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As Scientists Encounter Oil Some Find Death 'All the Way Down'

Scientists in the Gulf of Mexico are beginning to see oil from the blown Deepwater Horizon well intrude on their research sites. Nancy Rabalais, a biological oceanographer at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Chauvin, who regularly cruises the northern gulf to monitor the dead zone that's found along the coast there, was ambushed by oil last week. It happened on a scheduled cruise unrelated to the disaster.

Rabalais and her team saw oil as the research vessel Pelican was leaving Grand Isle in Barataria Bay via an outlet called the Caminata Pass. But when they stopped 9 miles off shore, the coast seemed clear to scuba dive to replace a faulty underwater oxygen monitor—until the winds and currents changed suddenly. "Thirty-five minutes later, when we came up, there was oil everywhere," she says.

Frank Pope of The Times reports a similar close encounter with the oil while diving with scientists who were studying oil's effects on the water column within the restricted zone near the gushing well:

Along with the marine toxicologist Susan Shaw, of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, I've come to peer into the hidden side of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Wreathed in neoprene and with Vaseline coating the exposed skin around our faces, we slip into the clear water in the lee of the boat. Beneath the mats of radioactive-looking, excrement-coloured sludge are smaller gobs of congealed oil. Taking a cautious, shallow breath through my snorkel I head downwards. Twelve metres under, the specks of sludge are smaller, but they are still everywhere.

Among the specks are those of a different hue. These are wisps of drifting plankton, the eggs and larvae of fish, and the microscopic plants and animals that form the base of almost all marine food webs. Any plankton-eating fish would now have trouble distinguishing food from poison, let alone the larger filter-feeders.

"This is terrible, just terrible," Shaw says, back on the boat. "The situation in the water column is horrible all the way down. Combined with the dispersants, the toxic effects of the oil will be far worse for sea life. It's death in the ocean from the top to the bottom."