Utah biologist lends expertise to Gulf spill response
Catastrophe » Study of the spill reveals 'blobs of sticky, jelly-like oil,' in the Mississippi River delta.
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Utah biologist Chris Cline is a foot soldier in the growing fight against the toxic threat that's drifting inland from the Gulf of Mexico's Deep Horizon oil spill.

For nearly two of the three weeks since the deep-sea oil rig exploded and began pumping tons of natural gas and petroleum into the gulf, Cline has been scanning the bayous for signs of the spill. She's also helping develop a system for gathering data that fellow biologists can use to study for months, or even years, how the oil is affecting local wildlife and habitat.

"There's lots of reports of oil in a lot of areas that we are checking out," said Cline, a contaminants and restoration expert for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's office in West Valley City.

Cline settled in to work Friday in the lacy maze of wetlands near the mouth of the Mississippi, about 20 miles downstream of Venice, La., a small town that was nearly obliterated by hurricane Katrina.

The place, she noted in a Tribune interview by phone Friday, is so vast, it is "Alaska-like. It's hard to compare to anything in Utah."

And, though they are not seeing a massive oil slick moving in from the horizon, her small team of biologists is spotting tarballs -- blobs of sticky, jelly-like oil, sometimes drifting under the water's surface, sometimes draped on the shore.

"If the stuff gets in here," said Cline, "it's going to be tough to clean up."

Even the air sometimes smells faintly of petroleum, though the odor was stronger during a flyover of the well site.

Her crew cruises the bayou in boats captained by young fishermen, who steer them through the shallow channels in search of oil and wildlife, particularly birds, turtles and dolphins. Dead bodies are simply collected and logged.

One time they came across a porpoise.

"We found -- we smelled -- a dead one, and we pulled it on to the beach," she said.

Another time, they captured a brown pelican that was not oiled but dazed enough to let itself be captured. They sent it to one of the four wildlife rehabilitation centers in the cleanup area.

"Our job is not to judge," she said. "It's just to record and move on."

Cline is one of nearly 200 Fish and Wildlife Service personnel lending expertise to the spill response. Fellow Utah biologist, Nathan Darnall, also is planning to volunteer. And Cline might find herself returning, too.

"The science on this," she said, "is going to be going on for years."

fahys@sltrib.com