NEW ORLEANS -- BP has strongly questioned the presence of underwater plumes of oil from its leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico.
Tuesday, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made this announcement: "NOAA is confirming the presence of very low concentrations of subsurface oil at sample depths from the surface to 3300 feet," said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco.
Tests conducted by NOAA and the University of South Florida found two massive plumes of oil.
One is located 42 miles northeast of the Deepwater Horizon site.
Another is 142 miles southeast of the spill, but further tests showed that oil is not consistent with oil from the leaking well head.
Tulane research ecologist Tom Shannon said natural oil seepage does occur, but he believes both plumes are from the BP spill.
"This has never been detected before that I know of," said Dr. Shannon. "So, circumstantially it would be very difficult to say that this comes from something other than this leak or something of this size."
Shannon expects researchers will find many more sub-sea oil clouds in the gulf.
"Considering how much oil has come out of this well, a majority has to be under the water or some how dispersed within the water column," said Shannon.
Shannon said once the oil gets in the water column, it's next to impossible to remove. He predicts major damage to underwater ecosystems where fish and other marine life live and grow.
"It sets up end game for the coral reefs," said Shannon. "If it hits the coral reefs, that's it."
NOAA research vessels are now cruising the Gulf testing for additional concentrations of underwater oil.
"We remain concerned about the location of oil on the surface and under the sea," said Lubchenco. "We and our academic partners such as the University of South Florida remain vigilant in our search for answers."
Shannon said chemicals used to disperse the oil could be to blame for the underwater plumes.
"The whole idea of a dispersant is to disperse the oil throughout the water to allow it to mix, if you will, with the water to allow it to dilute out into the water," said Shannon.
Underwater plumes of dispersed oil are hard to detect from the air. They can easily migrate under containment boom and other barriers on the surface. That's why local leaders say it's next to impossible to keep that oil off their beaches and out of coastal wetlands.