Gulf Oil Spill's Worst-Hit Victims (Hint: You Can't See Them)

We've all seen the heartbreaking photos of oil-drenched whales, dolphins, seals and other sunlit wildlife affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill, but few of us are privy to a part of the ocean most affected worst: a massive community of living creatures living thousands of feet below the surface, known as the deep scattering layer (DSL).

Mother Jones writer Julia Whitty was tracking the DSL offshore with ecologists from Oregon State University, when the well exploded 4,400 miles away. Shooting thousands of feet below the surface, the oil dispersed through the mesopelagic stratosphere, for which 80% of the DSL dwells. Suddenly, Whitty's original story on technology to explore the DSL would take a turn a drastic turn for the worse.

The DSL is an incredibly diverse body of organisms upon which these whales, dolphins, seals and turtles survive. They thrive in dark ocean layers by day, and float towards the surface by night. Discovered by hydrographers in the 1920's, the DSL accounts for 80% of all the biomass located in the mesopelagic zone, Whitty writes.

Before the spill, Whitty says the DSL's rich biodiversity made it the "last great resource to be exploited." Ironically, BP beat the fisherman to the chase when it set out to drill at "unprecedented depths [without the] extreme safety equipment needed to stave off disaster," Whitty writes.

And then, the cover up:

Unable or unwilling to skim much oil, BP has poured its energies into skimming up all available resources: renting virtually every hotel room on the Louisiana shores, helping to keep the press at bay; buying the silence of scientists with lucrative pay and confidentiality clauses; chartering nearly every boat on the coast and employing virtually every fisherman and captain made jobless by the spill.

BP has also managed to stifle widespread knowledge of a "frightening recipe" of other toxins gushing into the ocean. Along with oil and Corexit is a list of heavy metals from drilling fluid, such as arsenic, lead, mercury, chrome, zinc, and radionuclides.

Never before in human history has the vast food web of the ocean--rooted in the dark, and flowering at the surface--come under so many assaults from below, above, and within the water column: marine warfare masquerading as a cleanup.

"[The DSL is] constantly on the move, not only up and down, but inshore and offshore, back and forth, every day and every night," says Kelly Benoit-Bird, an oceanographer from OSU to Whitty. "This greatly increases the likelihood that any given animal or layers of life will be exposed to the pollutants at some point in the course of their travels. And each of these exposures will cascade up and down through the food web."

Click here to READ Julia Whitty's full cover story at Mother Jones, entitled The BP Cover-Up. Recently re-tasked to the Gulf, you can also follow her on Twitter @juliawhitty.