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Gulf of Mexico Overflight 2011 March 18 Friday

On Wings Of Care has returned to the Gulf by air!  Today we flew the barrier islands south of Mississippi (Cat, Ship, Horn, Petit Bois), the Chandeleurs, and then covered the coasts of Louisiana from South Pass to southern Barataria Bay, Grand Isle and westward to the western end of the Isles Dernieres (Caillou Bay).   This weekend we'll examine Barataria Bay and southward more carefully, and next week we'll cover the waters east of the Mississippi.  People are still awed by how much information we can gather in a short time from the air -- thanks to flying low and slow with windows wide open, combined expertise from pilot and photographer, and our plane's ability to switch into fast mode when needed to get to the next significant areas.

Lots of wildlife to report.  But we saw something very disturbing south of Grand Isle and Grand Terre Island.  We couldn't believe what we were seeing -- it looked like a scene from last June or July!  Something is still very wrong here.  But let's tell you about what was good first.

NOTE:  Unless noted, no photos or video provided by On Wings Of Care are "photoshopped" or otherwise altered in any way that could degrade accurate interpretation of what we observed.

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We saw dolphins aplenty in the shallow waters south of all of the islands and coast lines, over 300 bottlenose in under 5 hours of flying yesterday. But almost all were adults, the lack of juveniles was quite puzzling.  Numerous sharks and cobia and cownose rays, and several large balls of fish (pogey?).  Saw just one leatherback turtle in these shallow waters.  Thanks to our Gulf friend and photographer extraordinaire Jerry Moran (www.nativeorleanian.com), we were able to see these lovely animals as if we were flying even closer than we were.

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There was a marked decline in vegetation on the Chandeleur Islands, the islands south of Barataria, and the Isles Dernieres, compared to what we saw last year between May and September.  Some of the islands appeared barren.  The dredging work on the Chandeleurs is no longer limited to the north island but extends southward along most of the chain. Plenty of cormerants and pelicans on the southern Chandeleurs, and this is also where we saw the only juvenile bottlenose dolphin of the day -- frolicking with one adult, away from a nearby pod of about 10 dolphins.
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The rookeries of southern Barataria Bay -- Mangrove and Queen Bess islands -- are filled with pelicans, egrets, and roseate spoonbills.  But the beaches from Grand Isle to the Isles Dernieres are almost devoid of birds and are filled instead with cleanup workers and equipment and fences; and the vegetation looks dark brown, not green as it did last spring.  It wasn't until we reached Raccoon Point -- the westernmost of the Isles Dernieres -- that we saw a significant dense population of birds.  There, every possible shrub seemed to be occupied by pelicans or egrets.   Workers and evidence of work done abounds on the island just east of this lsat one -- much sand on the north shore and a new breakwater, neither of which was there a year ago.  Wherever workers and equipment and evidence of work appeared, we found few birds and fewer nests.  All of these areas labeled "wildlife refuges" on charts, appear to be refuges no longer.
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It was troubling to see the birds so cramped into just a few nesting islands now, compared to all of the habitat they used to have here.  But far more troubling was what we saw looming just off shore of Grand Terre Island, at the south end of Barataria Bay.  We saw deep red sub-surface plumes and streamers -- exactly what we had been seeing here and elsewhere in the Gulf last summer!  We could hardly believe out eyes?  Red algae maybe?  No, how could that be?  The water isn't warm enough.  And then we saw the sheen, that unmistakable signature of oil on water.
We would investigate this more carefully tomorrow, for time was moving along (and fuel from our airplane's tanks was dwindling), so stay tuned for more explanation of this tomorrow.  But here is what we saw, just off the beaches of Grand Isle and Grand Terre Island.  And yes, the green turtle and the dolphins are swimming in the thick of it.

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It was good to see the Gulf again as a bird, but it was also a grim reminder that last summer was not just a bad dream.

Here are my notes made during today's flight.

Departed and returned to KNEW, Lakefront airport, New Orleans, LA

20110318 Friday, departed 0945 CDT, returned 1435 CDT (4hr-50min flight)
Pilot: Bonny Schumaker
Spotter: Ross Dodds
Photographer: Jerry Moran
Route of flight: KNEW - Cat Islands - Ship Island - Horn Island - Petit Bois - Chandeleurs (N to S) - Breton Island - Mangrove & Queen Bess Islands - Grand Terre Island - Grand Isle - Elmers Island - Timbalier Island - Isles Dernieres - KNEW.


Here are the reports I (Bonny) sent by email from my blackberry during and following the flight.

1. Sent from Bonny at 0919 PDT, 1119 CDT (1619Z)

Subject: Just under 100 dolphins, no juveniles, within 200m of south shores of ship, horn, and petit bois
Text: Floating, swimming slowly. Many cow rays, tiger (?) and sand sharks, cobia?
1 leatherback turtle S of Horn Island, close in.

South side of horn had several large fish balls (pogey? red fish?)  Now headed to chandeleurs.  Jerry got some good photos, average from 250' agl.
Lovin' this again!!!

2. Sent from Bonny at 1006 PDT, 1206 CDT (1706Z)

Subject: Chandeleurs flyover 20110318 Friday
Text:  N island chandeleurs:

2 nm N of it, 8 bottlenose,
1 nm N - bits of sargassum

Whoa, obscene amount of dredging!  More than just the north island!  Pipes, vehicles, the entire length of the islands save the very south end and a small piece of sand that once was curlew island.  Almost no vegetation left on these islands at all.  What a change from last May!  The aviation chart says this is all wildlife refuge!  NOT anymore, apparently?  Lots of dolphins east side, this time some juveniles as well.  Sand sharks (?) everywhere.  Large flocks of cormorants, and smaller groups of white pelicans.  Large gas field 29.61813 N, 089.04807 W.  Dozens of platforms, about 15 nm NE of baptiste colette channel.  This is what's left of Breton Island?

3. Sent from Bonny at 1151 PDT, 1351 CDT (1851Z)

Subject: West Bay to Grand Isle to Isles Dernieres

White pelicans and cormorants.Beaches have been cleaned and groomed.
So much dead dark marsh!  I see many waypoints on my gps here from last summer, marking places of heavy oil off shore here.  (Bls:  2060, 0015)

Mangrove and queen Bess islands are covered with birds but little vegetation compared to last summer - white and brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, egrets.  Four bayou pass, e of grand terre island- workers and equipment, cleaning?  Spot 2057-29025058N, 089.92100W:  Huge streamers of dark red going right to shore!  Algae?  Crude very weathered?  Must sample this from a boat!
Some S of grand Isle too.

Elmers island: not AS dead here, some green vegetation.  Beaches pretty clean.  Workers here but not the big effort that used to be here.  Water is very brown.  About ten dolphins south of elmers, a few rays.  Port fourchon beaches being cleaned.  The red (algae?) gone by port fourchon.
That the red was near dense waypoints of oil marked last summer could be a common cause of tides or ?  OR are they causally related to each other?  General:  where is all the marine life?   No fish even.  Timbalier island:  12 dolphins, no juveniles.  Small school of rays.  Sand dune fence along the easter half of the island's south shore.  West side of Timbalier island - water much much clearer.  25 dolphins, two close pods, no juveniles obvious.  E end of Isles Dernieres: Clearer water.  But where all the birds??  No traffic even at 200' agl.  Three groups of dolphins, about 30 to50.  Next isle- workers!  The N end of ths island is barren sand now! Did they build that ?  There's a breaker there now?  No birds.  Last may and june there were birds all over here.  Neat rows of planted shrubs along south shores.  Dense ball of fish- red fish?  Raccoon island (w end of Isles Dernieres):  Ok now I see brown pelicans fishing.  More fish balls.  BIRDS everywhere! At last!  Nests every square foot on the island.  Three pods of dolphin, 7-10 each.  Lots of fish balls, a few rays.  We left soon and stayed high (over 500' agl) so as not to stress them.  One person walking at west end, another in a boat.  Usfws or ldwf?  Tripod in hand.  Headed straight back to KNEW.