Letter from a summer research trip to the Gulf of Mexico

U.Va. grad student Bill Gilhooly joined scientists from around the world to study the ocean floor and better understand the processes that cause earthquakes and form petroleum deposits.

By Bill Gilhooly (Environmental Sciences ’93, MS ’96, PhD ’06)

Photo courtesy of Bill Gilhooly.

I recently returned from a six-week research cruise in the Gulf of Mexico to study large submarine land slides. I sailed as a geochemist on the research vessel JOIDES Resolution, where I helped analyze and process samples brought up from the ocean’s floor in the ship’s laboratory. The voyage gave me a chance to study a subject important to my own research as a graduate student in the department of environmental sciences and the opportunity to work alongside accomplished scientists from around the world.

The ship departed from Mobile, Ala., at the end of May, bound for two study sites off the Texas and Louisiana coastline. The deep-sea basins that we studied are located over 100 miles offshore. These basins have accumulated massive amounts of sand and mud from the mouths of the Brazos and Trinity rivers of Texas and the Mississippi River of Louisiana. During glacial periods, catastrophic submarine landslides were triggered by rapid sea-level changes, trapping organic matter in the deep sea and creating the oil and gas deposits that are so important to our economy and way of life today.

The purpose of our expedition was to examine how and why these underwater avalanches occur, in order to better understand the processes that cause earthquakes and form valuable petroleum deposits.

The JOIDES Resolution is a floating laboratory with all the modern equipment and amenities of the top research institutions here on land. It is a large operation, with a crew of over 60 people and a scientific party of nearly 60 scientists and technicians. Complete with satellite hookup, we had access to the Internet and email 24 hours a day. At over 430 feet long the vessel has a drill tower able to core in water up to five miles deep. The drill essentially rotates a long pipe into the ocean floor, in order to collect a layered sample of the sediment. We cored nearly one mile of sediment during our voyage.

The ship has five laboratories specially dedicated to describing and analyzing the physical properties, chemistry and paleontology of the sediment samples collected. After being pulled up from the ocean floor, the core was cut into smaller sections and transported to the lab for analysis. We spent long hours processing samples and analyzing them in the chemistry lab. The time not spent working on samples we spent writing reports.

The scientists worked in 12-hour shifts, to keep pace with the around-the-clock drilling. I worked the midnight-to-noon shift. It took some getting used to — quitting work at noon, going to sleep before five in the evening, and remembering not to greet people with “good morning” when I began my shift at midnight.

Although the staff worked hard 24 hours a day, life on the ship was a lot of fun. The galley served up some great meals, and the cookie-and-doughnut break at 3 a.m. really kept me going. Being out at sea for all that time, we missed the 4th of July but the crew did a lot to boost our morale by fixing a great 4th of July dinner.

There was a gym onboard which I made use of every day, and for a change of pace we had four fun runs on the ship’s helipad. It may not sound exciting to run for half an hour on a small platform, but it felt great to get outside and stretch your legs. Everyone who was off shift came out to participate or cheer on the runners. We even had our own mascot — an old brown pelican who turned out for one of the races.  

I met a lot of dedicated scientists from around the world on this trip. You’d be surprised how much you may have in common with people who grew up in places like Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Sweden or Japan. Small cultural differences were obvious when we first set sail, but after a few weeks at sea everyone was laughing and joking like old friends.

We all had a common interest in science and geology and in studying processes that occurred in the past as a way to explain conditions we see in the present. One surprising commonality, totally unrelated to our career endeavors, was that we all grew up watching Japanese cartoons — classics like Shogun Warriors, Speed Racer and Voltron. The world is smaller than you think, and there are a lot of human traits and interests that cut across cultures.

With two hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico during our cruise, my friends and family were pretty concerned about our safety. Luckily, we just missed Tropical Storm Cindy and Hurricane Dennis. We had perfect sailing conditions, despite what you may have seen on The Weather Channel. In fact, Charlottesville had more severe weather than we did! The seas were flat calm and the skies were always clear and sunny, except for the day we passed through the Yucatan channel. The winds picked up and the sea got a little rough that day, but by then we were done with the scientific operations and headed for our final destination, the Panama Canal.

As we sailed to Panama from the Caribbean Sea, everyone was looking forward to the trip through the Canal. Unfortunately, the ship did not have a berth in which to dock on the Pacific side, and we disembarked in Colon. We had a few days to tour the countryside, where we saw the impressive Gatun Locks and watched massive cargo ships pass through on their trip through the Canal. On a crazy taxicab ride, we also visited Fort San Lorenzo, an ancient Spanish fortress built in the 1600s to protect the gold shipped back to Spain. From what little time I spent in Panama, I could see it was a developing country with plenty of modern cities built next to signs of the past.

With all the great scientific accomplishments and the excitement of being at sea and touring Panama, I was happy to return home to Charlottesville. It was a privilege to sail aboard the JOIDES Resolution. I made some friends I won’t forget, and I’m sure our paths will cross somewhere down the line.

Bill Gilhooly (PhD '06)