2011 September 15, Thursday
Gulf of Mexico, "Green Canyon"
Another outstanding day for finding whales, whale sharks, and sea turtles in the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico! About 150 miles south of New Orleans, just 15 miles north of our planned rendezvous point with the whale-shark scientists and free divers, we came upon an extraordinary sight. A very large sperm whale putting on an impressive tail-slapping show. But beyond him there was another quiet one, and another, and another... in an area smaller than one-half square mile, we had two large individual sperm whales and three mother-calf pairs! The calves were about one-half as long as their moms and were nursing, though once a calf came alongside mom and appeared to be slapping her with his pectoral fin. (Must be a son, boys will be boys, right?). The sight of these giants hanging out together and feeding their young is thrilling and reassuring. Love and Life are alive here still.
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.
Our colleagues aboard the "Fisheries Research" vessel greeted us enthusiastically with the news that bait balls were alive and the tuna were jumping already. We found our first whale shark for them immediately, and for the next dizzying 5.5 hours hardly a minute went by when we weren't following a whale shark and guiding the boats and divers there. All total, between last Sunday and today, scientists placed information-gathering tags on ten different whale sharks, plus gps SPOT tags on three of them, and finally photographs plus core samples to identify them using DNA. The information tags will pop off and be retrieved at a pre-determined time several weeks from now, providing recorded information on behavior, location, and body indicators. The SPOT tags are used to track the whale shark's surface positions for a period of several months at least. Of the ten tagged whale sharks, only two were females! One, whom we nicknamed "Fatty," came right up to the boat and the divers twice in a row and each time turned or dove just as they reached for her. Must have been one of those voluptuous "hard to get" gals, because the more she teased, the more determined they were to get her. Our all-woman airplane crew were proud of her!
And last but not least, we saw a very handsome leatherback turtle swimming along strongly! He passed alongside the shadow of our plane as we pulled power to be slow and quiet and not frighten him. No closeups of seaturtles until we can afford some great zoom lenses, because we will not go closer to those sensitive critters than about 500' so as not to spook them and make them dive.
Photos and video follow, first of the sperm whales and leatherback turtle, and then of the whale sharks. The flight log with lat/longs and times of all waypoints marked (which for this flight were mostly just whale sharks, plus the sperm whales and an area of a dozen or more shrimp boats working) is appended to the bottom of this article. The GPS flight track for today can be downloaded from the main menu item called "Flight Tracks". By using the application "Basecamp", you'll also be able to download a spreadsheet (.csv file) that will give you the position and time of every point on our flight at 10-20 sec intervals. For those who like this trivia, today's flight totaled six hours, covered 570 statute miles and an area of 242 sq mi, with average speed of 96 mph. Now, enjoy the photos and videos!
Just for fun, here are screenshots of our route as tracked by our Garmin gps, with gradually increasing resolution. The last one shows the kind of dizzying circles we make endlessly as we "hang on" to the animals in our sights to guide the scientists to them efficiently. This is where our faithful airplane changes from a fuel-efficient cruiser at 150 mph to a near-helicopter with flaps down and throttle pulled back til we're circling at a gentle 50-60 mph, windows wide open and all eyes and cameras pointed at the water.
20110915-Sperm Whales and Whale Sharks - On Wings Of Care Gulf Flight Log
Flight departed KNEW at 0810am CDT (1310 Z), returned to KNEW at 1409 PM CDT (1909Z).
Six-hour flight, covered 570 statute miles, covered an area of 242 sq mi, avg speed 96 mph.
Initial rendezvous point with the GCRL scientists/divers was the Innovator platform at:
N28° 13.230', W89° 36.900'.
Note1: GPS Track started saving at around 40 nm off shore from Grand Isle.
Note 2: Lat/Longs are in degrees and decimal minutes. Times are in UTC (Z) = CDT + 0500.
0003 -=9231 (previous waypoint): N28 47.673, W89 44.739, 1511Z.
At least 12 shrimp boats in this vicinity, nets down, plus five more ships 1-2 miles south of them, plus a recreational fishing boat.
0004: N28 34.734, W89 41.325, 1517 Z. E-W line of sargassum, patches and streamers, healthy looking. Also the start of some blue water.
0005: N28 15.570, W89 37.243, 1528 Z. The sperm whale community! wow, delightful. 3 mom-calf pairs, 2 large singles.
0006: N28 02.833, W89 40.652, 1548 Z. First bait ball with whale shark...
ALL waypoints below were bait balls with tuna jumping and a whale shark in each!
We lost track (didn't take notes any more) about which ones were tagged or core-sampled or SPOT-tagged, so we don't have all that info here.
0007: N28 03.061, W89 40.962, 1620 Z. TAGGED!
0008: N28 03.228, W89 41.147, 1622 Z.
0009: N28 03.145, W89 41.133, 1642 Z.
0010: N28 02.991, W89 41.421, 1648 Z. TAGGED! (plus SPOT tag)
0011: N27 59.104, W89 43.457, 1715 Z.
0012: N27 58.841, W89 43.334, 1737 Z.
0013: N27 57.665, W89 41.881, 1814 Z.
0014: N27 58.958, W89 41.911, 1825 Z.
0015: N27 58.346, W89 41.182, 1908 Z. TAGGED!
0016: N 27 57.911, W89 39.621, 1936 Z.
0017: N 27 58.813, W89 38.668, 1942 Z.