TODAY   |  July 22, 2010

Biologists use sub to track Gulf oil plume

NBC’s Kerry Sanders plans to follow a group of oceanographers from Florida Atlantic University in their mission to chart oil spillage in the Gulf using a high-tech submarine.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> a storm churning in the tropics this morning has crews working on the disaster in the gulf preparing to temporarily evacuate. but there are some people still hard at work. nbc's kerry sanders is in the gulf on the deck of a ship that's about to launch a submarine that will be used to track oil beneath the surface. kerry , good morning to you.

>> well, good morning, matt. i'm on the aft deck of the stuart johnson. it's a research vessel from florida atlantic university as well as from noaa. are here to actually deploy once again this submarine. that's a four-man submersible. it will go into the water, and what they're looking for is evidence of oil. for the past 12 days , scientists have submerged 20 times. two to three dives a day, to depths of 1800 feet, into an underwater geography known to few, like the sticky ground. here, deep in the gulf of mexico , were moray eels , rare glass sponges, and leatherback turtles , there is cautious optimism. so far, the marine biologists on this mission have found no visible signs of oil. you haven't seen a large underwater plume of oil?

>> thankfully.

>> what about those little microscopic pieces of oil floating in the gulf?

>> we haven't seen those yet. and those are very hard to detect.

>> to determine if specks of oil, too small to see without a mass spectrometer , have spread this far, the submersible and another unmanned collection container are gathering water samples at various depths. and they're harvesting sponges, because living sponges are filter feeders, pumping hundreds of gallons of water a day.

>> so by taking some samples of many of the sponges at the sites, we may be able to determine if they're concentrating any small amounts of oil and/or dispersants.

>> the reason oil may come here, the so-called loop current , which is an undersea highway. ocean experts say the leaking oil that never came to the surface caught in that current could wind up hundreds, even thousands of miles away . that's why the harbor branch oceaneographic team is working with the federal government to get what they believe is a "before" picture of the gulf. it's what scientists call a baseline. so if oil shows up, the government will be able to force bp to clean up the damage, even here, where few people have ever ventured.

>> what we're doing is the before. we're finding out what this ecosystem is like right now, before any impact, so that if there is an impact later on, you can compare the before and the after so that these quote unquote offending parties can restore that ecosystem back to the way it was before the offense occurred.

>> mission number 21 deploys shortly and i'm going to be sitting right in that seat right to the right there in the front of the submersible. we're going to go down to about 300 feet. at times this sub goes down to 3,000 feet.

>> kerry , just a question, are you at all claustrophobic?

>> i don't think i'm claustrophobic. i guess i'll find out. but i don't think so.

>> i think that's something the other three people in the sub might want to know right now. kerry , good luck to you, all right? we'll check in with you.

>> thank you.