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2012 August 12, Sunday
Gulf of Mexico, Sackett Bank area of Mississippi Canyon

Despite persistent lines of thunderstorms across southern Louisiana, there were large patches of blue sky and calm seas out on the Gulf today, so we jumped at the chance to help scientists find the elusive huge plankton feeders we've come to love -- whale sharks. Louisiana's Department of Wildlife & Fisheries has taken a keen interest in whale sharks since the great tagging successes by USM/GCRL and NOAA scientists in recent years, due in no small part to the help of our eyes in the sky. The LDWF boat was ready and waiting for us out in the Mississippi Canyon today, where we planned to search an area where other plankton feeders and lots of tuna had been spotted this past week...

We planned to rendezvous with the boat at the Who Dat platform, some 130 miles southeast of New Orleans. We would search selectively in about a 400-sq-mi area to the north and west, as far as platforms Lena and Cognac about 35 miles to the north, Moxie about 25 miles to the northwest, and about 10 miles west toward Medusa.  Since blue water seemed to be farther south today, we also searched an additional 30 miles or so southward to the Mars and Ursa platforms. (These oil platforms serve as useful guideposts, and their names are easier to say and remember than are their GPS coordinates -- which are given in our Flight Log appended below.)

We saw a fair amount of activity -- birds and bait balls, tuna and other large fish jumping, dolphins playing, an occasional ray and sea turtle and mola mola (sunfish) -- but alas, no whale sharks. However, no day flying over the Gulf is ever boring.  Today we were treated to watching a small group of dolphins race toward the path of a large vessel, only to position themselves directly in front of it and enjoy quite a bow ride!  We also saw a small pod of dolphins including mothers and calves. On our way out to sea, we passed by a huge thunderstorm cell to the west, and we watched an impressive waterspout form. That is one of those things you love to watch but would never ever ever want to fly under. We saw not one but three large mola mola (sunfish), floating in the blue-green water between the Lena and Cognac platforms (exact positions for all sightings are given in the Flight Log below and in our GPS tracks, which you can download here). And of course there was the phenomena that we chased tirelessly but in vain -- bait balls, many of them with large tuna jumping about and plenty of birds feasting.

And as usual on Gulf of Mexico flyovers, even on a day like today when we are not looking for and do not want to find manmade oil pollution, we saw plenty of evidence of it. The first circle of rainbow sheen crossed our path at the north end of Plaquemines Parish, just south of Black Bay (GPS #0358 in our Flight Log below). Then we passed the Taylor Energy pollution horror a few miles to our east. It remains the same horrible sight, still a large expanse of sheen as far as our eyes could see. We didn't even bother to approach and film it; today was for whale sharks, not for oil. We saw some strange-looking foamy sheen mixed with sargassum in several places, one long band of it in particular near the Moxie platform.  Also, just northwest of the Who Dat platform (gps coordinates N28° 9.5', W089° 8.4'), there was a large ship called "DAMON CHOUEST" towing several lines, seismic monitoring perhaps? Maybe one of you readers can tell us.

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See all the photos and videos and read the full article here!