In November 2002, the oil tanker Prestige sank off the Spanish coast after releasing approximately 17 000 tones of heavy fuel, coating several hundred kilometres of coastline in oil sludge. In December 2002 and February 2003, samples were collected from the shore of the Galician coast to analyse the indigenous population ability to carry out crude oil degradation in situ. Carbon isotopic ratio of the dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) in seawater samples was used as a rapid method to directly assess activity of microbes on the oil components. 12CO2/13CO2 ratio in samples from certain locations along the coast revealed degradation of a very δ13C-negative source such as the Prestige crude oil (−30.6‰). Putative biodegradation processes taking place at areas with high income of fresh seawater could not be detected with this technique. Laboratory-scale biostimulation processes carried out in samples with the highest oil biodegradation activity showed that N/P deficiency in seawater is a limiting factor for crude oil degradation. The most probable number (MPN) of crude oil component degraders was estimated for several aromatic compounds (naphthalene, anthracene, phenanthrene, pyrene) and for undecane. Our results clearly show that bacteria present in the contaminated water are readily able to transform components of the crude oil into inorganic carbon.