The aim of this work was to determine the effect of light crude oil on bacterial communities during an experimental oil spill in the North Sea and in mesocosms (simulating a heavy, enclosed oil spill), and to isolate and characterize hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria from the water column. No oil-induced changes in bacterial community (3 m below the sea surface) were observed 32 h after the experimental spill at sea. In contrast, there was a decrease in the dominant SAR11 phylotype and an increase in Pseudoalteromonas spp. in the oiled mesocosms (investigated by 16S rRNA gene analysis using denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis), as a consequence of the longer incubation, closer proximity of the samples to oil, and the lack of replenishment with seawater. A total of 216 strains were isolated from hydrocarbon enrichment cultures, predominantly belonging to the genus Pseudoaltero monas; most strains grew on PAHs, branched and straight-chain alkanes, as well as many other carbon sources. No obligate hydrocarbonoclastic bacteria were isolated or detected, highlighting the potential importance of cosmopolitan marine generalists like Pseudoalteromonas spp. in degrading hydrocarbons in the water column beneath an oil slick, and revealing the susceptibility to oil pollution of SAR11, the most abundant bacterial clade in the surface ocean.