Experts trolling the Gulf's waters to study the impact

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REDFISH BAY, La. -- In a strangely silent corner of this usually thriving bay, charter captain Kevin Beach, of Metairie, La., says he should be seeing "shrimp, trout jumping, sea gulls ... and knuckleheads like myself high-fiving over a catch."

Instead, he is seeing serious-minded researchers. Lots and lots of them, quietly collecting samples.

They come with glass jars, fiberglass mesh and cameras, ready to gather, label and test samples of the oil and the flora and fauna it threatens. These are independent scientists whose work is to sort out the crisis's impact as it unfolds, making it impossible for any single source -- whether BP or the government -- to dominate the information flow about the giant Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

"There are people everywhere doing amazing work to try to understand what's happening," Florida State University oceanography professor Ian MacDonald said, as he drove back to his Tallahassee lab after spending several days collecting oil samples.

Dr. MacDonald, who was among the first to challenge reports about the spill's flow rate, plans to use the samples to help interpret data being collected from satellites, planes and other remote-sensing systems that are tracking the oil.

Elsewhere on the Gulf, university researchers are striving to identify and draw attention to what they say are vast plumes of oil hovering below the surface.

At least for now, the flood of scientists, graduate students and environmental researchers who have descended on the coastal marinas and beaches to get an up-close look at the spill and take the measure of this unprecedented event is an odd silver lining to the dark cloud of oil that threatens the livelihoods of Mr. Beach and other charter captains who are within reach of the heaviest slick.

Mr. Beach typically makes 80 percent of his yearly income from the tourists who come to fish the Gulf waters in May, June and July. "When this thing happened," he said of the oil spill, "I had every single day booked through July. Ouch."

Mr. Beach estimates that he is recouping 60 percent of what he would have made if his boat were booked by tourists.

On a recent trip out of the Venice Marina, Mr. Beach took a National Wildlife Federation charter group to observe an oiled marsh, where they met up with Dr. MacDonald and other Florida State researchers taking water samples where oil had managed to get past absorbent booms. The scientists hope the samples will provide clues to what the oil might do when it washes up on the Florida coast.

Dr. MacDonald is part of the Oil Spill Academic Task Force, a consortium of more than 200 scientists at 15 universities in Florida studying the disaster. The task force also has begun working informally with scientists in several other states, including Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, and might expand.

The National Science Foundation has awarded more than $1.15 million in special grants to scientists from California, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Michigan, Massachusetts and Florida to study a variety of issues related to the environmental effects of the spill and cleanup.

Dr. MacDonald also expressed frustration about the dearth of information from BP. For example, researchers would like detailed analyses of the oil as it travels from the broken well on the ocean bottom to the surface.

"The place where we know the least is where we want to know the most," he said. "We've never seen anything like this."


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