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A television reporter stands beside oil booms on the coast near Venice, Louisiana, as oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead continues to spread in the Gulf of Mexico on May 2, 2010.Reuters

The company at the centre of a massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico said Monday it has hired 500 civilian boat owners to help stop the oil's advance to shore.

The news comes as the slick closes in on the vulnerable marshlands of the American south, and after the discovery of 21 sea turtles whose deaths are being investigated.

British Petroleum said Monday it has hired the "vessels of opportunity" across the Gulf coast, where a growing oil slick is threatening Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. U.S. President Barack Obama called it a "massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster."

The hirings, for which BP was offering $1,500 (U.S.) A day, come after a series of safety courses the would-be sailors had to take.

The boats are being split into groups of 25, and their work will include "a variety of clean-up activities, including transporting supplies, performing wildlife rescue, and towing and deploying booms," which are the inflatable barriers laid out in the ocean to stop the oil, BP said Monday.

One hundred of the vessels are in Venice, Louisiana, a community at the mouth of the Mississippi River that has served as a staging ground for response crews. Much of the waters around the fishing town have been closed in the aftermath of the spill, and the chance to work cleanup comes as a relief to many here.

"We'll do it. We got nothing else to do now," Acy Cooper, vice-president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, said in an interview Sunday. "I feel this (100) is a good number to get moving."

On Monday, oil had begun to reach the estuaries of the Mississippi around Venice, which got a visit from Mr. Obama a day earlier. The President vowed to do "whatever it takes, for as long as it takes" to minimize the effects of the spill, but emphasized that "BP will be paying the bill."

Meanwhile, officials are investigating whether the discovery of 21 dead sea turtles on the shores of Mississippi is related to the spill. The turtles will be examined today in an effort to see how they died.

"I have not heard any confirmation on whether they were oil related or not," Meghan Calhoun, a spokeswoman for Louisiana's Audubon Nature Institute, said in an e-mail Monday.

Tom MacKenzie, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said no other animals have been discovered, other than one oily Northern Gannet, a bird recovered Friday and since cleaned by veterenarians in Venice.

"There have been no reports of oil reaching land in any part of this area," Mr. MacKenzie told The Globe in Louisiana Monday.

FWS officials were set to fly over the Breton National Wildlife Refuge to check on the status of hundreds of nesting pelicans there. A strong storm overnight might have sent oil over the inflatable barriers and closer to the refuge, Mr. MacKenzie said.

He said crews are continuing to deploy the barriers where forecasters say the oil may hit. It's that job that the vessels of opportunity hired by BP are largely being used for.

"We're planning for a worst-case situation, because to do anything less would be irresponsible," Mr. MacKenzie said. "We'd rather be in a situation to try and explain why we'd expended such resources, such energy... than have them say we didn't do enough."

Heavy rain and strong winds continued along the Gulf Coast Monday, hampering efforts to contain thel leak but offering hope that the conditions might break up the slicks.

Skimming boats, used to collect oil from the surface of the ocean, can't be deployed in strong winds, as the waves make the skimming ineffective.

"Most, if not all, of the skimmers were called in with the waves being what they were," one Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer Matt Schofield, said Monday.

The foggy conditions and continuing rain - which began Sunday, during which Mr. Obama paid a visit and joked about the "Louisiana drizzle" - have also left crews with a hazy idea of where the oil itself is. Government forecasts, however, showed that oil was starting to reach the vulnerable marshes at the mouth of Venice, Louisiana.

"It's difficult right now to get an official confirmation of where the slick is, where it's going. With the weather what it is, it's hard to get overflights," Petty Officer Schofield said.

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, has four massive skimming devices that can be added on to civilian boats to help with cleanup, but all of them are sitting idle in Venice, LA, as the boats have been delayed by weather, in which the skimming would be ineffective.

"If we get a calmer sea state, the percentage, the oil-to-water ratio, is going to be better than it is now," and they can begin skimming, said Curtis Ainsley, the local team leader of the Coast Guard's National Strike Force.

The affected area continues to grow as the leak, from a sunken British Petroleum well, has not been shut off. It's been driven towards shore by the winds, and typically moves at about 3 per cent of the wind speed.

The size of the slick may be misleading, however, as it is a mix of fresh oil in a slick, tar balls of weathered oil, and sea water, said Dave Wesley of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

Satellite images "give the impression that it's one big massive blob of oil out there, and it's really not that," Mr. Wesley said.

Along the east side of Louisiana and in the shores of Mississippi and Alabama, the oil remains at least 15 kilometres off shore, though that number may be updated today.

In the meantime, the waves aren't all bad - they churn up the oil, breaking apart the slick and making it easier for crews, Mr. Wesley said.

"Definitely, the strong seas we've seen out there are good ... Wave energy and sunlight will break up the oil," he said. "Everyday that it hasn't hit shore is a good day for the people that live and work here."

Three-day forecasts released by NOAA also show the oil is not headed for the Gulf Stream ocean current, which could carry it around Florida and to the east coast.

"It's not going into the Gulf Stream in the next 72 hours," Mr. Wesley said.