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Gulf researchers witness the encounter of a lifetime

Despite ongoing contention about the state of the Gulf of Mexico five years after the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, the ecosystem is finding ways to surprise those who venture into its waters.

A research team led by Dr. Robert Ballard aboard the E/V Nautilus, an exploration and research vessel, are currently in the first leg of a six-month expedition that will take them from the Gulf to the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. The Corps of Exploration’s first stretch, which began April 9th and will conclude on April 21st, is being utilized to study natural gas seeps on the floor of the Gulf. The research is a part of the Gulf Integrated Spill Response Consortium, which is funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative created following the Deepwater Horizon spill.

In related news, Researchers to renew study of Gulf whales, dolphins in wake of BP spill.

As the team was lowering its remote-controlled submersible, ROV Hercules, they had the opportunity to witness something incredibly rare. An unidentified creature, which the team would eventually recognize as a sperm whale, approached Hercules. “Encounters between sperm whales and ROVs are very rare,” says the team’s website. The team was off the coast of Louisiana, and the ROV had reached approximately 2,000 feet below sea level before the sperm whale came to investigate, leaving the researchers in awe.

“What the heck is that?” one researcher can be heard exclaiming. Upon turning on brighter lights, the whale can be seen in all its glory, circling the ROV, prompting the team to put its mission on hold and enjoy the moment.

Of course, this isn’t the first magnificent sighting in the Gulf of Mexico, nor will it be the last. Just a few weeks ago, an oil rig worker off Louisiana’s coast caught a large swarm of sharks migrating north as the waters began to warm. Although many believed the video captures a feeding frenzy, it is actually a group of blacktip or spinner sharks simply following their typical migration habits. These sharks actually routinely swim close to the water’s surface as they migrate, which understandably would make any witnesses nervous. Feeding frenzy or not, the idea of being caught in the middle of that many sharks is incredibly unsettling.

Despite these exciting encounters with the great species of the Gulf of Mexico, research continues on to determine just how much damage has been done by the 87-day spill from the Macondo well. Unexplained numbers of dolphin deaths, unusual lesions in fish populations and other disconcerting trends the scientific community has observed have the world waiting with bated breath for research results. The research from the Corps of Exploration on the E/V Nautilus will contribute to future spill mitigation and response plans.

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