Underwater robots find no oil in Keys, off Fla.'s west coast

Bradenton HeraldJune 2, 2010 

SARASOTA — The good news is that two underwater robots launched by Mote Marine Laboratory have reported no signs of oil off Florida's west coast and in the Florida Keys. The bad news is one had a satellite malfunction and has been taken out of service.

Mote launched two underwater robots last month into the Gulf of Mexico to search for traces of oil or chemical dispersants, with any findings, or lack thereof, transmitted by satellite to scientists.

On May 17, the robot RU21 was launched off Venice and remains in the water taking samples for another 12 days, so far reporting no signs of oil, according to Mote spokeswoman Hayley Rutger.

But another robot, Waldo, launched on May 25, has run into trouble and has been taken from the water for repairs to its satellite equipment.

Waldo had been set to collect data 30 miles northwest of Key West, to west of Dry Tortugas, but scientists recently lost its satellite signal due to the machine encountering rough currents, according to a Mote statement.

"On Friday, it entered the pass between the Dry Tortugas and Rebecca Shoal and it couldn't swim against the strong currents there," Mote scientist Gary Kirkpatrick reported in the statement.

Mote officials were disappointed that Waldo could not continue, but the robot, which looks like a tube with wings, and is about 6 feet long and 100 pounds, provided good news from several days of operation that no oil had been detected in the Florida Keys.

“Waldo was able to report to us before we lost communication, and there was no sign of oil,” Rutger said.

Mote officials said when it became clear that Waldo could not continue, Mote staff and members of the National Park Service recovered the robot from the Gulf, taking it to Fort Jefferson, a historic Civil War prison on Dry Tortugas.

"I think Waldo actually spent the night in a cell in the old jail," Kirkpatrick stated.

Mote scientists plan to work out Waldo's kinks and he will go back into action, this time north of the strong currents that put the robot out of commission, between Sarasota and Sanibel, Rutger said.

As for RU21, the robot has 12 more days searching for oil off of Sarasota’s coast, before it is brought in to be charged for another run.

A third robot, Nemo, is also set to embark on a mission, possibly by next week, said Rutger. Nemo will have a different mission than Waldo and RU21 after embarking from Sarasota.

Nemo will head south/southwest from Sarasota while taking phytoplankton samples to be compared to later samples taken should oil hit Florida’s West Coast. Phytoplankton form the basis of the entire food web in the Gulf, and possible changes caused by oil or dispersants in the plankton could signal disruptions for larger marine species, according to Rutger.

“Nemo’s findings will be baseline sample for us to compare to should there be any damage,” Rutger said.

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