Nearly a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, Erik Cordes, an assistant professor of biology in Temple’s College of Science and Technology, peered out the window of the deep-sea submersible Alvin at a coral community as it was
Alvin was hovering just above the seafloor, about six miles southwest of Deepwater Horizon, the oil drilling rig leased by BP that exploded in April 2010,
Cordes’ colleagues, working on the research ship above Alvin, had discovered this site on the last day of a November 2010 research cruise. Though he had
“I had been to so many of these deepwater coral sites, and they are normally so beautiful and contain all these different, vibrant colors,” he says. “But what I saw then was a rock with a bunch of sea fans that were coated in mucous and a brown material most likely related to the oil spill. The coral had all this muck hanging off its sea fans. It was very sad.”
Since 2004, Cordes has been a part of an effort to protect these vital deepwater coral communities from an ever-expanding frontier of thousands of oil
Though they are generally known for their beauty, coral communities play a significant role in marine life: They provide a habitat for diverse species of fish and other organisms; have the potential to produce natural antimicrobial and anti-cancer agents; and form an important link in the carbon cycle between the
“We know so little about the deep sea. We have to go out and explore and discover what is there before we affect it,” he says. “I’m sure there are deepwater
“If you examine the current patterns and genetic information, and the relationships between various coral sites, you can determine how frequently they exchange offspring,” Cordes says. “So, if we lose an entire coral community, such as the one we just visited, we’ll be able to determine the probability that that site could recover eventually.”
As for the evaluation of what he saw, he says that while most of the corals looked heavily damaged, one or two might have a chance of survival. “Though the overall picture was pretty grim, we are continuing to monitor the site with the hope that some corals might make it.”
Prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill, Cordes had worked with his collaborators in near anonymity. But since the spill, his work has gotten national attention from news media, including The New York Times, Nature, Associated Press, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, National Public Radio and more. Even CNN and Dan Rather Reports have called seeking information.
“It’s nice to have the attention and to have people recognize that this is important research, but the reason for the attention is terrible,” Cordes says.
“Maybe, if there has been any good to come out of the spill, it’s that it has brought attention to how little we really know about the deep sea and the impact we’re already having on what’s down there.
“Maybe people will begin to realize it’s not just an empty place that we don’t know much about and don’t care about,” he continues. “We have an obligation to protect habitats like these. There’s an aesthetic quality to them, as well as an important tie
Preston M. Moretz is a science and technology staff writer for University Communications at Temple.