SEE UPDATE BELOW
The Obama administration is actively trying to dismiss media reports that vast plumes of oil lurk beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, unmeasured and uncharted.
But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose job it is to assess and track the damage being caused by the BP oil spill that began four weeks ago, is only monitoring what's visible -- the slick on the Gulf's surface -- and currently does not have a single research vessel taking measurements below.
The one ship associated with NOAA that had been doing such research is back in Pascagoula, Miss., having completed a week-long cruise during which scientists taking underwater samples found signs of just the kind of plume that environmentalists fear could have devastating effects on sea life of all shapes and sizes.
Meanwhile, the commander of the NOAA vessel that the White House on Friday claimed in a press release "is now providing information for oil spill related research" told HuffPost on Tuesday that he's actually far away, doing something else entirely.
"We are in the Western Gulf doing plankton research," said Commander Dave Score, reached by satellite phone on his research vessel, the Gordon Gunter. "So I really don't know. I'm just on orders."
Indeed, you can track the Gordon Gunter right here.
Two other NOAA research vessels are also in the area, but not monitoring the spill: The Thomas Jefferson, which has spent the last five days in Galveston, Texas; and the Oregon II, which has been under repair in Pascagoula for almost six months.
NOAA director Jane Lubchenco on Monday decried media reports about plumes of underwater oil as "misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate." (See the Huffington Post and New York Times coverage.)
Lubchenco implicitly criticized scientists on the Pelican, a research vessel operated by the NOAA-affiliated National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST), for being hasty in its pronouncements to the media.
"No definitive conclusions have been reached by this research team about the composition of the undersea layers they discovered," Lubchenco said in her statement. "Characterization of these layers will require analysis of samples and calibration of key instruments. The hypothesis that the layers consist of oil remains to be verified."
NIUST, while partially funded by NOAA, is a cooperative venture with the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi. And it was the Pelican crew's idea -- not NOAA's -- to start taking underwater measurements, although NOAA was perfectly happy to take credit for it, initially.
NOAA officials did not respond to repeated questions from the Huffington Post on Tuesday, and therefore did not explain how they could possibly assess or track underwater oil without having any vessels out taking measurements. Nor did they explain how the Gordon Gunter showed up in an administration press release.
Doug Helton, the emergency response coordinator in Seattle who is NOAA's trajectory expert, answered his phone but wouldn't say much. "It's still a pretty dynamic situation as to what's in the field today, as opposed to yesterday," he hedged, before saying he would call back after getting clearance from NOAA's public affairs office. There was no call back.
"The fact that NOAA has missed the ball catastrophically on the tracking and effects monitoring of this spill is inexcusable," said Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska marine conservationist who recently spent more than a week on the Gulf Coast advising Greenpeace. "They need 20 research ships on this, yesterday."
Steiner explained: "This is probably turning out to be the largest oil spill in U.S. history and the most unique oil spill in world history," on account of it occurring not on or near the surface, but nearly a mile below.
"They should have had a preexisting rapid response plan," he told HuffPost. "They should have had vessels of opportunity -- shrimp vessels, any vessel that can deploy a water-column sampling device -- pre-contracted, on a list, to be called up in an event that this happened. And they blew it. And it's been going on for a month now, and all that information has been lost."
Steiner gave credit to the scientists on the Pelican, but noted that at most they had sampled less than 1 percent of the affected waters. "The Pelican happened to drop some of their sampling devices into a plume and found it, but there have to be plumes elsewhere, and the biological implication are vast."
NOAA officials "haven't picked it up because they haven't looked in the right places," he said. "There have to be dozens of these massive plumes of toxic Deepwater Horizon oil, and they haven't set out to delineate them in any shape or form."
Frank Muller-Karger, an oceanography professor at the University of South Florida who will be testifying before the House Energy Committee on Wednesday, said that testing for oil beneath the surface should be a top priority.
"I think that should be one of our biggest concerns, getting the technology and the research to try to understand how big this amorphous mass of water is, and how it moves," he said.
"It's like an iceberg. Most of it is below the surface. And we just have no instruments below the surface that can help us monitor the size, the concentration and the movement."
Muller-Karger said there are all sorts of implements that researchers should be deploying, including optical sensors and current meters. "I think that now people are really scrambling to get some vessels out there," said Muller-Karger. "I think we're going to need a fleet of research vessels."
In addition to measuring the amount of oil, researchers need to study the effect on fish larvae and bacteria, he said. "Very big fish and very prized fish are moving in to spawn -- it's a critical time of the year," he told HuffPost. "Larvae from the fish may end up eating droplets of oil.
On Tuesday, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla,) released four new videos showing oil billowing out of the Deepwater Horizon blowout site.
Steiner said NOAA is not only failing to fully measure the impact of the spill, but, he said, "if they rationally want to close and open fisheries, then they need to know where this stuff is going."
As it happens, NOAA announced Tuesday that it is doubling its Gulf fishing ban to encompass 19 percent of the federal waters.
But Steiner said it is quite possible, for instance, that some plumes are being carried by a slow deepwater southwest, toward the coast of Texas. More oil than is already visible could be entering the Loop Current, which could carry it past the Florida Keys and up the Atlantic coast.
"And truly, they really need 20 or 30 vessels out there yesterday," Steiner said. "And I think they know that. And so all the spin -- that they have this under control, that there's no oil under the surface to worry about -- they're wrong, and they know it."
The New York Times on Thursday reported that boats under contract to BP have taken some underwater samples, and top ocean scientists are complaining that the government has failed to make public a single test result:
Tensions between the Obama administration and the scientific community over the gulf oil spill are escalating, with prominent oceanographers accusing the government of failing to conduct an adequate scientific analysis of the damage and of allowing BP to obscure the spill's true scope....
The administration acknowledges that its scientific resources are stretched by the disaster, but contends that it is moving to get better information, including a more complete picture of the underwater plumes.
"We're in the early stages of doing that, and we do not have a comprehensive understanding as of yet of where that oil is," Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator, told Congress on Wednesday. "But we are devoting all possible resources to understanding where the oil is and what its impact might be."
And according to the Times, it's not just independent scientists who are pressing for more information -- it's also other branches of the federal government:
Lisa P. Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told Congress on Wednesday that she was pressing for the release of additional test results, including some samples taken by boats under contract to BP.