THE FOULING APPEARED OUT OF NOWHERE
At first, fishermen in Central America noticed a black crust building up on their propellers and on the pilings at marinas. Then larger shipping ports began to notice their equipment was becoming caked with it. They cleaned their ship bottoms and dock equipment with pressure washers and scrubbers, but it grew increasingly difficult to remove. Within months of its first appearance, the Fouling had encrusted everything in the water and was spreading along the coast to South America and North America.
When it reached Florida, scientists still hadn’t determined what it was or how to stop it. Entire harbors and ports were paralyzed by Fouling. Businesses shut down. At first it was just the businesses that depended on small boats—tourist boats, diving boats, fishing vessels. Then large cargo ship ports were overwhelmed by the Fouling. With all the ocean-related businesses shutting down, everything else began to crumble. Tourism stopped. Fishing stopped. Imports and exports stopped. But the Fouling kept on going, spreading up the coastline threatening every waterfront community in its path.
If it couldn’t be stopped, the entire Atlantic seaboard would come to a standstill. The global economy would crumble.
SCIENTISTS THOUGHT IT WAS EXTINCT
By the time the expedition sets out, here’s what scientists know about the Fouling: It’s a black crusty colony built by millions of microscopic organisms. They start out as zooplankton, tiny little animals that swim around in the ocean and ride on currents to find new locations. When they settle down to the bottom, they attach themselves and grow into long, thin, soft-bodied creatures. At this point, they begin eating, filtering carbon and calcium from the water to build crusty branching exoskeletons around their bodies for protection. One individual can grow rapidly, forming buds that become new individuals. They spread outward and build on top of each other until a thick crust covers the entire surface of whatever structure the zooplankton landed on.
Because these creatures need carbon to make their shells, they are attracted to anything containing petroleum.At first, scientists thought they were bryozoans, a common kind of fouling organism that includes species in every ocean in the world. But then, they noticed differences in their branching patterns and in the microscopic structure of their skeletons. Shockingly, they determined that the Fouling was not a Bryozoan, but a Hederellid. The only other examples of Hederellids are from the fossil record. They were thought to be extinct.
In the world of small ocean creatures, the Fouling is a dinosaur.