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2012 April 01, Sunday
Florida Panhandle

Today was our third day of searching for basking sharks off the coast of Florida, between Pensacola and Panama City.
We were fairly certain we had seen one near shore last Thursday, and quite certain that we had seen some mako sharks.  So when the fog finally lifted and gave us calm seas, we went out with high hopes.  But today brought more questions than answers.

Hundreds of dolphins were hanging out very near the beaches, relatively stationary around the second sandbar. Farther from people but still in the shallows were several schools of cobia and some large "bait balls" of small fish.  Farther offshore but still within about five miles of shore, we saw manta rays and sea turtles (mostly leatherbacks).  But nowhere today did we see a single shark of any size.  The water visibility was good and we were flying "low and slow," so if they had been there, we would have spotted them.  Unfortunately, the offshore fog was too dense for us to fly much more than about five miles offshore.  Next weekend we'll search again, this time along a strategic route follows the ridge that surrounds DeSoto canyon, starting about 20 miles off shore.  

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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Finding sharks, even the large plankton-eating basking and whale sharks, is among the most challenging aerial spotting tasks. They don't need to surface to breathe, so there is no predictable breaking of the surface with fins or tails.  And if the light is too flat or the sun angle too low or the water too rough, we can't see deeply enough into the water to pick up the telltale shadow of even the largest of these animals.  And when we do spot one, all our heads and eyes are straining to keep the position in sight as we maneuver the plane directly over the animal's position and as low and slow as we safely can.  Each kind of airplane has its own "footprint" over the water, and different animals react differently to it.  For example, experience has shown us that we can orbit a sea turtle at 600' and get good footage without alarming the animal; but descend to lower than about 500', and the turtle will dive.  Whale sharks don't seem to be so shy; but since we've only ever seen a few basking sharks, and those not in the Gulf of Mexico, we will proceed cautiously to be sure we can get some good photographs before we risk their diving out of sight.

Here are some photos, first of the animals we saw, and then some of the scenes of the coastline and beachfronts.  One of the manta rays appeared to be floating almost upside down, showing his (or her?) shiny light-colored underside.  There were many adult-calf dolphin pairs near the beach today.  Enjoy these, and we hope that our next article on the search for basking sharks has more success to report!  Photos with numbers below 300 are courtesy of Mike Fitzsimmons, and those with numbers 600 and above are courtesy of John Cross.  Enthusiastic and outstanding spotters, both of them!

As always, our flight log with lat/lons and times and what animals we saw is transcribed below.  We have no gps flight track file for this flight because we used a different GPS that was not compatible with the Garmin BaseCamp program.

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On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20120401, Sunday
Basking Shark Search near Destin and Panama City, FL

All waypoint numbers below refer to waypoint numbers on the map shown above.  
Times are given in CDT.  
Lat/lons are given in degrees and decimal minutes.
Aircraft:  N4784E.  Pilot Bonny Schumaker with John Cross and Mike Fitzsimmons as spotters.

05.  01-APR-12 12:42  N30 23.394 W86 35.061
5 dolphins, manta ray

06.  01-APR-12 12:44  N30 22.681 W86 30.876
10 dolphins, several pairs of mother & calf

07.  01-APR-12 12:46  N30 22.725 W86 29.067
Large bait ball (small fish)

08.  01-APR-12 12:49  N30 22.498 W86 25.136
Many dolphins, 40-50, very near shore

09.  01-APR-12 12:51  N30 22.412 W86 23.669
2 dolphin (bottlenose)

10.  01-APR-12 12:53  N30 21.730 W86 18.989
Large school of cobia

11.  01-APR-12 12:55  N30 21.301 W86 17.281
Manta Ray

12.  01-APR-12 12:56  N30 21.185 W86 16.582
Two groups of dolphin, approx 15-20 total. 
Group of 5 almost stationary, two almost on their side.

13.  01-APR-12 12:58  N30 20.828 W86 15.265
Bait ball

14.  01-APR-12 12:59  N30 20.398 W86 13.842
Large school of cobia, plus a bait ball (small fish)

15.  01-APR-12 13:00  N30 20.210 W86 13.249
Mother-calf pair of dolphin, large bait ball

16.  01-APR-12 13:05  N30 17.707 W86 04.082
4 dolphin

17.  01-APR-12 13:08 N30 16.555 W86 01.678
Huge pod of dolpnin, more than 50.  Spotted? (think so)

18.  01-APR-12 13:10  N30 15.420 W85 58.849
Extra-large bait ball

19.  01-APR-12 13:12  N30 14.207 W85 55.977
Dolphin, ~20

20.  01-APR-12 13:18  N30 11.413 W85 50.571
~15 dolphin

21.  01-APR-12 13:23  N30 06.712 W85 43.614
Dolphin - mother and calf, next to a large yellow tourist boat

22.  01-APR-12 13:26  N30 05.039 W85 40.944
Two dolphin

23.  01-APR-12 13:28  N30 03.150 W85 36.791
School of cobia

24.  01-APR-12 13:35  N30 04.338 W85 41.644
Large Manta Ray

25.  01-APR-12 13:41  N30 08.207 W85 48.264
Leatherback turtle

26.  01-APR-12 13:47  N30 12.273 W85 54.921
Large Manta Ray

27.  01-APR-12 13:50  N30 12.909 W85 55.382
Bait ball

28.  01-APR-12 13:54  N30 14.459 W85 59.918
Seaturtle

29.  01-APR-12 13:56  N30 15.707 W86 02.416
Leatherback turtle

30.  01-APR-12 13:59  N30 16.520 W86 05.170
Two seaturtles

31.  01-APR-12 14:03  N30 18.382 W86 09.219
Turtle (no photo of this one)

32.  01-APR-12 14:04  N30 19.386 W86 11.996
Two turtles (photo only of one)

33.  01-APR-12 14:11  N30 21.058 W86 21.867
Ray - partly shiny, upside down?

34.  01-APR-12 14:21  N30 19.757 W86 26.331
Turtle

35.  01-APR-12 14:24  N30 20.279 W86 21.041
Turtle

36.  01-APR-12 14:27  N30 20.697 W86 15.366
Bait ball

37.  01-APR-12 14:40  N30 15.111 W85 57.886
Many dolphin

38.  01-APR-12 14:56  N30 16.718 W86 21.172
Large pod of dolphin - bottlenose

39.  01-APR-12 14:59  N30 14.786 W86 19.985
Old sargassum

40.  01-APR-12 15:05  N30 18.515 W86 27.850
Patches of sargassum