When the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in 2010 releasing the largest oil spill in United States history, scientists from around the country came to the Gulf of Mexico to try to measure the impact of the environmental disaster.
Written, directed and produced by long-time husband and wife filmmakers Marilyn and Hal Weiner, the documentary provides a behind the scenes look at some of the immense scientific research being done in the Gulf of Mexico and coastal states.
“We want to show people what scientists do,” said Hal Weiner.
More and more it appears people don’t believe scientists, Weiner said, so one of the documentary’s goals is to give people a better idea of what scientists actually do.
And it appears to be working based on the reaction Weiner said he’s gotten from a number of screenings of the film.
“The reaction is always, ‘Oh that’s what scientists do. That’s what an oceanographer does,’ ” Weiner said. “We really wanted to focus on the science.”
Filming started in 2014 in Louisiana and other parts of the Gulf Coast, to look at the health and population of fish through analyzing fish tissue, remote operated vehicle dives and laboratory work.
“The biggest challenge was figuring out what they were talking about,” Weiner said. He said the filmmakers kept asking the scientists to explain their research in terms that would be simple enough for a general audience to understand.
After the spill, there were limited number of funding sources for research. One was associated with legal action involving Deepwater Horizon, which precluded the scientists involved from talking about their work yet.
However, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, funded by $500 million over a 10-year time frame from BP, did have scientists involved who could talk and were still doing work in the Gulf of Mexico.
The film was paid for in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, with other funding from the Wallace Genetic Foundation and the Farvue Foundation.
Weiner said they sought out scientists who had high levels of peer-reviewed work and whose current research topics would be interesting for a general audience.
One example is the work being done with mahi-mahi at the University of Miami where researchers are among many teams in the country looking at the genetic impact of oil on fish.
“This is what the failing heart of a fish looks like,” narrator Matt Damon says in the film as a view of a mahi-mahi larvae through a microscope is shown on screen.
The scientists’ examination of mahi-mahi included breeding their own stock and putting fish into a “swim tunnel” to test the endurance and heart health of the fish, much like putting a person on a treadmill.
What they’ve found is that fish exposed to oil don’t have as much endurance compared to fish that weren’t exposed, which impacts how well a fish can survive in the wild.
Concurrent work with fish larvae have showed that oil exposure has impaired the development of the heart. LSU researchers have found similar effects using the Gulf killifish in work done several years after the spill.
“I think for viewers, it’s an exciting journey,” Weiner said.
The team is coming back to the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana this summer to do a follow-up show looking at additional research such as on dolphins and marsh ecosystem health.
The online sneak preview of “Dispatches from the Gulf” is set for 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Wednesday at youtube.com/c/ScreenscopeJ2PE/live.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.