NEW ORLEANS - The oil spill plaguing the Gulf of Mexico is washing ashore with little pattern, slathering some areas in a tarry mess while leaving others unscathed, and officials confirmed Tuesday that plumes of oil are also lurking in the deep.
Tests have confirmed underwater plumes dozens of miles from the broken wellhead off Louisiana that's been gushing oil since late April, the government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco said in Washington.
A University of South Florida research vessel confirmed oil as far as 3,300 feet (1,000 metres) below the surface 42 miles (68 kilometres) northeast of the site and 142 miles (229 kilometres) southeast, Lubchenco said at a briefing, joined by Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who's monitoring the spill response for the government.
The containment cap on the stricken BP wellhead is helping to limit the leak, collecting more than 620,000 gallons (2.3 million litres) of oil on Monday, Allen said. Authorities had reported that around 460,000 gallons (1.7 million litres) were collected Sunday. It's unclear, though, how much oil is still escaping, and underwater video feeds continue to show a dark geyser.
The amount of oil kept from spilling into the Gulf "has climbed steadily," Allen said Tuesday, a day after BP announced plans to swap out the current cap with a bigger one next month that can capture more oil.
The presence of underwater plumes carries implications for deep-sea life because tiny microbes eat up that and consume oxygen, choking off the supply to other organisms. The impact could cascade up the food chain, cutting off the food supply of larger predators.
Officials noted that initial cleanup could take months and that the spill's effects could linger for years. And as the oil patches dance unpredictably from coastline to coastline, residents who depend on tourism and fishing are wondering how to head off the damage or salvage a season that's nearing its peak.
At the Salty Dog Surf Shop in Panama City Beach, Florida, near the eastern end of the spill area, manager Glen Thaxton hawked T-shirts, flip-flops and sunglasses with usual briskness Monday, even as officials there warned oil could appear on the sand within 72 hours.
"It could come to a screeching halt real quick," Thaxton said. "So we've been calling vendors and telling them don't ship anything else until further notice."
Allen said Tuesday that he will meet with BP to assess how well it is handling claims for relief from people hurt by the spill. The aim is "to see if we need to provide any oversight," he said, noting that "working claims is not something that's part of BP's organizational competence here."
In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour over the weekend angrily blasted news coverage that he said was scaring away tourists at the start of the busy summer season by making it seem as if "the whole coast from Florida to Texas is ankle-deep in oil."
Mississippi, he insisted on "Fox News Sunday," was clean.
The random, scattered nature of the oil was evident this week near the Alabama-Florida state line. On the Alabama side on Monday, oil-laden seaweed littered beaches for miles, and huge orange globs stained the sands.
But at Perdido Key, on the Florida side, the sand was white and virtually crude-free. Members of a five-person crew had to look for small dots of oil to pick up, stooping over every few yards for another piece.
On Tuesday morning, though, the Alabama side looked markedly better, with calmer seas, signs that cleanup crews had visited and sticky clumps of oil no longer clinging to washed-up seaweed.
For some who are planning vacations in the region but live elsewhere, the spill's fickle nature is causing confusion.
Adam Warriner, a customer service agent with California-based CSA Travel protection, said the company is getting a lot of calls from vacationers worried the oil will disrupt their trips — even if they're headed to South Carolina, nowhere near the spill area.
"As of now we haven't included oil into any of our coverage language, and that's not something that I've heard is happening," he said.
That kind of misperception worries residents and officials in areas that aren't being hit hard by the oil — and even those in some that are.
"The daily images of the oil is obviously having an impact," said Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the state closest to the leak and the one where the oil is having its most insidious effects on wildlife. "It's having a heavy, real, very negative impact on our economy."
Some of the most enduring of those images are of pelicans and other wildlife drenched in oil.
As the sun rose Tuesday on Barataria Bay, Louisiana, just west of the mouth of the Mississippi River, marsh islands teemed with oily brown pelicans and crude-stained white ibis. The birds inadvertently used their oiled beaks like paint brushes, dabbing at their wings, as the brown goo bled into their feathers.
Some struggled to fly, fluttered and fell, while others just sat and tried to clean themselves, sqwawking and flapping their wings. Dolphins bobbed in the oily sheen nearby.
President Barack Obama sought to reassure Americans by saying that "we will get through this crisis" but that it would take dedication.
Later Monday, he said he's been talking closely with Gulf Coast fishermen and various experts on BP's catastrophic oil spill and not for lofty academic reasons.
"I talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers — so I know whose ass to kick," the president said in an interview with NBC television.
Kaczor reported from Panama City Beach, Florida. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Eileen Sullivan in Washington; Harry R. Weber in Houston; Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana; Melissa Nelson in Pensacola Beach, Florida; Brendan Farrington in Perdido Key, Florida; Holbrook Mohr in Pass Christian, Mississippi; Cain Burdeau in Barataria Bay, Louisiana; Jay Reeves in Orange Beach, Alabama; and Brian Skoloff in Grand Isle, Louisiana.