Looking to answer the question of how the BP oil disaster five years ago affected whales and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, a research team is returning to the Gulf.
Natalia Sidorovskaia, a physics professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette specializing in ocean acoustics, is leading the project backed by a $5.2 million grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to continue their 2010 work monitoring these marine mammals.
She said the team of 24 scientists and students has focused on sperm whales, beaked whales and dolphins.
Her prior work in capturing and analyzing recordings of whale sounds through devices placed on the Gulf floor is being used by mathematicians and statisticians to develop models to estimate whale populations, according to a UL-Lafayette news release.
The research team found in 2010 that although sperm whales moved away from the epicenter of the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon blowout, beaked whales still hunted for food in the oil-rich waters near the rig.
Whether that remains true almost five years later is yet to be seen.
“We have the data of them before the spill, so it should be interesting to compare the data we collect now,” Sidorovskaia said.
The research crew determined the location of the marine mammals by collecting sonar recordings of the Gulf to track these species’ movements in 2001, 2007 and 2010.
Sidorovskaia, along with UL-Lafayette mathematics professors Azmy Ackleh, who is also dean of the university’s R.P. Authement College of Sciences, and Nabendu Pal, who specializes in biostatistics, received a $192,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in September 2010 for the first study on the spill’s effects on local sea life.
“To get a more complete picture, we need to go back,” Sidorovskaia said. “We need to see what it looks like five years after.”
UL-Lafayette, the University of New Orleans and the University of Southern Mississippi are members of the Littoral Acoustic Demonstration Center, created in 2001 to study the impact of Gulf of Mexico industrial operations on deep-diving marine mammals. For the new project, LADC will operate as Littoral Acoustic Demonstration Center–Gulf Ecological Monitoring and Modeling. And it will have additional members: Oregon State University; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; C&C Technologies and ASV in Lafayette; Proteus Technologies in Slidell; Seiche Measurements out of Houston; and R2Sonic in Austin, Texas.
The grant also includes money to educate others on its research findings. The team is looking at setting up interactive displays in the Lafayette Science Museum about ocean exploration.