time, I really didn’t have much experience with the AUVs. I knew Mote [Marine Laboratory] had one to check for red tide toxins. But I never realized until the oil spill just how well these things work to detect and give us an early warning on what is coming. In the past few months, I’ve been working on deploying, retrieving, and going through the graphs and data from the AUVs to report to the public what to expect. I didn’t know how much stress and fear people had before I was able to deliver this information. People in the Keys wanted to know how much is coming out, how bad is it and what to expect. Several organizations were slow to deliver information and people didn’t know what to expect when they saw pictures of birds in Louisiana covered in the chocolate-looking mud. They didn’t know if it was hours or days away. And they didn’t know what to do. But with the information from the AUVs, which go far past the Keys where we think the oil may travel, we are at least able to tell the public that things are okay for now. It’s like a scout telling us a head of time.

I understand that tourism has been affected by the perception in the media. Is that true?
Dr. Vaughan: Yes, and people were afraid of the oil and wouldn’t come and stay in hotels or even eat the Florida lobster because they thought they would be covered in oil. I had calls from people asking if we were evacuating. So the information we’re getting from the AUVs is very helpful in getting information to the public. It would be wonderful if Florida had 25 of these things to look at the water near the beaches to show people that the water is okay in those areas.

Where can I find this information?
Go on our website http://mote.org/robot and that will bring up information from the robots. What I say about these things is that “this has changed my life in a good way. Here’s technology that is being used for the good.”

For more details on the data collected from the Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, visit:

For more information on Dr. David Vaughan visit http://isurus.mote.org/Keys/reef_restoration.phtml