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2012 Mar 28-29
Destin to Panama City, Florida

Scientists in Florida were very excited about some recent unusual sightings of large basking sharks near Panama City, Florida. Since we have been so successful at finding whale sharks for them the past two years, they asked us to fly over from New Orleans and try to find these basking sharks.  Unlike another large plankton feeder, the whale shark, basking sharks are not a familiar site in the Gulf of Mexico, and little is known about them. Sharks are never easy to find from surface vessels, since they don't need to come to the surface to breathe. The best way to find them is from the air, when seas are calm and visibility in the air and through the water are good.  

A previous flight ten days prior by other people had found nothing.  Just two days after our arrival back in the Gulf, we were eager to attempt the challenge. We hoped that previous failures had more to do with the weather conditions and limitations of the aircraft than with the presence of marine life in the area, but there was no way to know that for sure.  We face every one of these challenging kinds of flights with the knowledge that we might give it our very best effort and still have no successful sightings. The flight eastward from New Orleans to Destin, Florida on Wednesday was delayed by weather until midday, and seas were choppy. I was more than a little concerned about our chances for success.

But experience and determination are a powerful combination. And the spotters who joined me lacked nothing.  Mike Sturdivant from Destin knows the local surf spots and the local marine life, and his skill with a camera matches his sharp eye and his enthusiasm.  With Mike on Wednesday came a new spotter, Justin Wildhaber; and on Thursday, Mike brought John Cross. With all of our sharp and determined eyes, and some "low and slow" flying, we could at least say with certainty that if there were animals near enough to the surface to be seen, we would see them!  
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.  

*0BaskingShark-20120329-2958 copy 2*1Ray-20120329-2920 copy 2

*3Turtle-20120329-3008 copy 2

*6Dolphins-blue-20120329-3006 copy 2










As you can see from the flight log for Wednesday March 28, even though water roughness and afternoon clouds coming from offshore limited our search area to within about 8 miles from shore (except for a brief foray out to about 15 miles), we found plenty of animals in and near the second sandbar areas.  Early on we saw what looked like a very long shark -- in retrospect, we think we had seen a basking shark, the very object of our search. But when we circled back, we could not find him again. Thereafter we saw only pods of dolphin (bottlenose and what we think were spotted dolphin), some smaller sharks, several turtles, a few large manta rays and a school of cownose rays, and one manatee.  We saw some extensive patches of sargassum about 9 miles offshore, and a very strange localized area of thick greenish stuff mixed into the water, making for a very ragged line. Definitely not typical of a convergence or temperature gradient line.  (See photos below.)  We'd welcome some ideas as to what that was!

On Thursday,  we flew at midday, having been grounded by dense fog all morning.  The lighting was better than the late-afternoon flight the previous day, but the dense offshore fog precluded us flying much farther than about 5 miles off shore.  So we gave the coastline out to several miles a very close going-over, and met with what we, and the scientists who studied our high-resolution photos, deemed success.  One basking shark!  And in close proximity to it, one whale shark and at least one very large manta ray! We didn't know until the scientists told us later, that we were quite fortunate to see those three plankton feeders in such close proximity to each other!  In the midday sun after the fog had burned off, we also saw lots of bait balls of smaller fish, good-sized schools of cobia, many rays and turtles, a few smaller sharks.  The basking shark was at least 12 ft long.  For those familiar with the coastline here, he (or she) was east of the old Inlet Beach pier and west of the nearby tall buildings.  The closest beach launch would be St. Andrews State Park.  The exact positions are given in Thursday's Flight Log below and shown on a map in the GPS Fligiht Track file for Thursday. (See the main menu item Flight Tracks for all of the GPS files.)

Here are some of the photos of wildlife from Wednesday and Thursday.  
More photos (including some of scenes not directly related to the spotting of marine life) are included below the Flight Logs.
First are two photos of what we think was a basking shark (GPS mark #191 from Thursday Mar 29).   
Then two of a particularly large black manta ray.  Then a very strange water phenomenon we found on Wednesday Mar 28 (GPS mark #170).  Then a couple of some turtles.  Then a strange line in the water (GPS mark #198 from Thursday).  Then a typical bait ball seen in close to shore. Then an unusually large group of birds all sitting on the water (GPS mark #202 from Thursday). And last but not least, the marvelous dolphins. Some very close to shore in green water, some out farther; and one group in dark-colored water who were really moving fast together.  


On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20120328
Basking Shark Search between Destin and Panama City, FL

All waypoint numbers below refer to the GPS tracks (File: 20120328-OWOC-Flt-FL-GPSMarks.gpx) available at http://www.OnWingsOfCare.org here.
Positions of all of these waypoints can be viewed on the map in that file.
Lat/Lons are given in degrees and decimal minutes. (E.g., N30 08.770 means N 30° 08.770'.)
Times are given in CDT, which is UTC-0500.
Aircraft N4784E, with Bonny Schumaker as pilot, Mike Sturdivant and Justin Wildhaber as spotters.

158:  1632CDT, N30 08.770 W85 46.325
Pod of dolphin and one long shark, couldn't find it again when we circled back!

159:  1638 CDT, N30 05.533 W85 41.751
Pod of dolphin
Lots of sediment mixing in near the beach, not sure where it's coming from as there ws no nearby lake?

160:  1654 CDT, N29 51.930 W85 24.886
Two dolphins and one sunfish (or turtle?)

161:  1707 CDT, N29 48.243 W85 26.542

162:  1711 CDT, N29 50.745 W85 27.295
Something fairly big, but circled back and could not find.

163:  1723 CDT, N30 04.948 W85 42.674
Large Ray (black) with a large bait ball

164:  1730 CDT, N30 07.914 W85 46.292
Two pods of bottlenose dolphin

165:  1730 CDT, N30 08.327 W85 46.779
Pod of dolphin

166:  1735 CDT, N30 13.565 W85 55.270
Large dark-colored ray

167:  1750 CDT, N30 21.760 W86 21.963

168:  1752 CDT, N30 22.204 W86 25.898
Line or old dark-orange sargassum patties, small.  & 1 turtle (?)

169:  1800 CDT, N30 12.792 W86 23.165
Old sargassum, lots of large patches and lines. Lines ~1.5 nm long (NW-SE), about 0.25 nm wide.

170:  1812 CDT, N30 18.524 W86 18.502
Strange thick greenish stuff mixing here, making a very ragged line.   Not a typical convergence line.  (Check bathymetric chart for this spot?)

171:  1813 CDT, N30 17.916 W86 18.070
Large fish or turtle, seems to be rolling in the water?

172:  1817 CDT, N30 20.227 W86 17.959
Two large dolphin pods, 30 + ~25 individuals.

173: 1828 CDT, N30 19.823 W86 11.424
Shark off the second sandbar, 8-10' long.  (Not a basking shark, consensus is that it was a mako.)

174:  1837 CDT, N30 22.283 W86 20.926
Large dark-colored turtle, ~3 ft diameter.  And one shark! ~4 ft long.


On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20120329
Basking Shark Search between Destin and Panama City, FL

All waypoint numbers below refer to the GPS tracks (File: 20120328-OWOC-Flt-FL-GPSMarks.gpx) available athttp://www.OnWingsOfCare.org here.
Positions of all of these waypoints can be viewed on the map in that file.
Lat/Lons are given in degrees and decimal minutes. (E.g., N30 08.770 means N 30° 08.770'.)
Times are given in CDT, which is UTC-0500.
Aircraft N4784E, with Bonny Schumaker as pilot, Mike and Dylan Sturdivant and John Cross as spotters.

On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20120329

Basking Shark Search between Destin and Panama City, FL

All waypoint numbers below refer to the GPS tracks (_____.gpx) available at www.OnWIngsOfCare.org.______.

Aircraft:  N4784E  Bonny Schumaker with Mike and Dylan Sturdivant and John Crossas spotters.

175:  1318CDT, N30 23.373 W86 35.930
2 pods of dolphin

176:  1319 CDT, N30 23.154 W86 33.561
School of dark fish - likely cobia.

177:  1320 CDT, N30 23.108 W86 32.722
3 dolphin

178:  1324 CDT, N30 22.130 W86 30.695

179: 1328 CDT, N30 22.573 W86 25.134
10 dolphin and large fish

180: 1328 CDT, N30 22.461 W86 24.085
Bait ball

181: 1329 CDT, N30 22.326 W86 22.714
School of rays and baig ball and school of larger fish

182: 1330 CDT, N30 22.122 W86 21.167
8-10 Dolphin

183:  1331 CDT, N30 22.030 W86 20.461
7 Dolphin (bottlenose)

184: 1333 CDT, N30 21.403 W86 17.833
Large Turtle and bait ball

185: 1333 CDT, N30 21.254 W86 16.949

186: 1336 CDT, N30 21.087 W86 14.669
Large dark Manta Ray

187:  1338 CDT, N30 20.451 W86 14.302
Strange light shiny thing trailing a boat, a sea anchor?

188:  1342 CDT, N30 18.707 W86 07.181
Two dolphin pods, 13 + 4

189: 1344 CDT, N30 18.182 W86 06.109
Small shark and large bait ball

190:  1345 CDT, N30 17.833 W86 04.980
Turtle and school of large fish

191: 1348 CDT, N30 15.740 W85 59.521
**** 1 LARGE shark, at least 12 ft long.  Basking?  Mako?  E of the old Inlet Beach pier, west of the tall buildings; closest launch would be St. Andrews State park.

192:  1353 CDT, N30 14.471 W85 56.547
Large bait ball

193: 1355 CDT, N30 12.606 W85 52.944
Two dolphin (Near Pier Park, Panama City)

195: 1400 CDT, N30 08.939 W85 46.674

196: 1409 CDT, N30 10.754 W85 51.80
Whale Shark!  >20' long

197: 1413 CDT, N30 10.637 W85 51.896
4 turtles (not all together)

198:  1419 CDT, N30 11.817 W85 55.129
Large turtle; long gradient line, about 50; wide, NW-SE, ~4 nm long

199: 1422 CDT, N30 13.204 W85 58.510
Pod of dolphin, ~25 individuals.  Two turtles

200: 1425 CDT, N30 14.264 W85 59.715
Pod of dolphin

201: 1427 CDT, N30 15.501 W86 02.444
Pod of dolphin, moving really fast to the east

202: 1431 CDT, N30 16.947 W86 06.777
Birds on surface, ~100 of them

203: 1434 CDT, N30 16.854 W86 09.777
3 bait balls