2012 April 12 Thursday
Gulf of Mexico

Today was supposed to be a simple reconnaissance mission and practice flight with scientist colleague Dr. Ian MacDonald from Florida State University in Tallahassee and some new photographic equipment we're going to be using in our aircraft. But its routine nature changed when word spread last night of a significant new oil slick in an area about 70 miles due south of the tip of the "crow's foot" of Louisiana, between the Mars and Ursa oil production platforms.  Shell Corporation announced that they were sending oil spill cleanup crews and equipment to the site. Dread and despair was the response of many including our own. So that destination was added to our flight plan.  And since that's probably what some of you are most eager to read about, we'll start our report with that one.  The rest of the report will show the Taylor Energy slick (still!), many smaller slicks encountered on our way northward back to the mainland, an ugly slick in Breton Sound (before we even made it out of the muddy Mississippi waters!), and various vessels and platforms of interest in the Macondo area and elsewhere. 

Our original charter for today's flight was to test out techniques we plan to use in the near future for coordinating our aerial spotting with scientists on vessels who will be using ROVs (remotely operated submersibles) to study the condition of the seabed in some areas of the Gulf known to exhibit significant natural oil seepage. One of those areas is over the Biloxi salt dome, adjacent to and west of the Macondo area, where the Deepwater Horizon disastrous oil spill occurred just two years ago.  Another is nearly 150 nm southwest of the Biloxi Dome, not far from the "Thunder Horse PDQ" semi-submersible oil platform in an area known as Thibodaux Basin, some 100 miles south of Terrebonne Bay, Louisiana.  It just so happens that the Mars and Ursa platforms lie conveniently between those two areas!  So not only did we get a good look at the "Shell oil slick," the scientists heading out there in vessels will soon have the opportunity to collect surface water-oil samples.

Dr. MacDonald was surprised at the large amount of streamers and patties of stuff we saw, which we told him we thought was dead sargassum. We had to fly quite close to it before he began to believe that it could be sargassum and not very weathered crude oil, although frankly none of us is certain that these sorry-looking sargassum-like strings are a natural phenomenon.  After witnessing his surprise, we wished we had urged people to take samples of this ubiquitous strange-looking vegetation a year ago, when we began documenting it all over this part of the Gulf.  We have seen it regularly in a 40-nm radius around the Macondo area. Today's photos of it were taken between 10 and 20 nm to the northwest of the Macondo area; see gps waypoints 0221 and 0222 in the flight log below. After the flight, I showed him photos we had taken during the summer of 2010 of beautiful golden, healthy-looking sargassum about 150 nm to the west, in the Ewing Bank area where we had also found whale sharks. Mark this down for another important task for those with vessels who are willing to use them to come out and collect samples of these streamers and have them analyzed!  There is so much to understand, and it still looks like it is up to citizens to gain this knowledge themselves.

We are completely nonplussed as to why again today we saw absolutely no animals. No dolphins, no whales, no turtles, no bait balls, no flying fish, no birds even. Not a fin, not a spout, not a shadow. Where have all the wild ones gone? We hope they have found better waters in which to live, and may they live long and prosper there until this part of the Gulf is restored to health.

Our flight log with GPS waypoints and explanations of sights seen is given as usual at the bottom of this article.  Use it to know which areas or phenomena are correlated with which photos below.

Here is a map of the waypoints correlating with the photos and video from today's flight:

20120412-GPSMap

The oil slick between the Mars and Ursa oil platforms are between the waypoints numbered 0226 and 0227.  
The NOAA vessel Okeanos Explorer was studying the Biloxi Dome today at waypoint numbered 0223.  The strange sargassum we photographed today was at waypoints numbered 0221 and 0222.  The Taylor Energy slick was at waypoint number 0220.  Several slicks on our way back to the mainland were seen, and by then we didn't even bother to photograph them all.  (It's a terrible thing to become numb to pollution.)  Some that we did photograph were associated with platforms in the vicinities of waypoints numbered 0229 and 0230.  Waypoint number 0218, right next to Louisiana's eastern coastal wetlands, was one of those typical ugly linear slicks that is found regularly near oil platforms, this one about three-quarters of a mile long and 30 ft wide.  

Sample photos of these sites are given immediately below.  Additional photos are provided in the gallery at the bottom of this article.

Here are some photos and a video of the slick we saw out near the Mars and Ursa platforms:

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.  

Here are photos of the smaller slicks we saw on our way northward back to the mainland from the Mars and Ursa platforms:

 

Here are photos and a video showing the state of the Taylor Energy slick today:

 

Here is that ugly slick we saw before we even made it into Breton Sound on our way out to open water this morning:

 

Here are some photos of the strange sargassum-like streamers we saw (and typically see) so much of in the blue waters around the Macondo area:

 

 

Finally, here are some of the platforms and vessels of note in the flight log below, followed by the Flight Log and then a gallery including additional photos of the above subjects.

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On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20120412, Thursday

Taylor Energy, Macondo area, Mars-Ursa Platforms

All waypoint numbers below refer to the GPS tracks shown in today's article at OnWingsOfCare.org.
Times are given in CDT.  
Lat/lons are given in degrees and decimal minutes.
Aircraft:  N4784E  Bonny Schumaker with Ian MacDonaldand Brayton Matthews as spotters and photographers.
Equipment:  We used a Canon DSLR in the belly viewer, a handheld camera, and Sony HD video camera.
Seas and weather:  Seas 3-5 ft, a bit rough.  30-35 kt winds from the east-southeast.  Visibility fair, due to a stationary cold-warm front hanging off shore about 10-30 nm south of our positions.

NOTE:  Some strange bug either in our Garmin 296 or Basecamp has labeled the dates for all of today's waypoints as "27-AUG-92". We've hand-changed these, but each time we sync they revert back.  The times in the Basecamp .gpx file are in UTC (CDT + 0500).  The dates for the GPS waypoint numbers 0218--0230 are all today, 2012 April 12!

 

0218. 1015 CDT. N29 28.775 W89 24.121
Oil slick just west of plaform, about 10 m wide and ~3/4 nm long.

0220.  1040 CDT. N28 56.352 W88 58.331
Taylor Energy slick.  Didn't see the white buoy today.

0221.  1054 CDT. N28 52.398 W88 45.560
Sorry-looking sargassum (?) lines and patties, reddish-brown in color, tight clumps that don't really resemble vegetation but do have structure.  Running NE-SW.

0222.  1102 CDT. N28 48.221 W88 35.412
More sargassum lines, running NE-SW.

0223.  1115 CDT. N28 40.772 W88 28.773
Okeanos Explorer NOAA vesse;, over the Biloxi Dome.  We circled, tried to communicate on marine band channel 19.  We heard other marine traffic, hailed the OE, but received no answer.

0224.  1148 CDT. N28 24.677 W89 01.104
Floating-leg production platform, Opti-EX ("LLO"). (Image 4707)

0225.  1150 CDT. N28 27.297 W89 03.643
Vessel Joshua Chouest (Image 4721)

0226.  1206 CDT. N28 06.916 W89 08.806
Slice between and to the south of the platforms Mars (west) and Ursa (east), approximately the same size as the Taylor Energy slick looked today.  Not a trivial slick!

0227.  1217 CDT. N28 12.108 W89 21.708
Same slick as above (0226).

0228. 1233 CDT.  N28 36.205 W89 18.815
Platform "Corral MC365A" ("ENI"?)

0229.  1238 CDT. N28 43.927 W89 22.529
Six distinct slicks in the proximity of five platforms, each about 30-50 m long and 10 m wide. (Images 4809-4826)

0230.  1244 CDT. N28 50.429 W89 23.158
Same as 0229 above, small slicks in proximity of platforms.