Published: Jun 04, 2010 3:38 PM EDT
Updated: Jun 04, 2010 1:05 PM EDT

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - The marine scientists occupying a World War II-era Army barracks near downtown St. Petersburg usually go about their research quietly. Certainly, they aren't used to fighting an oil giant in the international press. That is, until an oil rig leased by BP PLC exploded and sent an unchecked flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana. Since then, researchers at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science have assumed an increasingly high-profile role in tracking the spill, with media all over the world calling daily to tap their expertise.

The school's scientists made international headlines last week when they reported the discovery of a huge underwater plume of dissolved oil closer to the mainland, only to have the claim disputed by BP CEO Tony Hayward. He said testing by the company showed no evidence that oil was being suspended in large masses underwater, though BP has not said how those tests were done.

The dean of USF's marine science college, William T. Hogarth, acknowledged this week that more chemical analysis is needed to confirm the findings, initially detected by sonar and other technology aboard the USF research vessel Weatherbird II. Those results are expected as early as Friday.

"I know what we have and what we saw with our instruments onboard," said Hogarth, noting that researchers from other universities found an underwater plume in a different location. "We stand behind what we saw." USF researchers were ideally situated to quickly respond after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.

They had studied the flow of Gulf currents for decades and researched how manmade problems play on delicate undersea ecosystems. They had the only heavy research vessel docked on Florida's west coast. And early on, the U.S. Coast Guard set up its regional command center for Florida in a state building next door.

The spill has brought unprecedented attention to the marine science college, which is tucked into a bayfront peninsula near quiet downtown St. Petersburg, more than 30 miles from USF's main Tampa campus. "It's been unbelievable to me, honestly," said Hogarth, a former assistant director of the National Marine Fisheries Service and former chairman of the International Whaling Commission. "One day I was getting calls a lot quicker than I could handle them. I know I talked to Canada, Japan, Scotland, all over."

USF vessels have embarked on three spill-related research missions, and another is in the works.

Between 21 million and 45 million gallons of oil have been spilled into the Gulf, blackening parts of the Louisiana coast, bringing oil to Mississippi and Alabama beaches, and threatening the Florida Panhandle.

U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Sean Reilly said USF is a key player in the unified command center established in St. Petersburg shortly after the spill. Various state and federal agencies and BP also are represented at the center. About a dozen faculty members and 18 graduate students from the marine science college, plus the crews of the research vessels, have had a hand so far in oil spill research, USF spokeswoman Vickie Chachere said.

The work has cost about $230,000, paid for with state and federal money. One of USF's principal spill researchers, Robert H. Weisberg, has been to Washington once to brief lawmakers and will go back in a couple of weeks to testify before a congressional subcommittee.

Weisberg, a professor of physical oceanography, has been studying Gulf currents for at least a dozen years and had already developed models on the characteristics of the loop current, a ribbon of warm water that some fear could eventually carry oil to the sensitive coral reefs of the Florida Keys.

Weisberg shrugs off the suggestion that the oil spill provided him a chance to apply his science to an event that has captured the world's attention. "I don't view it as an opportunity," he said. "I view it as a professional responsibility. It's not an opportunity you want to have."

Ernst Peebles, an associate professor of biological oceanography, was chief scientist aboard the Weatherbird II on last week's voyage.

"When this popped up completely unexpectedly, we were all doing our own things and we all had our own career paths and scientific interests," he said. "Yet you can't ignore something like this, especially when you know you have the resources to deal with it. Everybody is enthusiastic about engaging this problem."

Peebles noted that USF was among the first to research the origin of tar balls 40 years ago. Most people assumed the oil industry was responsible, but USF showed they came primarily from ships illegally discharging crankcase oil. That led to stricter regulations in the shipping industry. The USF researchers continue to watch like everyone else, not knowing exactly where the spill is going to go or exactly what kind of effect it's going to have on marine life.

The start of the six-month hurricane season on Tuesday added worry: that a hurricane might turn the millions of gallons of floating crude into a crashing black surf. But whatever happens, Weisberg said he and his colleagues are in the right place at the right time.

"When it comes to your own backyard," he said, "it's essential that there is a presence by the people who live there."