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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And here's something else that might haunt us for a while: the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The 4 million barrels of oil that flowed into the sea did not vanish. There's growing evidence that a good portion of it sank to the bottom of the Gulf, where some remains.

Yesterday, NPR science correspondent Richard Harris joined a scientist, and went deep underwater to look firsthand.

RICHARD HARRIS: To get to the sea floor a few miles from the blown-out Macondo Well, we clamber into a titanium-hulled submarine named Alvin, and are gently hoisted off the deck of its mother ship into a surprisingly blue and inviting Gulf of Mexico.

Mike Skuronskee is our pilot.

Unidentified Man: Roger, the checks: Your launch altitude is 880 meters, 8-8-0. You have permission to dive when swimmers are clear.

Mr. MIKE SKURONSKEE (Pilot): Roger. Swimmers clear, Alvin diving.

HARRIS: As we descend, the water turns from bright blue to cobalt, twilight to black. Samantha Joye and I press our faces to our tiny windows, and watch as glowing animal life streams by.

It's very peaceful.

Dr. SAMANTHA JOYE (Marine Sciences, University of Georgia): Yeah. That's why I like diving in the submarine. It's calm and quiet, and then you hit the bottom and you're like, wow.

HARRIS: Joye is from the University of Georgia. And she's trying to see what happened to all the oil that spewed from the BP well. As we reach the bottom, my first impression is, well, it's not here. Everything looks pretty normal.

Dr. JOYE: Tons of fish on the bottom. I don't see any invertebrates in the sediments. But it's hard to say; sometimes, they hide. But there's definitely shrimp and critters crawling around on the sediments.

HARRIS: Some of the clams look happy as - clams. But when the Alvin scrapes the bottom, we discover we're not actually sitting on the usual dark-gray mud that forms the seafloor.

Dr. JOYE: There's oil on the bottom. If you look at the camera, you can see the brown coloration.

HARRIS: We see this brown stuff on coral fans, hit like pine trees along a dusty dirt road. More slimy brown stuff hangs over some of the odd formations of frozen natural gas here, half a mile below the surface. Crabs here normally pick at worms that actually live in this methane ice.

Dr. JOYE: The crabs don't look healthy. See all the dark spots and lesion-looking things? That's not normal.

HARRIS: It's impossible to say from this single dive how much this ecosystem is hurting. After all, many of these animals have evolved to live in or near natural seeps of oil and gas. And clearly, some of the routine commerce of undersea life is still taking place.

Joye and other scientists will keep diving until they can flesh out this story.

But as our questions mount, Alvin's batteries run down. It's time to drop our weights and leave this eerie world behind.

Mr. SKURONSKEE: Reach up here, hold that down and that's it. You're at 872 and all weights away, over.

HARRIS: Twenty-five contemplative minutes later, we are back on the surface.

Richard Harris, NPR News, on the research vessel Atlantis, in the Gulf of Mexico.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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