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Scientists have found huge underwater plumes of what they think is oil in the Gulf of Mexico, which may be evidence far more oil is leaking from BP's broken well than current estimates suggest.

The discovery may also explain why so little has come ashore, even though the thin surface slick is over 100 miles long and 40 miles wide.

The researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi on board the RV Pelican abandoned their original mission, which was to map methane hydrates in the seabed, to sample the ocean at various depths.

"There is a shocking amount of oil in the deep water", one of the scientists, Samantha Joye, told the New York Times.

The team found evidence for oil in three or four deep layers, including one 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in places. They found them in the deeper water - the shallowest at around 2,300 feet, the deepest, near the sea floor at about 4,200 feet.

They also found the underwater oil plumes depleted the oxygen in the water, which they fear may endanger marine life.

But the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says it is too soon to say they definitely found oil.

Jane Lubchenco said "no definite conclusions have been reached by this research team about the composition of the undersea layers they discovered. The hypothesis that the layers consist of oil remains to be verified."

If it is oil, it may mean far more oil is gushing from the well than the 5,000 barrels a day currently taken as the best estimate, made from analysing satellite images of the surface slick.

Some scientists who have examined the short video, released by BP, of oil leaking from the broken pipe have estimated it might be between 25,000 to 80,000 barrels a day.

BP has refused requests to release any more video, making it difficult for the scientists to confirm their calculations.

And scientists have asked BP if they can send Remote Operated Vehicles to the site of the leak to measure the flow, but BP has refused, saying they would get in the way and might jeopardise the efforts to stem the flow.