Deeper Water Horizons – the Quest of Mandy Joye

EarthzineOriginal, Writing Fellowship 2017

Marine expert Mandy Joye continues to inspire, motivate and study in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Mandy Joye stands in front of the HOV Alvin on the deck of the R/V Atlantis, operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Image Credit: University of Georgia

It’s near dawn on May 5, 2010, and a team of scientists are standing on the deck of the R/V Pelican in the Gulf of Mexico, a research vessel from the Marine Center in Cocodrie, Louisiana. They look out on what would normally have been a serene blue sea, met at its broad horizon by a golden sunrise. Today, however, the view is taken over by a dense city of ships, all bobbing about in curdled brown goo that leaves a slimy residue on their hulls. The calming melody of gull songs and ocean waves is drowned out by a cacophony of machines and bursts of flame. The briny sea mist is overpowered by gas and oil fumes that assault the eyes and sinuses. It’s a horrific scene – the immediate aftermath of the worst marine disaster in history: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

This scene is what marine expert Mandy Joye would later describe as, “like being in hell itself.” On April 20, two weeks before she and her fellow scientists boarded the Pelican, the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, spewing more than 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Before the well was capped 87 days later, oil had soaked a thousand miles of shoreline and 2,900 square miles of the sea floor. Tar balls were washing up on beaches in five states and federally protected animals were dying. On the Deepwater Horizon rig, 11 people lost their lives.

It was an unprecedented catastrophe. Naturally, the media was eager to cover the story. There were conflicting estimates of just how much oil was being released (which took a year to resolve). The public and the government wanted to learn who was responsible. Those who relied on daily catches of shrimp and fish worried about the effects on their livelihood.

As soon as news of the disaster reached Joye, she began to scramble a team to go out and look at the spill firsthand. One colleague recalled, “Mandy just mobilized everything so fast; they were one of the first groups to get out there and start looking at the impact of the oil. It was just amazing to watch all of that happen.”

Already, Joye’s team had discovered an underwater oil plume, a clear result of the well blowout. A new expedition, this time aboard the R/V Walton Smith, would leave on May 25 to revisit the plume and run analysis of the levels of oil and gas in the water at varying distances from the well site.

On May 13, 2010, The New York Times ran a piece that alluded to a disappointing effort on the part of university-affiliated marine scientists. The article struck a nerve with Joye and she phoned its author, Justin Gillis, to tell him about the crew she had out in the field, already analyzing water samples and tracking underwater oil plumes. It was a call that would change the course of her life.

Self-described as a “functioning introvert,” the deluge of media attention that followed her call to Gillis was a shock. Eventually, it reached the point where she had to unplug her phone. Before all was said and done, she would be featured or referenced in more than 4,000 articles and interviewed by CNN, ABC, MSNBC and the BBC. There were critics who accused her of seeking the spotlight. However, juggling the enormous media demand in addition to her research, teaching duties at the University of Georgia (UGA), and raising her then two-year-old daughter took its toll on her, physically and emotionally. “Nobody would choose that,” she said, “I think it was close to three years before I could sleep.”

Despite the long hours of research and interviews, Joye took her new role as Gulf spokesperson in stride. Reflecting back, she notes, “Sometimes things happen for a reason. They activate something in you that wasn’t activated before and the oil spill did that for me.”

Paramuricea coral and their brittle star symbionts were directly impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. ECOGIG researchers regularly monitor these colonies for signs of recovery in the Gulf. Image Credit: ECOGIG

Today, Joye heads the research group ECOGIG, along with biological oceanographer Joseph Montoya from the Environmental Science and Technology department at Georgia Tech. ECOGIG, which stands for Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf, is a consortium of researchers from 15 institutions who study the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill, which are still being felt. Montoya said research in the Gulf continues to be important because of the continued presence of oil in the water column and the inevitability of future spills.

Montoya and colleagues were impressed by Mandy’s ability to organize experts and equipment in response to the disaster, a skill she says she learned from playing basketball point guard as a young girl. “I was never going to be the superstar,” Joye notes. “But I knew how to position people and put them in the right place and give them the right thing that they needed to make the shot and win the game.” Joye may lack the height of an NBA center, but her fit, compact frame is packed with dynamite.

Back in her office at UGA, talking about why she ventures into the deep sea, Joye explodes with enthusiasm. “There’s this rush that you get from it – of discovery – it’s addictive. It’s like … science crack.”

Joye and Dr. Sylvia Earle attend the 2011 Building Bridges in Crisis event, a symposium hosted by the Georgia Sea Grant program. Image Credit: ECOGIG

That may explain why she’s been to the bottom of the ocean more than 90 times. She grew up idolizing the giants of oceanography – Sylvia Earle and Jacques Cousteau – who sparked her interest in underwater exploration. Even though she and Earle are now good friends, Joye still speaks with reverence about the iconic woman’s ability to light up a room. “She has this magical way of not just educating people and making them care, but firing them up and making them want to get involved and be advocates. For me, personally, that is as important as the science that I do.”

Joye has succeeded in inspiring others to pursue ocean exploration. Beth Orcutt, a senior research scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine, first met Joye in 1999, when she worked in her lab at UGA. Orcutt describes how, as an undergrad, Mandy not only inspired her to change her major from chemistry to marine sciences, but helped her make connections, attend conferences and broaden her experience. “Many mentors, I think, don’t go out of their way to promote their students to the level that I see Mandy do. I wouldn’t be where I am today if she hadn’t done those things.”

Not surprisingly, Joye’s love of the sea has been inherited by her three young children. Against the far wall of her office, on a dry erase board packed with lists of travel dates and project deadlines, evidence of her 6-year-old twins’ latest visit is apparent. The scribbles resemble what might be a whale or a boat. With a smile, Joye recounts a conversation she had the day they were drawn. She’d been meeting with a student, discussing one of their Gulf of Mexico research sample sites – Orca Basin. At the mention of the word orca one of the children interjected. “You know,” the child told them, “Orcas are my favorite cetaceans.” Not only does her daughter know that cetaceans are the family whales like orcas belong to, but she can give a list of them along with their feeding methods.

Other children who attend the local elementary school with her kids also get to learn about oceans through Joye. Emily Davenport, education and outreach coordinator for ECOGIG, explains, “She does always try to get out there into the community and do some sort of outreach. Outreach is a passion of Mandy’s.” Through giving talks at local schools, participating in ECOGIG’s Ocean Discovery Camp, and sharing her expertise at UGA’s Science at the Stadium event, she touches the lives of many young marine enthusiasts.

“It’s all about lifelong learning,” says Joye, “and challenging yourself and never letting up, and bringing people along with you. It’s not a solo adventure.”

Joye has been focusing on natural oil and gas seeps in the Gulf of Mexico since 1994 and few scientists know its waters better. Although she has studied biogeochemistry in waters all over the world from the Arctic to Antarctica, the body of water cradled by the United States’ southern coast has a special place in her heart.

Davenport explains one of the reasons continued research in the Gulf is so important. “There’s over 2,500 oil rigs out in the Gulf, so the potential for another spill to happen is huge,” Davenport said. “We just need to learn as much as we can about the system so that we can understand how to help better when another spill happens.”

For Joye, the gulf ticks all the boxes on her checklist of criteria for study. The region is dynamic and under-explored; it contains endangered species threatened by pollution and over-industrialization; and, it’s subject to fascinating spatial and temporal trends.

Joye considers this portion of the ocean to be something of a poster child for ocean health; she believes all the problems that are happening in the world’s oceans can be studied in the Gulf of Mexico. Mandy Joye’s quest is to discover the solutions.

Jen Parrilli is a 2017 IEEE Earthzine science writing fellow and ecologist who enjoys exploring mushrooms and insects in her backyard. Follow her on Twitter @jmparrilli.