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A skimmer is a device for recovering spilled oil from the water's surface. Skimmers may be self-propelled, used from shore, or operated from vessels. The efficiency of skimmers is highly dependent upon conditions at sea. In moderately rough or choppy water, skimmers tend to recover more water than oil. Different types of skimmers offer advantages and drawbacks depending on the type of oil being recovered, the sea conditions during cleanup efforts, and the presence of ice or debris in the water.

There are three types of skimmers:

Weir skimmers use a dam or enclosure positioned at the oil/water interface. Oil floating on top of the water will spill over the dam and be trapped in a well inside, bringing with it as little water as possible. The trapped oil and water mixture can then be pumped out through a pipe or hose to a storage tank for recycling or disposal. These skimmers are prone to becoming jammed and clogged by floating debris.

Oleophilic ("oil-attracting") skimmers use belts, disks, or continuous mop chains of oleophilic materials to blot the oil from the water surface. The oil is then squeezed out or scraped off into a recovery tank. Oleophilic skimmers have the advantage of flexibility, allowing them to be used effectively on spills of any thickness. Some types, such as the chain or "rope-mop" skimmer, work well on water that is clogged with debris or rough ice.

Suction skimmers operate similarly to a household vacuum cleaner. Oil is sucked up through wide floating heads and pumped into storage tanks. Although suction skimmers are generally very efficient, they are vulnerable to becoming clogged by debris and require constant skilled observation. Suction skimmers operate best on smooth water, where oil has collected against a boom or barrier.