Nightly News   |  July 22, 2010

In deep in the Gulf

NBC's Kerry Sanders gets an extraordinary view of research on the BP oil spill from a submarine 88 miles west of St. Petersburg, Florida.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: You are about to look at the waters of the gulf. We're back with a truly extraordinary look at the BP oil spill in a way we have never seen it quite before, from a submarine, 88 miles west of St. Petersburg , Florida . That's where we find NBC 's Kerry Sanders tonight, right inside the nosecone there. Kerry , good evening.

KERRY SANDERS reporting: Well, Brian , we're in the sub that we traveled in today. We've come back to the surface here to communicate. There's a scheduled third dive. About two to 300 feet below me is an area that they call the twilight zone because sunlight barely penetrates down to the corals there, and photosynthesis is so delicate. Add in the possibility of oil, and it can be a disaster. Fortunately, the scientists say, they have found no oil, but there's no cause for celebration. I squeezed into the four-man submersible, joining scientists on what is now an urgent exploration of the gulf. Here, 88 miles west from St. Petersburg , Florida , and more than 230 miles from Deepwater Horizon , the source of BP 's now capped oil gusher , we dipped into the gulf waters. And immediately... Oh my God, we got a dolphin right there. Look at that. Mr. DON LIBERATORE ; Oh, yeah. Oh, we got a bunch of dolphins right out in front of us.

SANDERS: We're welcomed by evidence, at least near the surface, say marine biologists , that the ecosystem here is healthy.

Mr. LIBERATORE: I've got you the same, Jim , and my main ballast tank vents are shut.

SANDERS: On board the Harbor Branch four-man submersible, in a separate rear chamber, marine biologist Dr. Shirley Pomponi and a safety technician. Ms. SHIRLEY POMPONI ( Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution Marine Biologist ): That's beautiful. That's beautiful.

SANDERS: While up front I joined pilot Don Liberatore . He's spent 34 years navigating the unknown. Is there an agenda here? Are you looking to find oil, or are you looking to see oil exists?

Mr. LIBERATORE: Well, you know, of course everybody is looking to see where the oil is, or isn't. And in this case, we're finding -- visually, anyway, as everybody's been saying -- we have -- we have seen no visual signs of the oil.

SANDERS: This is day 13 of their monthlong mission. We're on the edge of the so-called loop current , an undersea highway that may carry the oil and dispersants far from the source.

Mr. LIBERATORE: Two-hundred-and-nineteen feet. We're collecting a sample.

SANDERS: Our morning dive, number 3791, in an area known as "the ledges." The

goal: to gather baseline data, like scoops of sediment, corals and sponges. All samples that build snapshots of the before in case later oil shows up. And if there is oil here now, they know they're collecting evidence for the federal government that later may be challenged in court by BP .

Ms. POMPONI: I think the pressure that I feel right now is to make sure we're collecting samples in a way that, if we have to legally defend what we've done in the future, we will be able to do that.

SANDERS: After today's mission, they're going to bring the sub out and they're going to start moving north. And the idea is to go up the panhandle of Florida , Brian , where it's likely, when they go in, they will find oil because so much of that oil and tar balls has washed ashore on the beaches there.

WILLIAMS: But for now, so good to see it's not yet at least in that loop current . Kerry Sanders in the waters of the gulf tonight. Kerry , thanks for being with us. Thanks for your reporting from there all day. We'll