The mass of oily globs coursing up the Gulf of Mexico toward the south Texas coastline has been stopped momentarily by Mother Nature.
The fugitive oil, loosed June 3 by a runaway oil well in the Bay of Campeche some 500 miles south of this subtropical resort, had been moved along by strong northerly winds. The spill is the world's largest.
But National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists said here today that those winds have died down, and that the progress of the multiple oil patches has been checked - at least for two or three days, in the view of John Robinson, director of NOAA's hazardous spill response team.
"The currents may resume when the winds pick up in a couple of days. But there's no way to say exactly what the winds will do," Robinson said. So far, say Robinson and other federal officials on hand, the oil spill has done little damage to either the south Texas coastline or wildlife breeding grounds.
"There has only been a very light oiling of the beachers...the environmental impact has been extremely slight," Robinson said at a news conference attended by Coast Guard officers and politicians, including Mississippi Gov. Cliff Finch.
Finch, resplendent in a rust three-piece suit in 95-degree heat, said he had traveled to Texas to learn what he could do to protect the Mississippi Gulf coastline should the spill eventually threaten it.
Other officials at the news conference were confident that they would be able to hold off the oil should a change in weather aid its advance.
Coast Guard Capt. Robert Madson, on-scene coordinator of the spill response effort, said the federal government has so far spent $800,000 in a shoring-up of defenses that include the deployment of thousands of feet of oil-slick booms at inlet openings to environmentally sensitive areas.
Of particular concern is the Laguna Madre, an island waterway separated from the Gulf by South and North Padre. The waterway, rich with marshes and tidal flats, is an important bird and marine life breeding habitat.
Madson said no oil has been found in Laguna Madre.
The Coast Guard captain said "the only bad news" is that divers operating off an environmental research vessel off Port Mansfield, about 30 miles north of here, have found floating oil emulsions an estimated 40 feet below the Gulf water surface.
"The particles are roughly the size of your fingernails," Madson said of the emulsions. Robinson noted that there is a danger the submerged emulsions will take up other non-petroleum debris and sink to the floor of the original crude spewed by the blowout of the Ixtoc I well in the Bay of the Gulf floor would affect marine life.
"All I can say is that the particles that do sink would be less toxic" than the original crude spewed by the blowout of the Ixtoc I well in the Bay of Campeche, Robinson said.
Meanwhile, life at this resort continued as usual. As one reporter put it in a dispatch: "Swimmers swam, surfers surfed, and tourists toured...." CAPTION: Picture, Robert Kaufman examines pea-size tar balls on South Padre Island, Tex. UPI