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In the present study the velocity profiles and the instability at the interface of a two phase water-oil fluid were investigated. The main aim of the research project was to investigate the instability mechanisms that can cause the failure of an oil spill barrier. Such mechanisms have been studied before for a vast variety of conditions. Although the velocity field in the region behind the barrier can influence the failure significantly, it had not been measured and analyzed precisely. In the present study the velocity profiles in the vicinity of different barriers were studied. To undertake the experiments, an oil layer was contained over the surface of flowing water by means of a barrier in a laboratory flume. The ultrasonic velocity profiler method was used to measure velocity profiles in each phase and to detect the oil–water interface. The effect of the barrier geometry on velocity profiles was studied. It was determined that the contained oil slick, although similar to a gravity current, can not be considered as a gravity current. The oil–water interface, derived from ultrasonic echo, was used to find the velocity profile in each fluid. Finally it was shown that the fluctuations at the rearward side of the oil slick head are due to Kelvin–Helmholtz instabilities.