UM’s oil spill research still in full swing

Denis Ilias, the marine technician on the F.G. Walton Smith, explains the functions and uses of an instrument on the boat known as a CTD (it measures conductivity, temperature and depth). The tool is one of the ship's main pieces of equipment used for the study of the aftereffects of the Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. Ilias refers to the CTD as the crew's "workhorse." Jessica Hodder//Staff Photographer

Five weeks with only five days of smooth sailing. Two people to a closet-sized cabin. Seventeen people crammed aboard a 96-foot long vessel for 40 days.  Welcome aboard the F.G. Walton Smith research vessel.

“Pretty much the worst experience ever,” joked Troy Fulford, the third mate on board the vessel. “But really, it was great.”

The catamaran, a member of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System fleet, returned Friday after having spent a little over a month studying the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“People asked what the impacts could be and there was just a huge question mark,” said Malinda Sutor, assistant professor at Louisiana State University, one of the chief scientists aboard the Walton Smith. “The Gulf of Mexico has not had as much oceanographic research as other parts.”

The main goal of the scientific team on board was to survey the plankton population at various depths in the Gulf. Plankton are mostly microscopic floating sea organisms that are a key food source for many other sea creatures.

“We were trying to get a better understanding of the plankton,” Sutor said. “We want to know what lives at the bottom and what could have been affected by the spill.”

Equipment like a CTD that measures conductivity, temperature and depth, and a MOCNESS (Multiple Opening/Closing Net Environmental Sensing System) were used to gather information about the underwater environment and to collect samples when anomalies were detected.

“The CTD is our workhorse,” said Denis Ilias, the ship’s marine technician.

The crew’s role on board was to help with the deployment of equipment, to navigate the ship and to generally look after the boat and the individuals on board.

“Everybody wears different hats because we are a small crew,” said Shawn Lake, captain of the Walton Smith.

In order to be at sea for such a lengthy period of time, the Walton Smith, named for the first dean of the Rosential School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, carried 10,000 gallons of fuels and 3,000 gallons of water. Meals were often supplemented with fresh catches.

“I caught a big mahi one time. We had it for dinner the next day,” Fulford said.

The ship is popular with scientists because of its two spacious lab areas: a dry lab and a wet lab. But for some, the most exciting part of the cruise was not just the research.

“The most incredible thing was the deep-water angler with big luminescent organs. They have huge teeth but they are this big,” said David Nadeau, the marine biologist on board, indicating the length of the  2-inch fish with his fingers. “It’s fascinating!”

The next step for the scientific team is to begin to analyze all the data that has been collected and to arrange more scientific cruises.

In the meantime, after a weekend break, the Walton Smith and her crew are destined for Florida Bay where a new scientific team will be researching red tides in the area.

“We plan to do more cruises throughout the fall and winter,” Sutor said. “We are hoping to get the Walton Smith again because it was a really wonderful ship.”

Alysha Khan may be contacted at