It’s taken almost six weeks since the Deepwater Horizon blew up, killing 11 workers and ever since spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico, but National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now has a couple of its best research ships on station.

Few Americans would probably guess that the federal Department of Commerce has its own Navy of 19 ships, mostly hand-me-downs from the U.S. Navy that make up a fleet larger than those of all but a handful of countries.

gordon-gunter-featured.jpgStill, only now have NOAA’s Thomas Jefferson and Gordon Gunter finally turned their considerable technology on what might be going on beneath the surface of the Gulf.

Before NOAA has been able to weigh in, a debate has broken out between university researchers who say there are a couple of large underwater plumes of dispersed oil moving under the surface, and BP, which says those plumes simply do not exist.

Whether or not the plumes exist is a critical question for the future availability and safety of Gulf seafood.  Shrimp and fish cannot be brought up through oil-polluted waters.  Fear about underwater plumes extends to their creating “dead zones” in large areas of the Gulf.

NOAA, which is also responsible for mapping the trajectories for the near shore and offshore oil, also continues to expand the area of the Gulf that is closed to fishing. As of 5 p.m. local time yesterday (June 2) the closure area measures 88,522 square miles, which is about 37 percent of our exclusive economic zone in the Gulf.

The Jefferson and the Gunter went looking for submerged oil as the spill made its first landfall in both Mississippi and Alabama after soiling 127 miles of Louisiana coastline.   Oil is also getting closer to Florida beaches in the Pensacola area.

If plumes are being held below the surface, experts say it may be because of the dispersants BP is using to break up the oil on the surface.

NOAA also is keeping track of sea turtle and dolphin deaths.  Through May 30, it counted 228 sea turtles and 29 dolphins among the dead.  Most of the deaths have not involved obvious signs of oil.  Some surviving animals are being held in rehabilitation.

Pictured:  NOAA ship Gordon Gunter in the Gulf of Mexico, courtesy NOAA.