USF scientists headed for Cuba to study what it looks like before any oil spills

USF scientists head to the island to study conditions before any oil spill.
Published April 24 2017
Updated April 28 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Florida scientists will ride their research vessel to Cuba next month to take measurements of its coastal waters before any oil spill ruins them.

One of the major problems with the 2010 BP oil spill, scientists say, is that no one — not the government, not the oil companies, not even universities — had taken baseline measurements of what conditions were like in the Gulf of Mexico before the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

So the University of South Florida's marine science department has been trying to rectify that by taking readings all around the edges of the gulf over the past year or so. Scientists even journeyed down to Mexico, where they not only took readings but also found signs that oil still remains from the 1979 Ixtoc I spill, a disaster that paralleled the BP spill.

And now in their ship, the R/V Weatherbird II, they're heading for Cuba on May 9, said David Hollander, a USF chemical oceanographer who played a crucial role in the university's investigations of the BP spill's effects.

They will be paying particular attention to conditions in the Florida Straits, "because those are the ins and outs of the water coming into the Gulf of Mexico," he said.

In addition to taking the baseline measurements of the water's chemical composition, Hollander said, "we'll be looking at aspects of the contamination levels and fisheries conditions, and comparing those to what we found in Mexico and U.S. waters."

Cuba has tried repeatedly to drill for oil off its coast, where an estimated 20 billion barrels of crude await. But all of its efforts, including the most recent one led by Spain's Repsol, have come up dry.

But Cuba is now partnered with Angola's state-run petroleum production company, Sonangol, for yet another attempt. Meanwhile, other companies continue trying their luck. One, Sherritt International, announced last month that its exploratory offshore wells were disappointing, but the company intended to keep trying.

The thaw of relations between Cuba and the U.S. has opened the door for scientific collaboration on issues of interest to both countries. For instance, the Florida Aquarium has partnered with the National Aquarium of Cuba on coral research.

That's why the USF contingent is expecting a warm welcome from its Cuban counterparts.

The 13 U.S. scientists onboard will be joined by 30 graduate students, professors and biologists from the University of Havana and the Cuban Fisheries Agency to share information on their technology and techniques, Hollander said.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.