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The WeatherBird II is not a pretty ship. A boxy, businesslike, 194-ton vessel, it prowls the waters off St Petersburg, Fla. where it competes for attention with the cruise ships and sport yachts and other glamour boats. But the WeatherBird II was the buzz of the Gulf on Friday, after its alarming findings about the extent of the BP oil spill that's spreading invisibly below the surface.
The WeatherBird II expedition, led by SFU chemical oceanographer David Hollander wanted specifically to explore the DeSoto Canyon, a deep erosional valley south of the Florida panhandle and about 20 miles (32 km) northeast of the Deepwater Horizon wreck site. The DeSoto is to the Gulf what a rainforest is to a land-based ecosystem: a densely fertile area where life forms fairly explode. It's the upwellings of nutrient-rich water that make the area so hospitable to fish, coral and other living things. On the surface, the waters of the region look clean, but just below the surface and down to about 3,300 ft. (1 km), Hollander and his team found a six-mi. (9.6 km) wide, 22-mi. (35.4 km) long oil bloom, broken into millions of bits and beads and moving with the current. It had not reached the canyon yet, but it was heading that way.