(Update: Article and photos from Dahr Jamail and Erika Blumenthal about this flight are here. Erika's photos are also included below.)
2012 February 29, Wednesday
Gulf of Mexico
Our first flight over the Gulf since late December 2011, for over two months! It was great for us to see it again from the air. But all is not so great with it, unfortunately.
Long before we reached the tip of Louisiana, we noticed that the overall amount of marshland seemed significantly less than had been here this time last year. We also saw quite a bit of marshland that was blackened, as if by fire. We had barely begun to discuss what else it could be other than fire, when we spotted not one but two marsh fires ahead of us! No sign of human presence anywhere near either of them. What causes these? Lightning, perhaps? It was sad to see, for the strong southwesterly winds were sure to burn all of that land northeastward until it reached water. Indeed, on our return four hours later, both fires were still raging strong.
Barely 10 miles off the tip of Louisiana, the chronic oil leakage from Taylor Energy's Ocean Saratoga platform, sunk by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, continues in what looks to be full force. We followed an ugly, quarter-mile-wide line of fresh oily sheen that stretches from west to east for more than 10 miles. The buoy we photographed there in early December remains, but there was not a work vessel nor any other type of vessel anywhere in the vicinity.
We proceeded to the Macondo prospect (vicinity of the Deepwater Horizon disaster of nearly two years ago). Since we have not flown the Gulf since late December, and we have seen no reports from other pilots flying this far offshore, we had no idea where to look for oil. So we decided to return to some of the places where we have been seeing appreciable amounts of surface sheen consistently since last summer. That proved a good strategy, as we found oil and surface sheen almost immediately. And plenty of it.
Not plenty like we saw in 2010, no, not that kind of "plenty." Reports of enormous quantities of oil continuing to gush from a crater would seem to be quite an exaggeration, judging by what we can see on the water's surface from the air. But we do continue to see many lines of what looks like fresh oil, over quite a large area. Some of it is in the form of a very thin sheen, and some of it appears coagulated into thicker, twisting lines and sheets of sheen. They continue to be concentrated primarily in a large crescent-shaped area to the east and northeast of the site of the sunken Deepwater Horizon platform. (That site, by the way, remains quiescent and apparently unoiled on the surface.) This area of consistent surface oil sightings stretches at least 15-20 nm from south to north, is a few miles wide, and is roughly centered from 5-20 miles east and northeastward of the Deepwater Horizon site. In short, the surface is oil is still right where we've been photographing, videotaping, and describing it to you since last August.
We did not see the vast amounts of thick surface oil that we found and reported during late August and early September of 2011. Recall that independent sampling of that oil and of the oil "globules" we documented in that vicinity were determined by Dr. Ed Overton of LSU and others to match the MC252 fingerprint (meaning that it was BP oil from the Deepwater Horizon area). We do not know if the fresh-looking oil we saw today would match that fingerprint. We are eager to ask the US Coast Guard if they are sampling the oil from the sightings that we have been reporting faithfully to the National Response Center, and if so, what they have found. In fact, we'll ask them that tomorrow, when we fly to Morgan City to meet with them, with some journalists who can put those answers on the record for all of our edification.
One other observation from today, which we're sorry to report, has to do with wildlife.
First, pelicans: As we were noticing an apparent diminution of marshland, we also noticed that the offshore islands that seemed to abound as nesting areas in 2010 and even (though to a lesser extent) in 2011 were hard to find. In fact, there were only a few that had pelicans on them, and these small islands were so crowded with pelicans it was difficult to distinguish the birds from each other! We definitely got the impression that they are hard up for nesting places.
Second, other marine life: Typically on flights like this, when seas are so calm and skies clear as they were out there today, we see many large pods of dolphin, bait balls of fish, and at least a few turtles. Today we saw very few fish, four dolphins, and one small sea turtle. That was with three people whose eyes were glued to the windows, using powerful zoom lenses, and flying at 300'-1000' above the water. It seemed almost desolate, compared to what we saw consistently from March through December of last year and the year before. Here's hoping that improves as spring arrives.
Below are some fine photos taken by Erika Blumenthal. Following those are some video we shot while flying along. The video serves to prove that the usual dismissals by cynics that the slicks we observe are merely wind patterns or cloud shadows are invalid. Those sheets and streamers that we photograph and report are not wind rows and not cloud shadows. They are surface oil sheens of varying thickness and states of weathering.
Are these natural seeps? We do not have an answer to that, but we have some questions:
If they are natural seeps, weren't they here before this area was chosen for drilling? If so, weren't they documented, in writing or photographs, somewhere, by the oil companies? And if so, where is that documentation, and why are we not hearing about it, if for no other reason than to put to rest the considerable discomfort we all feel at continuing to see all of this fresh surface oil out there?
Our flight log is appended below, and as always, you may download our detailed GPS flight tracks for today from the main menu item called "Flight Tracks" on this website. We filed National Response Center incident reports for the Taylor Energy and the Macondo area oil sightings, and those incident numbers are noted below.
NOTE: Unless noted, no photos or videos provided by On Wings Of Care are "photoshopped" or otherwise altered in any way that could degrade accurate interpretation of what we observed.
OWOC GULF Flight Log 20120229 Wednesday
KNEW - (MRGO-Taylor-Macondo)-KNEW
4.0 hrs, ETD KNEW 1400 CST = 2000Z, ADIZ at 2030Z,
Return KNEW 1800 CST-0000Z.
ADIZ Xing: 28°55'N, 088°50' W (00:30 min and ~50 nm SSE from KNEW
Numbers 0150-0157 refer to our GPS waypoint numbers, described below in the order observed.
Lat/lons are given in degrees and decimal minutes.
Distances in nautical miles (nm) or meters (m).
(Note that we forgot to turn on the GPS SPOT Tracker until we were into the Macondo area, hence the track starts after waypoint 0154.)
0150 - 2028Z (1428 CST), N29 47.691 W89 44.335
Two small marsh fires, still going strong four hours later on our return to KNEW!
0151 - 2036Z (1436 CST), N29 36.035 W89 35.192
Very crowded small island white pelican rookery
0152 = NRC1= Incident Report # 1004408 - 2104Z (1504 CST), N28 54.373 W89 00.394
Near Taylor Energy "spill". Very long line of ugly sheen, from west to east of their buoy,a t least 10 nm long.
0153 - 2110Z (1510 CST), N28 56.021 W88 54.748
Platform: NIKOR ENergy, MC____.
0154 - 2125 Z (1525 CST), N28 52.828 W88 28.311
0155 - 2144Z (1544 CST), N28 31.138 W88 16.924
BP MC474A platform, flaring.
0156 = NRC2= Incident Report # 1004409 - 2152Z (1552 CST), N28 39.835 W88 09.475
Amid many lines of fresh-looking oil and sheen, this point marked a line of 'globules' like what we had seen frequently throughout this area between last August and December (2011).
0157 - 2158 Z (1558 CST), N28 38.479 W88 10.235
Some lines of thicker, milky-and-brownish colored oil here, among the sheets of lighter surface sheen.