Prof. explores oil spills in deep sea

Erik Cordes studies the effect of Deep Water Horizon spill on deep-sea corals.

Erik Cordes stands on a deep-sea sub used for his research in the Gulf of Mexico | Courtesy Erik Cordes
Erik Cordes stands on a deep-sea sub used for his research in the Gulf of Mexico | Courtesy Erik Cordes

Late in August 2012, a week before the beginning of the fall semester, Erik Cordes found himself and his team in the eye of a hurricane.

The crew, who was on its boat in the Gulf of Mexico, got caught inside Hurricane Isaac. The high seas and rolling waves were an unusual laboratory for a researcher from Temple’s urban campus, but the crew pulled through, and Cordes once again returned to a more traditional research setting at Main Campus.

For the past three years, Cordes, a professor in the biology department who specializes in deep-sea ecology, has spent his summers in the Gulf of Mexico studying the effects of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill.  Cordes, along with collaborators from around the country as well as some of his students, studies the effects of the spill on deep-sea coral.

Cordes chooses a select number of students to go to the Gulf of Mexico based on their area of study and seniority. Cordes said he tries to get as many students involved as possible because he believes in hands-on research.

“It is fun to take someone who perhaps has never left Pennsylvania and throw them on a ship and take them 100 miles offshore,” Cordes said. “It is really amazing to see the change in them and watch them experience something for the first time.”

This past summer, Cordes’ team investigated the response of deep-sea coral to oil and dispersant exposure.

Danielle Young, a Ph.D. ecology student who went with Cordes to the Gulf of Mexico last summer, spoke about the elaborate technology used during the trip.

“We spent a large time at sea exploring parts of the deep ocean never before seen,” she said. “We use models to predict where deep sea coral reefs may be and then sent down these remotely operated vehicles, which are controlled from the ship, to depths that humans cannot tolerate, and explored, took photographs, videos and samples.”

Cordes said the findings he and his team worked on are in the process of being published, and thus declined to disclose them.

Cordes said the team located affected corals in the vicinity of the ruptured well’s base and his team is trying to understand what exactly damaged them and how to prevent it in the future.

About six miles southwest of the oil spill, Cordes said the team found deep sea corals covered in a mysterious black substance.  It was later discovered that this mysterious black substance was indeed oil from the oil spill.

Cordes was asked by the government to research the habitats in the area of the spill.  Even though his excursions and research are governmentally funded, Cordes said the government shutdown has no effect on him because the money is already reserved at Temple for the research. Cordes said he plans on returning to the Gulf in summer 2014.

In the years spent tracking and studying the effects of the oil spill, the team has found that some of the organisms have survived better than others, while some have been overgrown by other organisms. Because the coral is so fragile, Cordes said it is too risky to try to remove the oil from it.

Cordes and his collaborators have not received any awards for their efforts.  They have, however, gotten some publicity, which they used to their advantage.

Cordes said he has taken this opportunity to address the public about the deep sea, the fact that there are deep sea corals and to help promote the research that is happening here at Temple.

“Temple is an active research university and it deserves to be recognized,” Cordes said.

Caitlin Kaczynski can be reached at

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