Fear broadened across Florida on Tuesday as black tar balls and oily residue were reported in several areas in the Keys.
At the same time, scientists confirmed tendrils of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill were caught in the gulf loop current and would reach Florida's Keys as early as this weekend.
The discoveries deepened confusion over a situation that is stoking debate among researchers, politicians and environmentalists. While volunteers are organizing efforts to begin cleanup of a huge oil spill, experts are cautioning against panic.
Several marine experts were wary of linking the spill with tar balls in the Keys.
"I would be very surprised if this was oil from the spill," said Mitch Roffer, president of Roffer's Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service in West Melbourne, which tracks the spill several times a day.
He said if the tar balls are related to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, it would mean the surface oil traveled hundreds of miles south undetected by scientists, satellites and computer models.
Tar balls have been a nuisance on Florida shores forever, said Ted Van Vleet, University of South Florida chemical oceanography professor.
Tar balls can form from larger oil spills. Wind and waves mix a slick, breaking it into smaller patches. The chemical composition changes, but the ball retains some toxic properties, he said.
Tar balls also can form from oil seeping naturally from seabeds. They can be moved around the gulf by tides and currents.
Any of those also could be behind additional reports of tar balls that came in later Tuesday, from Pensacola, Vero Beach and St. Pete Beach.
Samples of those tar balls and the ones that washed ashore in the Keys were sent by the U.S. Coast Guard to a lab in Connecticut. Test results could be ready by today.
The tar balls at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, found by rangers Sunday and reported Monday, are about 3 to 8 inches in diameter. More reports came in at Big Pine Key, Loggerhead Key and Smathers Beach on Tuesday morning.
The Coast Guard said beachgoers should not be alarmed if they see a few tar balls, but asked the public to report any sightings. The clumps are generally easy to avoid and wash off.
Scientists said that when oil from the spill reaches South Florida it is likely to show up in greater abundance.
Katie Sanders can be reached at (727) 893-8804.