A close up of one of the impacted corals. A small amount of apparently living tissue on the tips of some branches is orange. Most of the skeleton is bare or covered by brown flocculent material. Lophelia II 2010, NOAA OER and BOEMRE

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/5/2010 5:07:41 PM ET

Scientists returning from an expedition off the Gulf Coast said Friday they found dead and dying deepwater coral near the BP oil spill site that was covered in a brown substance.

"The compelling evidence that we collected constitutes a smoking gun" that the substance is tied to the BP spill, the chief researcher on the cruise, Penn State biologist Charles Fisher, said in a statement Friday.

"We have never seen anything like this," he added. "The visual data for recent and ongoing death are crystal clear and consistent over at least 30 colonies; the site is close to the Deepwater Horizon; the research site is at the right depth and direction to have been impacted by a deep-water plume, based on NOAA models and empirical data; and the impact was detected only a few months after the spill was contained."

One of the impacted corals with attached brittle starfish. Although the orange tips on some branches of the coral is the color of living tissue, it is unlikely that any living tissue remains on this animal. Lophelia II 2010, NOAA OER and BOEMRE

"These kinds of coral are normally beautiful, brightly colored," Fisher said. "What you saw was a field of brown corals with exposed skeleton — white, brittle stars tightly wound around the skeleton, not waving their arms like they usually do."

Fisher described the soft and hard coral they found seven miles southwest of the well as an underwater graveyard. He said oil probably passed over the coral and killed it.

The coral has "been dying for months," he said. "What we are looking at is a combination of dead gooey tissues and sediment. Gunk is a good word for what it is." …

Dead, dying coral found near BP spill called 'smoking gun'

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