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2012 July 11 Wednesday
Gulf of Mexico

Today we went searching for whale sharks again, to help a team of scientists who were ready and eager to place some satellite tags.  With serious thunderstorms to the west and east, their target area was south of New Orleans, beyond Sackett Bank and on toward the Mars and Ursa platforms and an area known as the "Mississippi Canyon." (Recall the oil we documented in that vicinity last April 12 and 18?  It's still there!)  Some whale shark sightings had been reported in that vicinity by fishermen during the preceding week, so we were hopeful, even though this area was well east of the Ewing Bank area where we had seen a group of whale sharks on June 29. We did a very careful search of this area for several hours, but we found nothing! Nada. Nobody. Not even flying fish!  It seemed a desert.  

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As we exhausted our search in the area accessible to the boat, we bid them adieu with disappointment. There were heavy thunderstorms between us and New Orleans, so we would have to thread our way westward around them -- which was just the excuse we needed to keep on searching. We headed westward toward Ewing Bank, more determined than ever and all eyes scanning intently through our open windows. 

This year we've found very little life out in the deep water within 70 miles or so of the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010. Each time we fly, we hope that maybe the animals are just late in returning this year. The water looks as blue and beautiful as ever; it's just that we are seeing no fish, no birds, no whales, no sharks. We don't get used to it, and we can't accept it yet.  Not finding life out there just makes us more determined than ever to keep searching. The alternative -- the conclusion that the marine life is just not there -- is as unacceptable to our hearts as it is apparently unspeakable for either government "experts" or the oil companies. Time will tell.

No sooner were we out of radio communication range with the boat than we spotted some fins and spouts! Three sperm whales! Looked like maybe a mother and calf, with a larger male some ways away. The mother and calf were just hanging there vertically, as if perhaps they were recovering from a long dive.  This behavior continued for a good ten minutes, after which we continued on our way to search for whale sharks.   

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Once we reached Ewing Bank, we didn't have enough time to do a careful search beyond where we had found whale sharks June 29, but we gave that vicinity a good look. We found no whale sharks, but we did see two hammerhead sharks, and another one a bit farther north!  And stil farther north, as we reached shallower green water, we were treated to the sights of not one but four different schools of golden rays, each with 12-20 animals "flying" in formation.  That was a sight for our eyes and hearts. The coastal waters also were filled with baitballs of small fish, and a few birds enjoying some early evening meals.   

 

We photographed some interesting and unusual platforms and vessels out there today that we have not seen recently in this area.  There was a mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) near the Mars and Ursa platforms.  And an impressive looking set of "golden arches" (some sort of derrick) where workers are apparently trying to salvage and extract something very heavy from below the surface. And a research survey vessel of a different sort from the usual, one called the "WG Vespucci" whose home port appears to be Limassol on the island of Cypress, Greece!  ("WG" stands for Western Geco, a business segment of Slumberge that specializes in geophysical seismic studies.)  

We took a few photos of the weather we were passing beside and through, always a beautiful sight over water.  And some of the gorgeous Louisiana wetlands as we flew back to New Orleans.  Finally, since the skies were just starting to clear as we approached the city of New Orleans, we got some terrifically clear and lovely shots of the city.  Enjoy!

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As always, you may download our GPS flight tracks by going to the main menu item "Flight Tracks" and looking for the file from today.  Our flight log transcription is included at the bottom of this article.

We had two great spotters on board today, but because they were enlisted at the last minute, we didn't have great cameras with us, so our photos do not do justice to the animals we saw.  But that we saw any at all was some relief.  Many thanks to Jennifer and Sarah for driving over to New Orleans at the last minute and working hard with us on this long flying day!

Here are photos of the small family of sperm whales -- the one male and the two who were hanging in the water vertically:

Here are photos of the oil from the Shell oil slick between the Mars and Ursa platforms (first documented by us on April 12 and April 18 of this year).  Apparently they haven't managed to stop this leak yet?

Here are photos of sargassum from this flight:

Here are photos of the unusual vessels and MODUs we saw today:

 

Here are photos of some of the weather we were threading our way through today:

Here are photos of Louisiana wetlands on our way to and from New Orleans:

And lastly, here are some lovely views of the city of New Orleans just as the skies were clearing and we were arriving:

 

******FLIGHT LOG 20120711 OWOC Gulf Flight*****

On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20120711, Wednesday
SEARCH for WHALE SHARKS in the GULF of MEXICO
KNEW to Medusa, Mars and vicinity, then west to Ewing Bank

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 Jennifer Green and Sarah Ashworth (both from the Gulf Coast Research Lab) as spotters.
Seas and weather:  Seas 1-3 ft, overcast with thunderstorms in vicinity, winds 5-15 kts from the south-southeast.
Visibility:  Air medium-good, sea medium-good.
Flight time:  5.7 hours
Flight route: KNEW - Medusa-Mars-Ursa-west-Innovator-Ursa-west to Ewing Bank-KNEW.

The following waypoints were pre-set for this flight, based on whale-shark sightings in the past two weeks around the Mars platform and southward.  Our LDWF crew planned to have their boat between Medusa and Mars, and we would rendezvous with them as we searched.

The maps of our planned and actual routes showing these targets together with waypoints identified during our flight and some key points from previous flights are in today's article.

Intended ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) crossing point enroute from KNEW was approximately:
N28 24'  W 089 27', or about 105 nm from KNEW on a magnetic bearing of 165°.

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

Other waypoints of possible interest, west of this area and flown over on June 29, include:
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'
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0346. 1241 CDT. N29 10.229 W89 43.032
Sea turtle, not sure what kind (we didn't slow to look.)

Mars platform (MC801A), with a MODU (Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit) nearby and 2 supply boats.  OIL?  Line of sheen north-south (~5 nm) and about 300-400 nm wide SW-NE.

0347. 1448 CDT. N28 10.561 W89 27.746
Ship, "WG Vespucci".  With heliport and large hangar beneath.  Seismic monitoring?  Large spools on back.

***0348. 1511 CDT. N28 11.598 W89 26.619
SPERM WHALES!  Two (mom and calf?) plus one large one about 50 meters away.  The two were vertical, mouths up, just hanging there.

0349. 1517 CDT. N28 11.112 W89 27.953
OIL -- NE-SW band at least 1 nm long, only about 20 m wide (E-W).

0350. 1532 CDT. N28 10.634 W89 57.686
School of flying fish!  (:--)) (Finally, some signs of life!)

0351. 1558 CDT. N28 00.834 W90 51.745
~7-10 work vessels and the "golden arches" platform or ?

***0352. 1612 CDT. N28 10.858 W90 52.417
Two hammerhead sharks.

***0353. 1630 CDT. N28 21.059 W90 55.983
One hammerhead shark and a very large baitball near the platform.

***0354. 1642 CDT. N28 42.793 W90 48.314
A school of ~20 golden rays (cownose?)

***0355. 1647 CDT. N28 53.472 W90 47.340
Another school of golden rays

***0356. 1648 CDT. N28 54.544 W90 47.020
Two more schools of golden rays and many small baitballs, and some birds!

---------Marked waypoints from previous flight 20120629: 
0324. 20120629, 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. 20120629, 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.

0332.  20120629, 1427 CDT. N27 59.240 W89 51.948
Short-finned PILOT 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!)

0335. 20120629, 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. 20120629, 1500 CDT. N28 16.410 W89 37.986
Blue-Green water line, with sargassum in it, very long line west-east.

MEDUSA platform: 20120629, Was flaring!