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UPDATE 2011 Jun 21 Tuesday:  
Eric Hoffmayer just sent the following note to Bonny, telling us that the whale shark we found and tagged is still in the area!   

" Just heard from our shark.  By the way, we named her Bessie after your plane.  The tag reported at 8:35 am from 28 04.667N, 91 00.333W on top of the southern boundary of the bank.  i will give you updates as I get them."

We'll be flying out to the Ewing Bank area the rest of this week to find out if "Bessie" has been joined by other whale sharks!  Storms are making for rough seas and poor visibility this week, but if there are many whale sharks feeding at the surface, we should be able to see them quickly enough.  Stay tuned!
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2011 Jun 16-19

Did they survive last year's devastating oil spill and use of dispersants?  Would they return?

The big questions!  T


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.
hese giant harmless filter-feeders no doubt took some seriously bad gulps of crude and dispersants while they were here in the Gulf from last June through last September (and maybe longer -- that's just when we were finding and tagging them).  Would they be here again this year?  And in the usual large numbers?  Last year during the full moon in June, scientists Eric Hoffmayer and Sylvia Earle awoke on their boat out on Ewing Bank, 75 miles off the shore of Grand Isle, Louisiana to see hundreds of whale sharks surrounding them!  And throughout the rest of the summer, with the help of On Wings Of Care's eye in the sky, he and his colleagues continued to find about 25 more, although they never again appeared in large aggregations.  This year, Eric went out to the Ewing Bank area again, and On Wings Of Care flew over the area for six hours at a time every day for four straight days, all of us looking together for these gentle giants over a search grid on the order of 1000 square miles.

20100904-0152aIMG_1051-cropped-teaser

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The photo on the left was taken from our plane last year, Sep 04, about 80 nm south of Gulf Shores, AL.  The photo on the right was taken yesterday, Jun 29, over Ewing Bank, about 75 nm southwest of Grand Isle, LA!  More photos of this year's sightings are given in the galleries below.

 

We found one whale shark the first day, plus some 'unknown' large animals -- one group of about seven we speculated might possibly be giant bluefin tuna, and another pair of large mammal-looking animals we thought could be beaked whales.  The second and third days gave us fairly rough seas, and we saw nothing of significance, though we combed the areas very thoroughly, even tracking the shallower underwater areas south of the original grid (to Thibodaux Basin) with the help of a bathymetric chart.  The fourth day dawned much calmer, and we decided to focus all of our efforts on a ~400-square mile area centered on Ewing and Diaphus Banks.   Just as our closely-spaced transects were about to merge with the location of the previous single sighting on day one, we received a radio call that a passing boat had seen one whale shark -- at almost exactly that original position!  We flew there immediately and circled as Eric's boat made its way there.  And we promptly found three whale sharks, two large and one medium in size, feeding horizontally at the surface! Before the afternoon was through, we thought we had identified four distinct whale sharks, one hammerhead shark, and one pod of nine bottlenose dolphins. Scientists succeeded in placing one tag securely, but they did not get a tissue sample as planned.  More tagging and sampling will have to wait for the next sightings and boat opportunity.

OIL SLICK REPORT:
One additional unrelated report we're not happy to have to make is that there was another significant oil slick we found on Thursday Jun 16.  It was several miles wide and extended to the southwest about 10 nm, centered on about 28°06'N, 090°56'N.  It was near two offshore oil platforms, SS-349A and 358A (per the Hilton fishing charts we had with us).   Photos of it are provided below, beneath the whale shark and sargassum photos.

20110616-IMG_0928  20110616-IMG_0934

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Now, let's get back to whale sharks! 

   This small number of sightings, of any kind of large marine animals, is unlike experiences of previous years and unlike even last year in this area around the Ewing Bank.  (Lack of marine life was noted last summer in about a 50-nm radius of the Macondo well, site of the BP explosion last April 22.)

Maybe they're arriving late this year?  Maybe we missed them by just a few days?  Or maybe the water and plankton around these parts just doesn't taste too good after what has been put in the water -- first crude and then dispersants -- since May 2010.  We're hoping that it was just our timing.  Time will tell.

We had hoped to make some quick flights out there every day this week, just for about an hour or so each over the Ewing Bank area, to see if more whale sharks surfaced.  But today a storm came in with 5-6-foot seas, and they are expected to stay that rough for a few days.  We'll wait til things calm down and run out there again.   And maybe again in mid-July, near the next full moon, the scientists can make another cruise out to the area, and On Wings Of Care will be glad to be their eyes in the sky once again.

The best of our photos (and apologies that we had no photographers on board during these sightings!) are provided below.  And below them you'll find our flight and spotting logs from this four-day adventure.  We noted things like particularly healthy-looking sargassum patches and lines, and locations where blue water began.  The blue-green lines were surprisingly far south this year, which may in fact be a result of the Mississippi River flooding.

As always, our flights can be followed in real-time here, courtesy of our SPOT GPS transmitter.  Note that they are only on this 'shared' page for seven days, complete with time and lat/long for each point recorded at 10-minute interval .  We have also downloaded the continuous tracks from our onboard aviation GPS' and are happy to make any of these available to other researchers at any time.

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Whale-shark monitoring in the Gulf, 20110616 Thursday-20110619 Sunday.

Eric Hoffmayer in a boat at the top of Ewing Bank, ~28°05'N, 090°55'W.

Bonny Schumaker in a single-engine Cessna (OnWingsOfCare.org's N4784E) with spotter(s).

GRID:

NW:  28°15'N, 091°10'W.

NE:  28°15'N, 090 40'W.

SW:  27°45'N,091°10'W.

SE:  27°45'N,090°40'W.

(Approximately 30 nm N-S and <30 nm W-E)

Top of Ewing Bank:  ~28°05N; 090°55'W.

Air-boat comm on 122.75.  (Alternates:  123.45, 122.9)

Marine Radio comm:  19 or 68.

Sat Phone (Eric Hoffmayer):  480-458-9532

ADIZ FAA Flight Plan (BLS, N4784E):  Squawk 1234, daily depart KNEW 1300 Z, return 2100 Z, cross ADIZ at KNEW 200°-73nm, ~1345Z.  Center of Grid ~ 28°00'N, 090°55'W.

GPS Track in 10-min increments available to public for 7 days after flights at:

http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=0E3ux2XssvK7DSOSV3EasLZleILA1yReU

Bonny will download the full plots for each day off of her portable Garmin gps to make them available as needed.

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Day 1:

20110616 Thursday - whale shark spotting.

BLS- pilot, Gary Gray- spotter

8.9 flight hours (Hobbs; 7.6 tach)

1. 28° 44', 090° 33' - shrimper (no nets down)

2.  gps#9020, 28° 31', 090° 41'.  Beautiful sargassum patch and line extending southwest

3.  28°25', 090°42', change to blue water.  Lost of sargassum patches and  streamers

4.  28°19', 090°40'  ~10' hammerhead shark (Great? or scalloped?)

Also beautiful weed lines from NE corner of rid heading south and west.

SO BLUE!  :--))

5.  28°06', 090°59'.  Loggerhead turtle.

6.  gps #9021. Whale Shark #1.  Big one, at least 35' long.  28°06/821', 090°54.7'.  1100-1130 CDT.  Also gps #9023 a bit later, after he dove and resurfaced.

7.  gps #9022 - large oil slick, at least 2 by 4 nm long, actually longer to the southwest, at least 10 nm.  From 28° 06', 090°56' on NE, extending southwest about 10 nm.  Near SS-349A and 358A platforms (per Hilton charts).

8.  NW corner of grid - beautiful sargassum lines.

9.  gps #9024, 27°44.233', 090°43.233', ~7 animals, about 10 feet long.  Small whale sharks?  Bluefin tuna?  Tail swishes, no surface breaking for breaths.  About 2.5 nm due west of SE corner of grid.  No dorsal perceptible.  No breathing.

10.  Several flying fish throughout grid.

11.  gps #9025:  27°47.238', 090° 46.628', Three large animals, dolphin-like but much larger than dolphins.  10-15' long.  Beaked whales??  Circled them but they disappeared from view.

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Day 2:

20110617 Friday - whale shark spotting.

BLS-pilot, Jeremy from GCRL - spotter.

7.8 flight hours (Hobbs; 6.7 tach)

1. 28° 25', 090°40':  nice sargassum and streamers

2.  Went to NE corner of grid first, checked out NE quadrant.  Then to center point and boat.

BOAT at 28° 05', 090°59'.  Near top of Ewing Bank.

3.  gps#9026 - 28° 15.7', 090°42', Shrimp boat with nets down.

4.  Saw several flying fish.  No other sightings!

Water calmer in NE quadrant toward end of day.

NOTE ADDED 8pm Friday night:  Eric said that around 5pm, one whale shark came by their boat.  Possibly the same one we saw Thursday, but he wasn't sure.  They had a diver in the water within 45 seconds, but the shark dove before they could tag it.  They also had a few bottlenose dolphin in their wake Friday evening.

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Day 3:

20110618 Saturday - whale shark spotting.

BLS-pilot; Jennifer McKinney from GCRL - spotter.  Jerry Moran - photographer and spotter.

7.4 Flight Hours (Hobbs; 6.4 tach)

1. 28° 17', 090° 45'?  Two shrimpers, nets down.

2.  28° 20', 090° 45', school of cownose rays (yellow)

3.  28°13.5', 090° 44.5' - BLUE WATER.

NO SIGHTINGS!!

Went well south of the grid, explored all ridges throughout Thibodaux Basin and up, circled all platforms, searched all 'high' areas and 'ridge soared' all underwater terrain.

By the end of today, all paths from the past three days had covered very thoroughly the grid and south of the grid.  There was no aggregation of whale sharks.  Maybe it is too early this year, should try again next full moon (mid July?)?

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Day 4:

20110619 Sunday - whale shark spotting.

BLS-pilot; Jennifer McKinney from GCRL - spotter.

7.0 Flight Hours (Hours; 5.9 Tach)

1. 28°41.5', 090°29.5'  First sargassum line and patches.  still green water.  Wind  S-SW ~15kts at 1000' agl.

PLAN:  Transects N-S in square from 29° N to 28°12', 091°10' on W to 090°37' on E.

Boat is at ~28°05' 090°55'.

2.         28°20.5;, 090°34.6'   Large school of cownose rays

3.  28°14.2', 090°35.7'   Shrimper with nets down

4.  Blue water at: 28° 07/7'. 090° 36'.

(Note:  Eric has to get his boat back to Freshwater Bayou by midnight so will have to leave the Ewing Bank area by about 3-4pm today.  Freshwater Bayou is at ~29°32', 090°20'.  )

5.  (Superstition).  Jennifer ate Jim Franks' peach Hubigs Pie at 28°03/83 091°07.4'   And we promptly saw many flying fish!....

6.  1 Dolphin, large bottlenose, then a pod of NINE bottlenose! :  28°05.3'  091°07.45' (GPS #0016. 0017)

7.  Turned west to follow a blue-green line, surprised to find it so far south:  28°14.6', 091°10.8', followed it to other points:  28°13.0' 091°05.2';   28°13.4',  091°02'.

8.  Dropped 2 Hubig pies (Chocolate, then apple) on Eric's boat for the guys, one at 1130, one at 12 noon CDT.

9.  28°07.963' , 090°55.648' , gps #9027 -- Report of 1 whaleshark by a passing boat.  We went there, saw none right there, but flew nearby to gps point #9021, where we had seen one large one on Thursday Jun 16 (which would have been our next or next-next transect anyway!), and found one large one (possibly the same as last Thursday's).  Then we flew another circle slightly farther west and found one large one and one smaller one about 100 m away from the first.

They put divers and the small dingy into the water.  The first whaleshark near the boat dove and the divers couldn't tag it.  In the commotion over the first, they didn't hear us telling them we were circling another two.  By the time the dingy came to where we had the other two, we could still see only one.

At this point (approximately 1300 CDT), the low-voltage light on our plane was on, and no troubleshooting could bring the alternator back on line.  We shut off all electrics and used the marine radio to talk to the boat and a battery-powered gps to keep track of our positions and the sharks.  We stayed with them til around 2pm, then had to leave in order to get back with enough battery left to turn on the radios to negotiate controlled airspace and land back in New Orleans.  (We landed after 7.0 hours of flying, so it was close to time to refuel anyway.  But we had to come all the way back to New Orleans rather than re-fuel in Galliano, because without electrical power we would not have been able to restart the plane.)

The GOOD news is that we know that at least three whale sharks are, today, in the Ewing Bank-Diaphus Bank areas.

We also know, from careful scrutiny over the past four days, that there have been no large aggregations of whale sharks in the grid we searched (1000 sq nm, with north-central portion of it covering the Ewing Bank).

Perhaps we are a matter of days or weeks too early this year.  Perhaps the Gulf 'smells bad' from last year's oil spill and all of the subsequent dispersants.  The only way to be sure would be to continue to fly aerial reconnaissance over this area daily for the next week or even two.  It is about one hour's flight to get out to the Ewing Bank, so with 3-4 hours per day, we could go out and search that area daily to see if any more whale sharks are showing up.  For this work, On Wings Of Care works for free and requests help just with airplane fuel.  At about 10 gallons per hour and $5.50-$6/gal, those costs  would be about $200-220 per day.  Jennifer thinks that would be well worthwhile.  We'll check out the electrical system on the plane tonight, and if we can get things operational again by tomorrow, we'll arrange for further monitoring flights this week.

(Info below to be filled out when known)

TOTAL FLIGHT HOURS:  31.1 (Hobbs; 26.6 Tach)

Total Fuel:

Total Oil:

Total Mx/Repair (Electrical - new alternator & voltage regulator & belts):

Total Fuel $