Published: Aug 12, 2010 4:40 PM EDT
Updated: Aug 12, 2010 1:00 AM EDT

SARASOTA, Fla. - Scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota have been studying the aftermath of the oil spill ever since the Deepwater Horizon rig blast.

Wednesday night, several of those scientists talked about what they've learned so far, and how it could help answer the many questions that lie ahead.

Its been a massive undertaking for Mote Marine, monitoring the flow of oil in the water and on the shore.

"Its very weather-driven, very tide-driven," said Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, who studies beach conditions.  She notes Southwest Florida beaches are clean, but areas of the panhandle have been different.  "They get more impacts at high tide than low tide."

Research originally designed to study things like red tide now look for the impact of oil.  An underwater robot has regularly scanned the Gulf waters off Southwest Florida.

"The major thing we found is we don't have any oil," said Dr. Gary Kirkpatrick.

Its been good news so far for Southwest Florida, but its also relatively early in the gulf's recovery...

"The surface is being cleaned up and looking a lot better, but we know there is a lot more oil below the surface out in the Gulf," said Dr. Gary Kirkpatrick.

While scientists can look at past spills for guidance-- like the Exxon Valdez in Alaska-- the Gulf of Mexico is a very different ecosystem, where only time will tell.

"Although the lessons from the Exxon Valdez help in how we address some of these things, the knowledge of the Gulf of Mexico scientists have from what the Gulf was before is going to be important," said Mote Marine president Dr. Kumar Mahadevan.

Scientists at a panel discussion Wednesday say that long-term impact may be subtle, but could be significant, not only for wildlife, but for the economy, environmental and health of the Gulf Coast.

"What impact does it have on our natural resources, our fisheries, all the things we depend on," Dr. Mahadevan said.

Mote marine has been doing all of this research largely off donations. They hope to get additional funding from BP and the government as their research goes forward.

Mote Marine has also been monitoring beach conditions along the Gulf Coast, including Southwest Florida.

For updates and photos of the latest beach conditions, visit their website at www.mote.org/beaches.