It's never been tried before, but crews hope to lower a 100-tonne concrete-and-steel box a mile under the Gulf of Mexico today to cut off most of the hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil spewing from a blown-out well.
If it works, the system could collect as much as 85 per cent of the oil that's been leaking from the ocean floor after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.
"We're even more anxious," the Joe Griffin's first mate, Douglas Peake, told The Associated Press aboard the boat. The AP is the only news organization with access to the containment effort. "Hopefully, it will work better than they expect."
It won't solve the problem altogether. Crews are drilling a relief well to take the pressure off the blown-out well at the site, and that could take up to three months. Other possible solutions are also in the works.
While people anxiously wait for the mess to wash up along the coast, globules of oil are already falling to the bottom of the sea, where they threaten virtually every link in the ocean food chain, from plankton to fish that are on dinner tables everywhere.
More than 200,000 gallons of oil a day is pouring from the well, creating a massive sheen that's been floating on the Gulf for more than two weeks. As it moved closer to land, crews were frantically laying boom and taking other steps to prevent it from oozing into delicate coastal wetlands.
At sea, some boats were using skimmers to suck up oil while others were corralling and setting fire to it to burn it off the surface.
The Joe Griffin, the ship carrying the containment box that will be lowered to the seafloor, arrived this morning at the leak site about 50 miles offshore.
Workers hope to have the device down at the seabed by this evening, but it will likely be Sunday or Monday before it's fully operational and they know if it's working.
The crew won't have to worry about dealing with the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon, which sank two days after the explosion. It's not anywhere near where they're working.
The waters were calm today with some clouds in the sky, though visibility was good. Roughly a dozen other ships either surrounded the site or could be seen in the distance. Thick, tar-like oil with a pungent scent surrounded the boat as far as the eye could see.
Another BP-chartered boat will use a crane to lower the box — something that has never been tried before at such depths. BP spokesman Bill Salvin said the drop is expected at about 1pm today.
The Coast Guard was keeping boats not involved in the effort out of a 500-metre zone around the site.
A six-metre pleasure boat that invaded the perimeter today and pulled up right in the middle of the oil spill near the boat drilling the relief well was told to leave by a Coast Guard boat. It quickly turned around and left. Boats were also being kept out of a wider area that included the rig drilling the relief well.
Oil has been leaking in three places since the explosion. One small leak was capped yesterday. The containment box will be lowered over a much bigger leak in a pipe that's responsible for about 85 per cent of the oil that's coming out.
The rest of the oil is coming from the blowout preventer at the well, a heavy piece of machinery designed to prevent blowouts that failed in the April 20 explosion. Crews have been trying to shut it off using robotic devices, but that hasn't worked.
If the box being lowered today is successful in containing the bigger leak, a second box being built may be used to stop the smaller leak at the blowout preventer.
The containment box has a dome-like structure at the top that's designed to act like a funnel and siphon the oil up through 1,500 metres of pipe and onto a tanker at the surface.
First, crews need to properly position the four-story structure with the help of a remote-controlled robotic submarine. A steel pipe will then be attached to a tanker at the surface and connected to the top of the dome to move the oil.
That process presents several challenges because of the frigid water temperature and the volatile cocktail of oil, gas and water, though engineers think they have devised methods to deal with both issues safely.
Asked to handicap the odds of success, Bob Fryar, a senior executive vice president for BP's Deep Water Angola, offered up this assessment: "This has never been done before. Typically you would put odds on something that has been done before."
Fryar also said BP is exploring a technique in which crews would reconfigure the well that would allow them to plug the leak, but that effort is a couple weeks off.
The cause of the rig explosion is still not known, but investigators from multiple federal agencies are looking into the matter. The rig owner, Transocean Ltd., said in a filing with regulators Wednesday that it has received a request from the Justice Department to preserve information about the blast.
Meanwhile, hail-size gobs of oil with the consistency of tar or asphalt were expected to roll around the bottom of the Gulf, while other bits will get trapped hundreds of metres below the surface and move with the current, said Robert Carney, a Louisiana State University oceanographer.
"The threat to the deep-sea habitat is already a done deal — it is happening now," said Paul Montagna, a marine scientist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
There are concerns that slick could hitch a ride to the East Coast by way of a powerful eddy known as the "loop current," which could send the spill around Florida and into the Atlantic Ocean. If that happens, the oil could foul beaches and kill marine life on the East Coast.