It has now been a few days since I returned home from the science expedition aboard NOAA ship Nancy Foster. Here in Washington, DC, the heat is even more oppressive than it was down there on the Gulf coast. Our weekend weather is supposed to top 100 degrees. Re-entering terrestrial life itself takes a surprising bit of adjusting, especially diving so abruptly into the frantic pace that drives all modern life.
Scarcely have I caught up on rest, unpacked equipment, and backed up data, and it is time to do it all over again. There are two NOAA expeditions heading into the Gulf and departing before the end of July. Only this time it would not be me going along: I had hired two observers to go instead. One was to depart Pascagoula on July 24; the other was leaving out of Key West on July 29.
But now, a newly formed Tropical Storm, called “Bonnie,” is aiming at both departure ports! Each observer is jittery when we speak by phone. And not because they are worried about the waves, swell and wind. Rather, they are afraid the ships won’t go at all, that the projects will be canceled. Disappointment in their voices prompts me to offer faith-based platitudes that the research is too important to ditch, and the ships will indeed get out eventually. I understand such enthusiasm for exploration all too well.
Some readers may wonder why I’ve not talked in more detail about the seabird results, at least those I’ve been able to interpret so far between all of the logistical juggling. All science relies upon external review, so I’m reluctant to draw firm conclusions without critical input from my peers. But there is another reason for my reticence. Some of these data may be sensitive because of their evidentiary value in gauging the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. There is a right way and a wrong way to disclose such information, and I certainly wish to the do the former.
What I can say is that I am barely able to contain excitement over the preliminary results. I spent two evenings this week plotting locations of seabirds that we encountered along the research track of the Nancy Foster. These locations were then superimposed on various maps of the Gulf’s oceanographic features. Despite the ocean looking flat and featureless to our eyes, it is neither. Satellites and shipboard sensors show that seabirds in the eastern Gulf of Mexico pick their locations smartly. It would be bitter irony indeed if their foraging skill in finding these feeding hotspots puts them at risk of injury through oil contamination.