Oceans and Coasts

Gulf Oil Spill



Lessons and Activities

Real World Data

Background Information

Career Profiles

On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon/BP MC252 drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and caused the rig to sink. As a result, oil began leaking into the Gulf creating one of the largest spills in American history. During the next 87 days an estimated 4 million barrels (168 million gallons) were released from the reservoir, of which 3.19 million (134 million gallons) were released into the Gulf of Mexico.

Oiled Turtle
Dr. Brian Stacy, NOAA veterinarian, prepares to clean an oiled Kemp's Ridley turtle. (Photo Credit: NOAA and Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

NOAA and many partner organizations are conducting research to determine the full extent of the damage from the spilled oil on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and economy. We know that this spill impacted wildlife, habitats, fishing communities, and commerce along the large coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, and Florida.

Habitat Impacts

The Gulf of Mexico’s diverse ecosystem includes deep-sea ocean ridges and trenches, mid-depth banks, barrier islands, beaches, coral reefs and estuaries. As currents and winds spread the oil from the mile-deep spill site, all habitats were at risk of contamination. Estuaries and coral reefs are some of the most sensitive areas in the impact zone as they provide protection, feeding areas, and nurseries for a large diversity of species.

Impacts to Wildlife

Sea turtles and marine birds were some of the first wildlife affected by the spill, as they live and feed on the surface where floating oil collects. Dolphins, whales and other marine mammals were also affected as they must come to the surface to breath. Oil accumulated on the skin of animals can make it difficult to breath and move in the water. Oiled birds can lose the ability to fly, dive for food, or float on the water which could lead to drowning. Oil also interferes with the water repellency of feathers and can cause hypothermia under the right conditions. Ingested oil can kill animals immediately; more often it results in lung, liver, and kidney damage which can lead to death. (Source: USFWS)


Fish, shrimp, and shellfish are basic parts of the Gulf’s food web and are also important to the economic health of the region. To minimize human exposure to potentially unsafe seafood from the spill region, more than 80,000 square miles of commercial and recreational fishing grounds were closed while scientists investigated the impact of the spill and clean-up efforts on these organisms. After careful consideration for public health these waters are open once again and ongoing monitoring continues to insure the safety of seafood and check the health of the ecosystem.(Source: NOAA Keeping Seafood Safe)

Hands-On Activity (MS, HS)

Responding to a Disaster
This activity was developed specifically to explore the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Mobile Bay and the surrounding waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Students play the role of oil spill response team members and consider the characteristics of oil spills, path of spilled oil, potential impact zones, and spill clean-up techniques in planning their response.

Restoration Efforts

Clean-up and restoration efforts have been ongoing since the summer of 2010. Primary restoration activities work to restore or replace habitats, species and services back to their original condition where possible. Through compensatory restoration efforts businesses and the public are provided compensation for losses as a result of the time natural resources are injured and unusable. Liability for these damages and restoration costs are still being determined.

Education Connection
The Deepwater Horizon/BP is still a current event and is seen frequently in the news providing a teachable moment for educators. The materials provided with this collection present the facts surrounding the spill and ongoing research, monitoring, and restoration efforts. Attempts have been made to keep this information current and many new education resources have been developed over the past year. In addition to large oil spills such as this, non-point sources of pollution continue to threaten our ocean ecosystem. These sources can be as significant as the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill and are more directly linked to individual behaviors. Learning about both types of pollution can help protect ocean habitats by improving stewardship behaviors.

Produced in cooperation with the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration
Page Last Updated 3/19/2013

Oil Spill Response Map ERMA
Eyes in the Sky and Boots on the Ground

November 2012
(NOAA Office of Response and Restoration)

Volunteers. The Internet. Remote sensing. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has been using all three to deal with the environmental aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.... Read More

Veterinarian takes blood sample from dolphin
Doctors to Dolphins

August 2011 (NOAA)
Researchers encircled two male dolphins with a net and jumped into the murky, waist-deep water to grab the dolphins and keep them calm during the checkup aboard a research vessel... Read More

Deep Water Horizon oil spill site
Lessons Learned from Deepwater Horizon

December 2012 (NOAA)
A special collection of technical articles about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill provides the first comprehensive analysis and synthesis of the science used in the unprecedented response effort by the government, academia, and industry.... Read More