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2012 October 06 Saturday
Gulf of Mexico

Today’s was one of our favorite kinds of flights -- looking for whale sharks!  October is usually the end of the season for finding many of them in the Gulf of Mexico.  But scientists don’t really know much about where whale sharks go and when, and people like us have only been finding them from the air for a little over two years, so every flight is a new search, and we stay on alert the entire time.  This time of year is when we especially find them near large active bait balls, where the big tuna are jumping, too.  Today was no exception.

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Jennifer McKinney (shark chaser extraordinaire) and her captain and crew in a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries(LDWF) boat wanted us to follow up on a report that a whale shark had been seen near the Devils Tower platform, about 75 nautical miles off shore from the southern tip of Louisiana and well south of the MC252 area (scene of the 2010 BP oil disaster).  We headed more or less directly toward that area, veering off course just slightly for such interesting sites as four large manta rays who were breaking water and raising quite an unusual ruckus on the surface!  (That was at our GPS point 0427, in our Flight Log below and on our GPS Flight Tracks which you can download here. Photos are in the galleries below.)

From there, which was barely offshore from the southern tip of Lousiana, almost all the way to Devils Tower, we saw very little wildlife.  What we did see was a number of surface oil slicks.  We passed by the chronic Taylor Energy spill site, which is within 15 nm of shore, having documented that the day before.  But even without veering from our direct course, we came upon several areas of surface oil sheen, sporadic and not always associated obviously with a platform, and the worst of these were between 40 and 70 nm offshore. 

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Not far from one of those slicks, several miles southwest of Devils Tower, we spotted one large sperm whale! (Our GPS point 0432.) We longed to search for more animals in that vicinity, but by this time we were entirely focused on looking for bait balls and whale sharks, as we were now within radio reach of the LDWF boat, who had moved southward from Devils Tower. This big guy is in the video below, too.

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Finally, about 15 nm south of Devils Tower, near a platform called “Merks Developer”, we spotted two large, active bait balls, the first of the flight.  Jennifer and her crew were very close to one of them!  We radioed to them, and they told us excitedly that indeed, they had just found a large adult male whale shark in that bait ball!  They tagged that one, and we flew to the other bait ball and found another large whale shark, feeding vertically near the edge.  We told the boat crew about it and guided them over to it, and within an hour or so they had a second shark tagged! (See more whale shark photos below.)  This was looking like another banner day -- except for one problem.  We did not see any other active bait balls.

We spent the next two hours combing the area within about 25 nm of the LDWF boat (in order to be sure they could make it to wherever we found more sharks).  We found only two more bait balls, and they were small ones with no large fish jumping and no whale sharks visible near the surface.  As the LDWF boat started to head back toward shore, we continued in front of them, searching for sharks they might be able to tag on their way in.  But the way back in was as quiet of marine life as the way out had been.  Instead, we saw some slick lines, some of them a strange greenish color where sargassum and oil were mixed.  Several platforms were flaring (noted below in our Flight Log).  And our way home took us back over the Taylor Energy area, and the afternoon light revealed some ugly thick rainbow sheen in parts of this massive surface slick.

We all still wonder where the whale sharks go.  As of early November (as we are writing this report belatedly), the adult male shark “Dude” has surfaced and shown himself to be not far off the coast of Texas.  The adult female’s has not yet reported.  We  have not searched much this fall in the waters south of Alabama and off western Florida, but we plan to do one more flight over there, to see if whale sharks are still enjoying that area.

But the mystery remains for now, til we tackle it again next summer!

Enjoy the short video and more extensive photo galleries below.  Under those is our Flight Log, with a list of all sightings, their GPS coordinates, and the time we saw them.  Our GPS Flight Tracks can be downloaded here.  

The maps of our flight today are here, along with an overlay of our planned oil-monitoring flight from yesterday (in pink, showing estimated positions of known natural seeps and reported surface slicks):

Our favorite photos are here, with addtional photos on each subject below (starting with the sperm whale, then the whale sharks, and finally the oil slick near the sperm whale and a distant view of the Taylor Energy mess):

Here is the short video, combining both the sperm whale and the whale sharks:

Here are more sperm whale photos:

Here are more whale shark photos:

Here are those green oily lines we saw, and the slick not far from the sperm whale:

Here is that horrendous Taylor Energy expanse of surface oil, wider than the widest-angle camera lens can grasp:

And here are a few shots we tried to get of those rowdy manta rays, and the wetlands on our return flight:

 

***** On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20121006 Saturday *****

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 & Crew: Dr. Bonny Schumaker with Terese Collins of Biloxi, MS.
Seas and weather:  Seas 1-2 ft, scattered low clouds, 5-15 kt winds from the northeast-north.
Visibility:  Air good, sea good (the usual muddy waters in coastal areas).
Flight time:  5.0 hours
Flight route: KNEW - DevilsTower -20 miles south, searching 15 miles east and west of the path from there back to South Pass. Devils Tower:  N28 12.930 W88 43.950

Maps of our route showing the following waypoints identified during our flight, plus relevant waypoints from previous flights, are in today's article (including a link to our GPS track file).

Short summary:

5-hour Gulf flyover to help find whale sharks for scientists with the Louisiana Dept of Wildlife & Fisheries, who were prepared to put GPS tags and obtain other information (including DNA) from them.  We found two whale sharks, an adult male and an adult female, both large, feeding in large bait balls about 10 miles south of Devils Tower.  On the way out there, we saw one sperm whale, and four large black manta rays who were very active, breaking water frequently.  Also several new and chronic and known oil slicks.

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20121006 - Planned & New (0425--0443) Waypoints of Interest
(* = marine life of special interest)

KNEW - Lakefront Airport
ADIZ crossing : N29 04.0  W88 49.0  (85 nm, 130° M from KNEW)

0425.  1043 CDT.  N29 31.976 W89 19.965
OIL line coming off small platform, southward.

0426.  1048 CDT.  N29 25.936 W89 12.194
OIL - Pipeline leak?  NW-SE

*0427. 1101-1111 CDT.  N29 02.759 W88 59.652
*
Four large black (manta?) rays, breaking water!

0428.  1114 CDT.  N28 56.558 W88 57.506
(Taylor Energy area)  Lots of rainbow sheen, a massive slick these days. (See also photos of this area from later in the day on our return.)

0429.  1136 CDT.  N28 21.547 W88 47.471
OIL Sheen, ~ 0.5 x 0.5 nm

0430.  1140 CDT.  N28 18.119 W88 48.869
Sargassum line and patties, looks good.

0431.  1146 CDT.  N28 09.031 W88 49.412
OIL slick

*0432.  1148 CDT.  N28 09.312 W88 46.559
*
One sperm whale.

**0433.  1208 CDT.  N27 58.849 W88 43.379 (~15 nm S of DevilsTower platform)
* Platform “Mersk Developer” -- and two large bait balls, each with a large adult whale shark!  One male, one female.  LDWF scientists tagged both! YEA!!!

0434.  1228 CDT.  N27 59.075 W88 42.048
OIL - small slick, ~ 200 m x 200 m

(No Waypoint) ~ 15 nm west of Devils Tower: Drill ship “Stena Forth” and two supply vessels

DEVILS TOWER platform. N28 12.930 W88 43.950

0436.  1305 CDT.  N28 13.408 W88 42.137
OIL - slick line, greenish with sargassm and oil in it.  (Also saw this about 10 nm southwest of DevilsTower.)

0437.  1315 CDT.  N28 11.816 W88 29.647
“Thunderhorse” drilling unit, plus two supply ships and one tuna fishing boat.  ~13 nm E of Devils Tower.

0438.  1323 CDT.  N28 14.155 W88 27.794
Drill ships “Deepwater Pathfinder” and a large active baitball to its northeast, but no whale shark visible in it.

0439.  1352 CDT.  N28 22.144 W89 00.855
Green oily line again, ~ 3 nm long, narrow.
About 2 nm NE of GPS#0439 was platform, flaring:  Murphy Oil (27/58).

0440.  1354 CDT.  N28 24.896 W89 01.328
Platform (“OPTEX”) and supply vessel

0441.  1357 CDT.  N28 26.428 W89 02.614
Platform (“Noble Amos Runner”) and supply vessel

0442.  1418 CDT.  N28 44.583 W88 50.100
“Matterhorn” (MC233A) platform, flaring

0443.  1429 CDT.  N28 52.071 W88 56.002 Platform “Stone”

Taylor Energy. 1434 CDT.  Approx N28 57.000 W89 00.000
A massive surface slick, with parts of it showing significant rainbow and streaking.