The northern Gulf of Mexico is home to rich and varied underwater habitats, including shallow coral and deep-sea coral communities. One of the key questions arising from the Deepwater BP oil spill has been the fate of oil and dispersants released a mile below the surface, and what effects these releases might have on these habitats. NOAA is collaborating with other federal agencies, academic researchers, and BP to assess the potential impacts.

In July and August, NOAA staff aboard the Nancy Foster conducted a two-week cruise to survey and sample coral communities near the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. The cruise targeted some of the most important known deep-sea and  light-dependent coral communities for which there are existing pre-spill data and sample collections. Staff used underwater robots – called remotely operated vehicles – at several deep-sea coral habitats, which had previously studied by other agencies, to determine whether they had been impacted by oil. NOAA will compare the samples to evaluate possible impacts of oil or dispersants to these vulnerable biological communities.

NOAA and its partners are planning further activities needed to understand and protect coral habitat. Water column sampling and modeling efforts on the location and fate of underwater oil plumes will help to determine what natural resources were impacted by the spill and guide restoration efforts.