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Sanibel Sea School’s founder begins testing Gulf water for oil contamination

By Staff | Jun 7, 2010

Bruce Neill, founder and executive director of the Sanibel Sea School, displays a Sonde sesor, much larger than the fluorometer recently purchased by the school. Neill began testing Gulf waters for oil contamination last week.

While some islanders have expressed a deep concern of what environmental and financial impacts may be felt here "somewhere down the road," others have already sprung into action.


In response to the British Petroleum oil spill still contaminating the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel Sea School, a marine education non-profit organization, has recently acquired a Turner Designs fluorometer with oil monitoring capabilities. 

According to Bruce Neill, Ph.D., founder and executive director of Sanibel Sea School, the newly-purchased fluorometer can detect oil quantities as low as one part per million in seawater. It is more compact and highly mobile than comparable equipment in Lee County, so it provides the advantage of monitoring oil from aboard boats as well as from shore.

"We are interested in two components of oil monitoring — we want to help understand the impacts of oil contamination in our marine environments, and we want to keep Lee County residents safe," said Dr. Neill. "We all recognize how devastating the red drift algae was here; this has the potential to dwarf that."

Dr. Neill displays some of the water and sample-collecting devices he uses to retrieve vital data.

Typically, oceanographers use the microphone-shaped device to measure the chlorophyll content of waterways, helping to pinpoint the presence of harmful algal blooms. However, the fluorometer can also be used to map phytoplankton blooms, which will allow scientists at partner institutions to assess the correlation between oil contamination and phytoplankton blooms.

"Our mission here is threefold," he said. "Number one, we are studying the biology of what happens during an oil spill. In a perverse way, this is a great opportunity to se what is going on. Number two, as part of our safety mission, before we start our summer camps and put children into the water, we have to ensure that they’ll be safe."

The non-profit group’s staff began monitoring for the presence of oil in Lee County waters on Friday afternoon. Sanibel Sea School will ensure the safety of their summer camp participants by sampling local waters regularly. 

"We will be able to determine with fine precision whether the water we are engaging in has oil contamination," Dr. Neill added. "Hopefully, there will be no oil. We will take samples of different areas to determine how much oil — if any — is present."

The oil contamination data will also be made available to the general public through Sanibel Sea School’s website, located at www.sanibelseaschool.org.

One of the nets Dr. Neill uses to collect microorganism samples.

"Finally, we’re doing this for the community as a humanitarian and economic service," said Dr. Neill. "As the oil moves south, we expect there to be a mass concern about where it may be traveling. As we publish our data on our website, people will be able to see where the oil actually is. This is a big undertaking to try to coordinate in only a short amount of time."

Starting with the initial data collection on June 4, Dr. Neill anticipates collecting water samples twice every week.

"If this area becomes inundated with oil, then we can do it more often," he said. "But whenever we are taking kids out, we will do it every day."

In addition, Dr. Neill expects the benefits of purchasing the fluorometer to far outweigh the cost of the high-tech device.

"People do find a level of comfort in knowledge," he added. "Going out there an quantifying just how much oil is out there is going to give some people here a little bit of comfort. In this way, we’d like to feel like we’re giving back to our community."

Sanibel Sea School is a 501(c)(3) non-profit with the mission of marine conservation through experiential learning, communication and research. For more information, call 472-8585 or visit their website at www.sanibelseaschool.org.