2012 April 18 Wednesday
Gulf of Mexico

This month On Wings Of Care has been supporting a large group of scientists who are carrying out a long-planned mission to study the state of the ocean floor in strategic areas of the Gulf of Mexico. These include places of known natural gas and oil seeps, as well as areas where persistent and significant surface oil slicks have been observed since the BP oil pollution disaster of 2010. Today, OWOC flew out to an area in Green Canyon, far offshore in the deep blue water about 180 nm south of New Orleans and 160 nm southwest of the infamous Macondo well, to meet scientists aboard the NOAA ship Endeavor

We saw a fair amount of oil, some in expected places and some not.  We saw no wildlife except a few sea birds near ships.  Not a fin, not a spout, not a shadow.  Not a dolphin, whale, sea turtle, shark, ray, or tuna.  We're hoping that it's because we arrived too soon after the storms, or perhaps the weather patterns have contrived to change these animals' travel patterns, and we'll see them in these areas later in the year, the way we've seen them here in years past.  But a flight over the Gulf without seeing wildlife is rare for us, and a disappointment.

The scientists left Gulfport about a week ago and encountered storms and seas so rough that they could not deploy their submersible ROV (remotely operated vehicle).  These missions were going to use a new approach combining near-simultaneous satellite imaging, airborne imaging, and sub-sea imaging, to acquire new and useful insights into relations between observed surface oil slicks and their seabed origins.  Unfortunately, Envisat, the satellite whose affordable and ideal data was to be used, suffered a catastrophic failure days before this mission began.  And then the ROV suffered some damage and needed some additional parts for repair.  Well, we do love challenges! So we brought them their parts, wrapped in robust buoyant packaging, and we also found lots of surface oil for them to sample.  And sample they did, and are still!  In the coming weeks and months, as they analyze their samples and process their ROV data, we all will learn much about the state of the ocean floor in the Gulf.

In a separate article (titled "A Look From Below"), we are publishing a chronicle of layman-level reports from the scientists aboard Endeavor.  Thanks to Dr. Vernon Asper, Dr. Ian MacDonald, and Dr. Samantha Joye for helping provide those, and for explaining some of the more technical discussions to us so that we can present some of them more simply and not too inaccurately!

In this article, we'll give our usual "Look From Above" summary of what we observed on the surface of the Gulf today.  A weather system front was just passing south of us, so we were still flying under an overcast sky and visibility was limited.  Weather-wise, it would have been ideal for us to wait an extra day to make this flight. But scientists on a ship don't have the luxury of stretching their schedule arbitrarily, and today was the first day of calmer seas and clearing skies, so they were eager to see us and receive the guidance (and repair parts!) we could provide. 

Here are maps showing our flight route (in yellow).  Photos of the individual sites of note will follow these maps and explanations. Red circles with lines through them are places where we have documented significant surface oil in the past (they are labeled by a four-digit date, sometimes followed by a four-digit waypoint number from our GPS unit and transcribed flight logs for those flight dates).   

We spotted oil immediately off the coast of Louisiana still in very green water -- GPS #0231.  This location was about 70 miles south of New Orleans, and less than 10 miles south of Timbalier Bay. (Note the difference in photo lighting and angle between the belly viewer and the windows.)

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.  

Then we proceeded directly out to a rendezvous point with Endeavor in Green Canyon.  On the way there, well into deep blue water, we saw a big oil slick as we approached a place called "Thibodaux Basin" along the "Mississippi Slope" -- the start of a steep drop-off into the central Gulf of Mexico.  Here are photos of this slick -- our GPS#0232:   

An even larger slick lay barely 20 miles ahead of us -- GPS#0233, and in the middle of one side of it was sitting the Endeavor, with their small inflatable in the water beside them awaiting our arrival. Here are video and photos, some taken from the belly viewer and some from the windows. (The oil production platform in a few of these photos was located about 8 miles to the east and appears unrelated to the surface oil slick.)  Because of our orientation for the belly viewer, the video does not show the Endeavor.

After this, we left Endeavor and proceeded northeastward to scout out new surface oil sites for them to sample on their return voyage to Gulfport over the next several days.  From here northeastward we noted vessels and platforms galore.  The Mississippi Slope is a hopping place for oil development!  We saw Transocean's Development Driller III and Development Driller I (GPS#0238), as well as impressively large familiar ships such as the Olympic Challenger, Boa Bubba C,and Viking Poseidon. We passed another known seep site, "AT357" located about 50 nm northeast of where the Endeavor was and about 100 nm southwest of the Macondo area.  We didn't see any obvious large slicks there, although we didn't spend much time looking because visibility was dropping rapidly as we approached a thicker cloud overcast. Photos here are of the Development Driller 1 and the Viking Poseidon

This brought us up to the Shell-reported slick near the Mars and Ursa platforms, which we documented last week (April 12).  We quickly found another surface slick not far from the eastern end of the one we documented last week -- GPS#0242.  It was at least 0.5 nm long and about 800 m wide.  Here are window photos of this slick:

Here are photos of this slick taken through our belly viewer:

And lastly, here is some video of this slick.  It's not great video, as we were focusing on the belly viewer so did not position ourselves for window shots.  Also, the overcast and mist were closing in, so time pushed us on quickly.

As we proceeded farther northeast toward the Macondo area, we came across the other NOAA vessel out there currently studying seeps, the Okeanos Explorer.  They were at the south edge of Biloxi Dome, about 12 miles southwest of the infamous Macondo well.  Here are some photos of the Okeanos Explorer (the one from the belly viewer is an unusual view indeed -- we humans do not usually look at things from directly overhead!):

About five miles north of them, at the northwest corner of Biloxi Dome and less than eight miles west-southwest of the Macondo well site, we took photos of another significant surface slick, a persistent one which we have documented previously (see, e.g.,November 12, 2011) -- GPS#0244.  However, by this time the visibility and lighting were extremely poor, and while we could see the oil clearly with our eyes, our cameras could not, and with the mist closing in we opted not to spend the time to circle to get better photos.  Here is one shot that the belly viewer picked up, though:  

By this time, visibility was dropping drastically, so we took a somewhat circuitous path to stay clear of virga and mist, and proceeded back toward New Orleans.  As has happened virtually without fail, as we approached Louisiana's southeast coast, we encountered numerous oil slicks trailing and surrounding the ubiquitous oil platforms.  The slick whose photos shown here were in Breton Sound, just northeast of Breton Island - GPS#0245.  This was quite a long slick, very near a large platform surrounded by at least 20 smaller platforms.  It was about 3 nm long and about 30 m wide.


On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20120418, Wednesday
Green Canyon (GC600), Mars-Ursa, Macondo

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 and 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 2-4 ft, a bit rough.  15-25 kt winds from the north-northwest.  Visibility fair to poor, though good at GC600 when over the NOAA ship Endeavor.
Rule of thumb for estimating volume of slick: assume 1 micron thickness if otherwise unknown.  Then 50 m by 1 nm = 26 gal.  1 nm = 2000m (or 1 sq km = 264 gal).


0231. 1255 CDT. N28 56.558 W90 23.271
Oil slick, rainbow in enter, northeast-to-southwest.  100m  x 300m. 
If 1 micron thick ==> ~ 9 gal.  BUT looked thicker!

(no gps point) 1330 CDT, ~ 28°06'N, 090° 32'W.  "ROWAN" platform.

0232. 1336 CDT. N27 43.756 W90 32.907
OIL, lines and sheets, west to east.

0233. 1342 CDT. N27 33.932 W90 34.923
More oil, two parallel slicks, each about 30 m wide by 0.5 nm long, north to south.
(NOAA ship Endeavor here).

(no gps point)  To the east of 0233, a vessel and platform called "Hereford"?  (we didn't read it, but were told that by the NOAA ship) (Image 0071)

0234.  1423 CDT. N27 13.140 W90 03.213
Three large vessels all in proximity.  Olympic Challenger, Boa Bubba C, Viking Poseidon.

0235.  1424 CDT. N27 13.766 W90 02.596

0236. 1429 CDT. N27 18.824 W90 04.551
Platform - Transocean "Development Driller III"

0237.  1430 CDT.  N27 19.143 W90 04.442

0238. 1431 CDT. N27 20.382 W90 05.978
Platform - Transocean "Development Driller I" ("GSF"). (Image 5004)

0239.  1505 CDT. N28 01.296 W89 25.850
Vessel and drilling platform "Nicole"

0240.  1513 CDT. N28 09.794 W89 14.741
Vessel:  "Noble Bully"

0241. 1513 CDT. N28 10.123 W89 13.661
Platform MC807A

0242.  1524 CDT. N28 07.742 W89 09.255 (Near Shell-reported slick between Mars and Ursa, documented by us last April 12)
OIL slick, 0.5 nm long by 800 m , wide. (Actually the slick was a bit east of gps#0242.) (Images 5015-5044)

0243. 1555 CDT. N28 34.160 W88 27.960
NOAA vessel Okeanos Explorer.

0244. 1606 CDT. N28 41.143 W88 28.587
OIL slick, ~0.2 nm x 150 m.

0245. 1652 CDT. N29 32.846 W89 07.534
OIL slick, N-NE of Breton Island.  Long slick from the area of one large platform surrounded by dozens of (at least 20) small ones.  Slick was ~3 nm long x 30 m wide. (Images 5049, 5051)