A 12-man crew was making final preparations Wednesday to take a 100-ton contraption on a journey to an oil leak site in the Gulf ...

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PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Scientists and environmentalists worry that 3,500 miles of Gulf of Mexico coastline, ringed with rich, diverse habitats where many imperiled birds and animals breed and feed, would be at risk if the oil spill reaches them.

“It has the potential of being a disaster ecologically,” said John Bente, the lead biologist for 13 coastal state parks in Florida. “It’s just frightening.”

In his office at St. Andrews Bay State Park in western Florida’s Panhandle on Wednesday, Bente studied a map and wondered if the slick would make its way into a fragile estuary that supports some 3,600 species, from endangered beach mice to redfish.

Fed by creeks and bayous, St. Andrews Bay boasts the lushest sea-grass beds in the Florida Panhandle, and salt marshes, tidal flats and oyster mounds.

Elsewhere, the fear is the same. Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles lay eggs on beaches in Texas and Mexico. Least terns nest on beaches near Biloxi, Miss., and snowy plovers along Panama City Beach. Manatees munch sea grass from Florida Bay to Tampa Bay.

“All of these coastal areas, the salt marshes and the sea-grass beds and the oyster bars, all support what we call foundation species,” said Felicia Coleman, director of Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Lab in Tallahassee, Fla. “It’s the glue that keeps the coastal environment chugging along.”

The open Gulf also teams with life. Five species of rare sea turtles swim its vast waters, which also teem with whales, dolphin, shark and an array of species that wind up on hooks or in nets, from red snapper to bluefin tuna to pink shrimp.

More important, the Gulf is a vital spawning area for those species, along with grouper, lobster, blue crabs and others. They move to the deep Gulf to set their offspring adrift in the swirling currents that help restock coral reefs, bays and marshes from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to the Florida Keys.

Making matters worse for the deep sea is the location of the well, gushing an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil daily. It is near the continental shelf where coral reefs flourish. Coral is a living creature that excretes a hard calcium carbonate exoskeleton, and oil globs can kill it.

“In my mind, (coral reefs) are at least as sensitive to contamination to oil as coastal habitat,” said James Cowan, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University. “They are in deeper water, so they are kind of out of sight, out of mind.”

James Fourqurean, a marine biologist at Florida International University in Miami, views the oil slick like a hurricane with a cone of danger covering the entire Gulf. No one can predict where it will go, and not every place will be hit.

Visible victims have been limited: blackened salt marshes on the Louisiana Delta and two oil-slimed birds. Some three dozen dead turtles also have been found along beaches, but oil wasn’t found in necropsies and federal fisheries managers are looking at whether shrimpers are to blame.

Audubon reported Wednesday that oil had begun hitting Louisiana’s Chandeleur Islands, a breeding spot for sandwich and royal terns and the brown pelican.

“This is another sad milestone in a disaster unfolding in slow motion,” Audubon President Frank Gill said.

Biologists suspect massive but unseen effects. Oil slicks are lethal to drifting eggs and fish larvae, said Tamara Frank, an associate research professor at a Florida Atlantic University branch campus in Fort Pierce, Fla.

Plankton aren’t strong enough to swim away, and if the tiny creatures aren’t poisoned instantly, they’ll suffocate quickly, she said. “Anything that uses gills, like crustaceans and fish, is going to have problems. … They’re really frilly, and the oil is going to clump and stick on them.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.