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Record-setting project probes the Gulf of Mexico’s deepest secrets

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The ship Justo Sierra housed a team of researchers who took samples from the Gulf of Mexico’s deepest depths. Photo: Flickr

In the largest oceanographic research project in the history of the country, scientists from nine national institutions spend the last two weeks probing the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.

Scrambling to conduct research before oil drilling begins in that section of the Gulf, crews lowered measurement and sampling equipment to more than 3,500 meters below water.

From the floor of the Gulf, scientists gathered rare soft corals that are thousands of years old, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, six rare abyssal fish species and a large diversity of unknown specimens — capable of withstanding freezing temperatures, 300 atmospheres of pressure and conditions of absolute darkness.

“It is the first time that we can see what is in those marine depths. We have never been able to describe what we have in these environments,” said Dr. Víctor Vidal Martínez, Research Center for Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (Cinvestav) Unit Mérida.

“These fish, besides huge teeth and very strange eyes, have some things that are called photoresists, that is, they are phosphorescent. They are monsters that only National Geographic could describe and now we have in Mexico that unprecedented opportunity,” Vidal continued.

The project was born from the need to take the pulse of the Gulf of Mexico, to determine the state of health of its ecosystems, before the imminent start of new oil exploitation in the area, said Dr. Leopoldina Aguirre Macedo.

“The large oil spill in 2010 somehow made it clear that it is essential to know what state the Gulf of Mexico is in, how it works, where the currents go, etc., to determine what steps to take in case A catastrophe like that is repeated,” added the project coordinator.

Twenty scientists onboard UNAM’s ship, the Justo Sierra, left June 8 from their home port of Tuxpan. After two weeks of intense deep-water work in the Perdido region — a polygon off the coast of Tamaulipas, bounding north with the U.S. marine border — the ship returned a few days ago.

This scientific achievement means that for the first time we have the opportunity to know what organisms are in those depths of our seas, added the doctor Vidal Martínez.

“Knowing and understanding the Gulf of Mexico is a huge, complex challenge,” said Dr. Rafael Rivera Bustamante, director of Cinvestav Mérida, thanking the Ministry of Energy for funding the project for five years to the tune of 1.5 billion pesos.

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