Hidden Menace in the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill's Real Threat Lies Beneath the Surface

AP

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Part 3: Waiting for Research Funding


But the funding for independent projects is coming in very slowly, even though BP has pledged $500 million in immediate aid to support the research. Zoologist Eric Hoffmayer of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, for example, has been waiting for weeks to receive money from the emergency funds.

Time is of the essence for Hoffmayer. He is studying one of the most fascinating animals of the Gulf, the whale shark, which the oil is putting in mortal danger. "When whale sharks swim into the oil, their gills become clogged," the zoologist warns. "They can no longer absorb oxygen and die within a few minutes."

The sharks, which can grow up to 14 meters (46 feet) long, are particularly at risk because they constantly swim with their mouths open to filter microorganisms out of the water. In the process, up to 6,000 liters of water an hour flow through their respiratory organs.

Ironically, one of the most important feeding grounds for the massive animals lies off the mouth of the Mississippi River, where Hoffmayer has already spotted groups of up to 50 individuals. The sharks are attracted by large masses of plankton, which feast on the tons of nutrients that the river carries into the ocean.

'Out of Sight, Out of Mind'

What can be done about the oil clouds beneath the ocean surface? The scientists don't have any answers. And the ghostly oil shroud is growing larger and larger. Samantha Joye and her team have located a cloud near the damaged wellhead that is about 15 kilometers long, 5 kilometers wide and 100 meters thick. Besides, the oil farther to the south appears to have reached the Loop Current, an ocean current that could carry the oil to Florida. Other currents could even carry it up the US East Coast and into the Gulf Stream.

The scientists' greatest concern is this year's hurricane season. "A powerful storm would be enough to distribute the oil throughout the entire water column," warns James Cowan, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University.

A technology to remove the pollution doesn't exist. Besides, BP is hardly likely to clean up the water voluntarily. In fact, it might suit the company all too well if the disaster remained hidden beneath the waves, says Cowan. "Out of sight, out of mind."

Clogged Up

Nevertheless, Cowan recently got a first-hand look at the underwater oil spill when he lowered a robot with an attached camera to a depth of 150 meters, about 120 kilometers west of the accident site. "First we saw droplets of oil, but then we couldn't see anything at all," Cowan reports.

The underwater oil soup was so thick that it clogged the camera lens and the robot's headlights.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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