CP Baker

Yesterday was an amazing day. We had a little touchy conditions in the morning - swift current, some waves - so we delayed launching the ROV until right after lunch. Once we got in the water, though, oh man, did we find cool stuff. 
My sea fan (or black coral?) specimen

We started on the hard-bottom site. It was a little knoll in the middle of the mud. We started at the bottom of it and worked our way up the slope, past rocks with crustose coralline algae, encrusting sponges, and sea fans. I'm not actually sure about that last identification - I've been calling it a sea fan, but it might be a black coral. One thing is for sure: it is everywhere. The ROV doesn't have a manipulator arm to collect specimens, so I was starting to disparage my ability to identify the species. As it turns out, no manipulator arm was necessary! The ROV's thruster got some strands stuck in it, so I was able to save the specimen for identification later. I'm excited to do the full analysis back in the lab. 

One of the oil rigs near 
our study sites.
In the afternoon, we transited over to the site of our shipwreck for the day, the CP Baker. It's a drilling rig that sank in the 1960s because of a well blow-out - the first in the Gulf of Mexico. The incident led to changes in policy and safety recommendations. The wreck is emblematic of an industry that currently dominates the Gulf coast and represents an epoch in the history of energy. My archaeologist collaborator, Calvin, says that the human search for energy has always involved environmental impacts, and every era in that history has just placed the impact on a different ecosystem. It started with whaling vessels, which were mobile oil refineries. As whale populations declined, timber grew in importance until the great northern forests had been depleted. The advent of coal actually allowed reforestation as the environmental impact of the energy industry shifted to mountainous mining regions. Nowadays, oil and gas rigs dot the oceanic horizon and await their replacement by windmills, solar farms, and technologies yet to come. We are actually surrounded by oil rigs out here - there are always several on the horizon, and some are within a few miles of our study sites. At night, the black sky is interrupted by lights from the surrounding rigs. It's like being surrounded by several floating cities. 

A coral head (I think Oculina tenella) surrounded by reef fish
on the CP Baker
I helped on deck for the dive on the CP Baker, but the major focus of the dive was archaeology. The video recording will still be useful for my biological analysis, but the archaeologists led the show from inside the ROV control van. They made passes over the bow on both sides of the wreck several times over, with the goal of getting overlapping footage. That way, they can build a 3D model of the wreck based on the video. I'm excited to see what they produce!

I finished the day by collecting plankton samples with a small net I had brought on board. You all know by now that I can't resist the chance to collect plankton when I'm at sea. I'm curious if the species I see living on the bottom have larvae up in the water column near the same site. It was a great day out on Sea Scout!