The bacterioneuston is defined as the community of bacteria present within the neuston or sea surface microlayer. Bacteria within this layer were sampled using a membrane filter technique and bacterial diversity was compared with that in the underlying pelagic coastal seawater using molecular ecological techniques. 16S rRNA gene libraries of ≈ 500 clones were constructed from both bacterioneuston and the pelagic water samples and representative clones from each library were sequenced for comparison of bacterial diversity. The bacterioneuston was found to have a significantly lower bacterial diversity than the pelagic seawater, with only nine clone types (ecotaxa) as opposed to 46 ecotaxa in the pelagic seawater library. Surprisingly, the bacterioneuston clone library was dominated by 16S rRNA gene sequences affiliated to two groups of organisms, Vibrio spp. which accounted for over 68% of clones and Pseudoalteromonas spp. accounting for 21% of the library. The dominance of these two 16S rRNA gene sequence types within the bacterioneuston clone library was confirmed in a subsequent gene probing experiment. 16S rRNA gene probes specific for these groups of bacteria were designed and used to probe new libraries of 1000 clones from both the bacterioneuston and pelagic seawater DNA samples. This revealed that 57% of clones from the bacterioneuston library hybridized to a Vibrio sp.-specific 16S rRNA gene probe and 32% hybridized to a Pseudoalteromonas sp.-specific 16S rRNA gene probe. In contrast, the pelagic seawater library resulted in only 13% and 8% of 16S rRNA gene clones hybridizing to the Vibrio sp. and Pseudoalteromonas sp. probes respectively. Results from this study suggest that the bacterioneuston contains a distinct population of bacteria and warrants further detailed study at the molecular level.