NEW ORLEANS -- Are there, in fact, plumes of oil floating beneath the ocean surface? That's the question researchers on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration boat will try to answer on a 10 day mission that started Wednesday night.
At the Bienville Street wharf in New Orleans, a group of scientists gathered in the early afternoon, getting ready to set sail.
Their mission: find out whether there is more oil trapped under the surface of the water.
'Many of the research crews that are out there have detected anomalies,' said NOAA administrator, Dr. Jane Lubchenco.
Scientists from the University of Southern Mississippi, working with NOAA, first discovered what they called 'oil plumes' under the surface. But federal leaders quickly questioned those findings saying more tests were needed to verify the plumes' presence.
'The question of submerged oil is really a very difficult one. We don't know the nature of the oil. I think there have been some oil spills where there has been some evidence of a submerged plume, but every one is very different,' said Dr. Larry Mayer, a sonar specialist and professor at the University of New Hampshire's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping.
Mayer and NOAA Research Fishery Biologist Alex De Robertis are sonar specialists who NOAA included in the mission to determine which of their sonar echoes are fish and plankton, for example, and which are plumes of oil.
They're setting the standard for future tracking of the spill's effects on the Gulf from the surface to the sea floor.
'What we can do is calibrate those instruments so we know what comes back at every depth,' said De Robertis.
The ship, called the Thomas Jefferson, is normally used to map the sea floor and look for dangerous debris, but their 3D computer models will now be used to help identify oil, something that is uncharted in gulf waters right now.
'We're getting a new fish for it specifically for this mission. We're gonna be adding some additional sensors, including a turner Cyclops crude sensor which is actually a type of a flurometer,' said NOAA Lt. Michael Davidson.
Special sensors were added to the vessel to try and help determine if the anomalies previous researchers have discovered are, in fact, plumes of oil.
'We're also gonna be taking water samples at different depths at each station. We can lower this down to a maximum 1,000 meters,' said Daniel Torres, a research associate with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.
The biggest gamble for the Thomas Jefferson will be whether the instruments that have been specially fitted on the ship will actually work to find oil.
'What's unusual is the combination of using them together,' the NOAA Administrator said.
It's a first-of-its-kind mission for the researchers, one that could provide the scientific proof of massive plumes of oil in the gulf.
Complete results from the mission could take up to six weeks to come back, but the NOAA Administrator said water samples that could confirm plumes of oil will likely be analyzed more quickly.