2012 June 29, Friday
Gulf of Mexico

UPDATE 2012 Jul 13 -- VIDEOS added!  (whale sharks, rays, and sargassum -- see below, above the photo galleries)


The season for whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico has begun!  Finding them was our highest priority after returning from finding and flying for whales and sea turtles off of Cape Cod, and biologists from Louisiana and Mississippi were more than ready for us to to find them so that they could fit them with satellite tags.  Tropical Storm Debby had just passed, and the previous week's wild seas had calmed to near glass, so we wasted no time.  The only problem was, unlike previous summers, there have been no sightings reported by fishermen or oil platform workers.  Not a one.  So where would we start the search?  

Trying to be as scientific about this as possible, we combined all of our sightings from the past two years with the biologists' data on locations of sightings in the past ten years, and from them we made a "statistically optimum" flight path.  That path took us first to the Ewing Bank area, about 160 miles south-southwest of New Orleans, then eastward along the shelf about 75 miles, northeastward almost to Sackett Bank, then back to the Mars and Ursa platforms to catch up with some of the biologists who were there working with tuna, to tell them of our findings -- and very excitedly, as we had lots to report! Near Ewing Bank a pod of about 35 dolphins, then ten whale sharks all in close proximity, and later, about 50 miles eastward, ten short-finned pilot whales including several mother-calf pairs!  We also saw two large manta rays on our way back to shore.  

 

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On the whole, we still see woefully little marine life out there, at least compared to what we had seen in June and July the past two years and what we have heard about from others prior to that.  So these sightings seemed a huge relief to us, and to the marine biologists. Time will tell the state of health of these populations and of the fish and plankton they need in order to survive.  The chain of life needs all of its links, so it's likely that the problems we've all seen and heard about with shrimp, herring, red fish, and other marine life is affecting the Gulf's population of marine mammals and sharks and tuna as well.


Here are maps of our recon flight which successfully found these animals.  Our flight log, giving locations, times, and more information about sightings, is transcribed at the bottom of this article.  Our GPS flight tracks for today can be downloaded under the Main Menu item "Flight Tracks" by following directions given there.  And last but not least, our favorite photos and videos from today are given in the galleries below.  Our favorites from the galleries are given just below before the galleries -- first dolphins, then whale sharks, then the pilot whales, and finally lots and lots of sargassum. Photos of the ships and platforms mentioned in the Flight Log will be posted soon.

Enjoy!  And if there are any photos which you'd like to see more of or in higher resolution, just contact us and we'll be happy to share.  Photos and videos from today's flight are courtesy of Don Abrams and Brayton Matthews!  And, as always, we thank the business Flightline First of New Orleans' Lakefront Airport for their ongoing tremendous support of our work to benefit the Gulf by offering us reduced prices on aviation fuel, aircraft storage, and maintenance services.

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DOLPHINS - Favorite Photos:


WHALE SHARKS - Favorite Photos:


PILOT WHALES - Favorite Photos:


SARGASSUM - Favorite Photos:


Here's a cool video of some of the golden (cownose) rays we saw on our way back to the mainland:


Here are more photos as promised:

DOLPHINS

WHALE SHARKS

PILOT WHALES

SARGASSUM

 

***********FLIGHT LOG for 20120629 OWOC Gulf Flight to find Whale Sharks ***************

On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 2012069, Friday
SEARCH for WHALE SHARKS in the GULF of MEXICO
Ewing Bank eastward to 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 Don Abrams and Brayton Matthews as spotters, photographers, and videoraphers.
Equipment: Canon 200x and Sony HD video cameras.
Seas and weather:  Seas 1-2 ft, clear, 5-10 kt winds from the east-southeast.
Visibility excellent, sea clarity excellent.  One of the finest viewing days ever!

The following waypoints were pre-set for this flight, based on whale-shark sightings in the areas between Ewing Bank and the Innovator platform in June and July of 2011. No sightings had been reported yet this year in this area of the Gulf.   So our planned route took us first to the Ewing Bank area, and to past sighting waypoints labeled WS6, WS2, and WS1-2011. Then eastward to three other previous sighting locations from 2011: WS8, WS4, and WS4, all fairly close to the Innovator platform.  The map of these targets as well as the waypoints identified during our flight are shown in today's article. Then we went to the Mars/Ursa platform area to rendezvous with biologists who were eagerly waiting to hear of our findings.  We will guide them tomorrow to the successful sighting locations to help them try to put satellite tags on some of the whale sharks.

WS6.  N28 8.7'  W090 53.9'
WS2.  N28 0.5'  W091 1.5'
WS1-2011.  N27 56.18'  W091 1'
WS8.  N27 58.27' W089 41.4'
WS4.  N28 13.2'  W089 39.1'
WS7.  N28 15.26'  W089 38'

The rigs in these areas of interest are noted below, for the record.
Innovator:  N28 13.230 W89 36.900
Medusa:  N28 23.554  W089 27.21
Mars:   N28 10.171  W089 13.373
Ursa:   N28 9.242  W089 6.213

0321. 1236 CDT. N28 59.294 W90 31.587
A "family" of small platforms just off shore.  The narrow island shoreline had gas platforms within two miles of it inland as well.  Not pretty!  Nightmares of what could happen to the barrier islands if drilling were permitted there.

0322. 1246 CDT. N28 42.027 W90 38.463
Beautiful long lines of sargassum in the green-blue water, calm as glass.

0323. 1258 CDT. N28 22.306 W90 46.886
Platform:  SS259-JA.

***0324.  1305 CDT. N28 09.803 W90 53.365
A tightly-grouped pod of about 35 dolphins!  The first life we saw.  Otherwise, no birds, no bait balls, no flying fish, nothing.

***0325.  1311 CDT. N28 05.672 W90 57.988
WHALE SHARKS!  Four, then we saw another, and another, and finally another.  Making 7.  They were about 3 nm south of a large stationary (by sea anchor) fishing boat.  On our second trip by this point, within a half-mile of it, we saw three more whale sharks, for a total of 10.

0326. 1325 CDT. N27 56.546 W91 01.652
Platform not far from the whale sharks, "ATP".  Older, but not abandoned, as there were supplies and barrels on it.

0327. 1345 CDT. N28 05.926 W90 57.942
Platform, helicopter on the helipad (new paint on that helipad!).  "SS358"

0328. 1405 CDT. N28 03.200 W90 32.470
Platform, "W&T Offshore."

0329. 1412 CDT. N27 59.661 W90 19.368
Platform, "EW1003".

0330. 1418 CDT. N27 59.360 W90 08.904
Tall white boat, not typical supply boat.  What type?

0331. 1418 CDT. N27 59.542 W90 07.929
Typical supply boat.

***0332.  1427 CDT. N27 59.240 W89 51.948
WHALES!!!!  5 + 4 + 2.  At least two pairs of mother-calves (so the total number might be greater than 11).  (Thought at the time that these were small sperm whales, as we have seen those here in the Gulf previously.  Learned later that these are short-finned pilot whales!)

0333. 1440 CDT. N27 58.128 W89 42.172
Ship

0334. 1456 CDT. N28 13.867 W89 40.226
Orange-hulled ship, white bridge.

0335. 1456 CDT. N28 13.560 W89 41.145
OIL?  Definitely an oil smell, and the sheen was in stripes.  West of Innovator platform, within a few miles (slightly more than 3).

0336. 1500 CDT. N28 16.410 W89 37.986
Blue-Green water line, with sargassum in it, very long line west-east.

MEDUSA platform: Was flaring!

0337. 1512 CDT. N28 11.166 W89 20.218
Line of sheen?

0338. 1515 CDT. N28 10.044 W89 14.474
Drill ship, and Jennifer's boat next to it.  (Mars and Ursa platforms nearby.)

0339. 1525 CDT. N28 20.342 W89 18.144
Very small buoy.  Meteorological sensor?  No identifying features on it.

0340. 1542 CDT. N28 43.505 W89 26.797
Two large rays, one small turtle (dove before we could identify type).