Residents of the Florida Keys should brace themselves: The tar balls are coming.
Oil has officially been spotted in the Gulf of Mexico's loop current, which means tar balls are likely to wash ashore somewhere in the Keys — or several somewheres — in eight to 10 days.
A Coast Guard admiral told members of Florida's congressional delegation Wednesday that the presence of oil in the loop current will make the Deepwater Horizon spill a bigger disaster than it has been so far.
"What has been a relatively confined expansive slick will now grow exponentially," said Rear Adm. Paul F. Zukunft. The only thing that could keep it away from Florida now, he said, would be "an act of God."
Some tar balls have already washed ashore in the Keys, but test results released Wednesday show those are not connected to the Deepwater Horizon, Coast Guard Capt. Tim Close told state wildlife commissioners, who were meeting in an emergency session in St. Pete Beach to discuss the oil spill.
Florida wildlife officials are so concerned about oil getting into the loop current that they joined forces with the University of South Florida to dispatch a research vessel, the Bellows, on a four-day voyage into the gulf.
Its mission: to "park in the loop current" and take samples to allow better monitoring of what's going to happen, said Gil McRae, head of the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
"That's the bottom line," said Bill Hogarth, dean of USF's College of Marine Science. "Where is it going, and what's in it?"
The Weatherbird, another USF research vessel, will likely meet the researchers at sea Friday or Saturday with additional technology, college officials said.
McRae compared the interaction of the loop current with the oil slick to an elaborate dance that no one completely understands. Just because oil has gotten caught up in the loop now is no guarantee that more of the slick will wind up being sucked into it, he said.
Right now predictions about the loop current's behavior — including whether eddies can break off from the main current and carry oil elsewhere — are based on satellite imagery and other two-dimensional sources, he said. Testing by the Bellows should help add a third dimension to those predictions, he said.
"There's a lot of data gaps in the eastern gulf," he said.
Meanwhile Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota has deployed robot submersibles, called gliders, to check for oil near the Keys. They will also be looking for signs of the more than 600,000 gallons of chemical dispersants BP has sprayed on the oil so far, said Mote senior scientist Jim Culter.
State wildlife officials are also concerned about the possible toxic effects of those chemical dispersants, McRae said.
"If we had a 500,000 gallon spill of anything in the gulf, we'd be concerned," McRae said.
When tar balls do wash ashore in the state, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission executive director Nick Wiley, traditional methods of soaking up an oil spill won't work on them. The tar balls are too thick and weathered, and look more like a ball of asphalt than a liquid pollutant.
Close suggested that booms deployed to block the slick from coming ashore may not work on tar balls. But by the time any tar balls reach Florida, he said, the Coast Guard should have figured that out based on what's going on in the other states hurt by the oil spill.
Efforts to contain the spill continued Wednesday, with BP officials saying the company was siphoning 3,000 barrels a day with a flexible tube inserted into the leak. A procedure aimed at closing the well off completely will not be ready until next week, officials said. The procedure, called a top-kill, in which heavy fluid would be pumped into the well, could be conducted on Sunday at the earliest, said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP.
In a meeting with the Miami Herald editorial board Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Crist said he has ruled out a special legislative session next week to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot banning oil drilling 10 miles off Florida's coast but is still hoping to call one.
"The Senate is more amenable than the House, although I'm trying with the House,'' he said, noting that he has exchanged calls with Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, the incoming House speaker.
"The holdup in the House is that I think they pushed very hard previously to get drilling in the gulf,'' he said, "and maybe time will help bring them around to the view that isn't such a wonderful idea given what has happened.''
Fish and Wildlife Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said the disaster shows that oil industry claims that offshore drilling is safe were "hogwash." He said this should end discussion of drilling for oil in state waters, and he encouraged "my friends in both parties" to vote for a constitutional ban on drilling off Florida.
"Oil drilling off Florida has no business being here," said Barreto, a Miami developer, GOP fundraiser and avid fisherman who has a home in the Keys. Right now, he said, "the only thing we've got to be thankful for is that this didn't happen 3 miles off Florida's coast."
Barreto took pains to tell reporters over and over that so far no oil has reached Florida and that the beaches and hotels are all open. But fishing guides said they are already getting calls canceling trips because their customers are fearful of the spreading oil contamination.
"It seems like somebody cried wolf around here and the wolf hasn't showed up yet," said Capt. Pat Kelly of Everglades City, who traveled to speak at the St. Pete Beach meeting. But he conceded that "there's a monster wolf sitting out there in the gulf, and we're all scared to death of it."
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.