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2013 May 23 & 24, Thursday & Friday
Gulf of Mexico 

As summer arrives and warm weather returns to the Gulf of Mexico, there are plenty of people yearning to know whether some very special marine life will be returning, too! The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries and scientist Jennifer McKinney are among them, and over the past three years they've learned that getting "a look from above" is a very efficient way to augment the occasional serendipitous sightings by fishermen and oil workers. They have used On Wings Of Care's well-developed skills and network of spotters on many occasions to help them keep whale sharks in sight long enough to have swimmers from dive boats fit them with GPS tags. This year they decided to augment the information from tagged whale sharks with some systematic surveys of areas that have historically had the largest number of whale-shark sightings. We began the first two such surveys this past week, flying an 1800-sq-nm grid over the Ewing Bank area on one day, followed by a similar-sized grid in an area south of Sackett Bank the next day.  Each of these grids took us out over the Gulf about 160 nm south of New Orleans, well into the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Finding whale sharks and other sharks from the air is one of the toughest aerial spotting challenges. By comparison, finding marine mammals like whales and dolphins is a no-brainer; after all, air-breathing animals frequent the surface, disturbing the water with fins and tails. The spouts from sperm whales as they breathe are visible above the surface for more than a mile; and from the air, whale "poop" is a huge sub-surface cloud that's hard to miss when the water is clear! Sea turtles also disturb the surface and frequently lounge about at or near the surface, making them easy targets to spot from the air. "Bait balls" of smaller fish show up very distinctly from the air, first as a dark circular-type spot on the water from a mile or so away, then from closer up as a circle of sparkling wavelets and silvery bodies jumping. Large tuna often make dramatic jumps in such bait balls, and we can spot them jumping from a good distance.

But sharks, even the huge 30-40-ft distinctive spotted whale sharks, don't break the surface much, and they don't cruise the surface all that much, either. To find them, we need fairly calm, clear water, so that we can see down to several feet below the surface. We also need trained, sharp, concentrating eyes that scan the sea surface without stopping for more than a few seconds in any one place.  It is demanding and sometimes tedious to strain one's eyes for 5-6 hours at a time looking for the elusive shadows of sharks just below the surface.  And when we spot one, watch out! Whatever kind of maneuvering it takes, we don't want to lose sight of it! Bank the plane, pull the power, put in a notch of flaps so we can slow down, go down, and turn tightly! 

So here's what we found -- but first just a few photos to whet your appetites!  Many more photos are in the galleries below. First a few of a whale shark swimming about five feet below the surface, viewed from about 600 ft above:

By contrast, look at how much easier it is to see sperm whales -- of which we saw several:

No trip would be complete without showing some of the spectacular and strange-looking sea phenomena as viewed from the air, such as these convergence lines between muddy and green water, and green and blue water, and the beautiful patterns of sargassum:

Last but not least, the wetlands of coastal Louisiana are a sight of beauty that stirs the hearts of all who live here:

So now down to the details of what we found, and many, many more photos! Our detailed flight logs are included at the end of this article, and you may download our GPS Flight Tracks here -- May 23 and May 24.  

On Thursday May 23, for a survey over the Ewing Bank area, two scientists from LDWF joined us, Jennifer McKinney and Cijii Marshall. It's always fun to fly with biologists who recognize every kind of critter we spot! Cijii had never spotted from the air, so she was especially excited when she immediately saw two small turtles and then several schools of cownose rays. The sargassum along the route to Ewing Bank was just lovely. As we went farther toward the blue water and almost out of the green, we saw a large manta ray, and then a large school of fish (looked like bonita).  Once in blue water, we didn't see so much, even though the water was reasonably calm (seas about 2 ft). The air was very hazy, though, and there were clouds that sometimes came right down to our low altitude (600-1000' above the water). Clouds make shadows on the water that make it impossible to see the shadow of a shark. So we can't be sure that we didn't miss some sharks out there.  But we did see a large adult sperm whale! And as we headed northward and homeward at the end of the day, we saw a large pod of dolphin with 40-50 animals in it, at least.  Approaching green water again, we saw two large baitballs, one of them near an oil platform, more sargassum, and more schools of cownose rays.  Here is what baitballs look like from the air:

On Friday May 24, we surveyed a similar-sized area to the east of Ewing Bank, almost due south of the Louisiana delta. Jennifer joined us for this flight, and two more seasoned wildlife spotters from Mississippi joined us as well -- Terese Collins and Don Abrams. This was such a dynamite crew of spotters, we felt today just had to be a winner! There was a stiff wind picking up from the north and a stationary front hanging over southern Louisiana that made for some wicked thunderstorms south of New Orleans, but out on the Gulf it was clear and balmy, and the seas were less than 1 ft. A perfect day for spotting marine life from the air!

Right off the bat, as soon as we were out of the muddy water and into green water, Jennifer spotted a hammerhead shark! The lines and patties of sargassum were very nice and marked our transition to blue water. And within ten minutes, we spotted a large adult sperm whale! And not far south from him, there was a small pod of at least 8-10 dolphins. Feeling confident that everyone was back in fine spotting form, all eyes were focused intently out our respective windows. WHALE SHARK!  Terese and I saw it almost simultaneously just off the left side of the plane. Once I had it in my sights, I was not about to lose it, so I pulled power, turned left but mostly with rudder so he wouldn't disappear under our wing, and descended down to about 400' for a better view. We always hope to get a good look at the left side of a whale shark, for that's what biologists use to identify individuals, by their spot patterns. But this time, we were just happy to have found one and to know that one, at least, had returned to the Gulf!  

With that fine start to the day, our next great sightings were a bit disappointing. A bright blue floating barrel.  A log. Pieces of a styrofoam cooler. But then we spotted what Terese thought was a hammerhead shark. (Whew, broke the spell!) And lots of flying fish. Then a group of three sperm whales! But as we proceeded east from there, dutifully flying our north-south "corn rows," we saw nothing but vessels and platforms, and occasionally some nice sargassum patties and strings. Heading northward toward New Orleans, we still saw no more wildlife, and we did see some new and some known chronic sites of surface oil sheen. Still, all in all, it was a great day. It is still early in the year to expect to see lots of whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico south of Louisiana. And we had found one!  So June is looking big, and we can hardly wait for the full moon, clear skies, and calm seas again in a few weeks!

We are not publishing the full transcriptions of our flight logs or our flight track files for these two flights, in respect for the scientists who will be using this information for their research.  But if you have any specific questions, feel free to call us, and if we can't answer them, we'll refer you to the folks at LDWF! 

Here are the galleries of photos we promised.
First the whale shark!  

 


Then the sperm whales, both the lone adult, and then the group of three:


Here are more of the "sea phenomena" sights that never fail to intrigue:


And the beautiful Louisiana wetlands, complete with flocks of large white pelicans:


Here are a couple of photos of some of our crew, taken by Terese Collins.  That's Don Abrams and Bonny (pilot) in front, and Jennifer McKinney concentrating intently on scanning the waters below.

 

FLIGHT LOGS for 20130523 and 20130524:

20130523:
On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20130523-Thursday 
Whale Shark Survey Flight #1 - Ewing Bank Area

 

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.
Pilot:
Bonny L. Schumaker, Ph.D. (ATP, CFI-AIM)
Spotters/Crew: Jennifer McKinney, LDWF; Cijii Marshall, LDWF.
Seas and weather:  Seas 1-2 ft, winds 10 kts from the south-southeast. 
Sky & Visibility: Scattered low clouds and hazy skies,  5-10-mile visibility
Flight time: 6.4 hours (6.0 hrs in flight)
Flight route: KNEW - southwest to NW corner of grid, then S-N rows separated by 6 minutes of
longitudes (approximately 5 nm), each about 42 nm long, for a total of 9 rows. Returned to KNEW.

Actual Flight: 679 nm within an area of 3,802 sq mi)

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

20130523 -  Survey Grid Area and Additional Waypoints noted during flight
-- KNEW

-- Southwestward across Lake Salvador.

-- ADIZ xing :  ~ N28 55  W090 55 or ~82 nm southwest (~215°) from KNEW (approx 45 min)

-- Ewing Bank area, starting at NW corner of the following grid: 27.7º-28.4º N;  90.5º-91.3ºW:
(Grid points given in decimal degrees.)

EB-NW201305 N28.4  W 91.3
EB-SW201305 N27.7 E91.3
EB-2S-201305 N27.7 W91.2
EB-2N-201305 N28.4 W91.2
EB-3N-201305 N28.4 W91.1
EB-3S-201305  N27.7 W91.1
EB-4S-201305 N27.7 W 91.0
EB-4N-201305 N28.4 W91.0
EB-5N-201305 N28.4 W90.9
EB-5S-201305 N27.7 W90.9
EB-6S-201305 N27.7 W90.8
EB-6N-201305 N28.4 W90.8
EB-7N-201305 N28.5 W90.7
EB-7S-201305 N27.7 W90.7
EB-8S-201305 N27.7 W90.6
EB-8N-201305 N28.4 W90.6
EB-NE201305 N28.4 W90.5
EB-SE201305 N27.7 W90.5
KNEW

New Waypoints from today’s flight 20130523 Thursday:
Wpt #s are from BLS’ flight GPS (Garmin 496).

WPT

LAT

LON

TIME (Z)

DESCRIPTION

23

29.694

-90.211

2013-05-23 T15:18:31Z

Distinct convergence line in Lake Salvador between lime green and reddish-brown colors

33

28.850

-90.985

2013-05-23 T15:53:16Z

School of cownose rays, 2 small turtles

43

28.572

-91.175

2013-05-23 T16:03:58Z

Great sargassum, patches and line

53

28.491

-91.242

2013-05-23 T16:07:15Z

Sargassum- 3 large patches and line

304

28.305

-91.296

2013-05-23 T16:13:56Z

Shrimp boat

4143

27.952

-91.299

2013-05-23 T16:25:51Z

Container ship “CMA.COM”?, westward

4172

27.860

-91.299

2013-05-23 T16:28:59Z

?Oil sheen?? ~1 nm NE-SW x 30 m wide. 1

4182

27.732

-91.299

2013-05-23 T16:33:25Z

Manta ray!  And more seeps? 4+ lines, NE-SW, 20m-80 m wide, avg 3/4 nm long NE-SW.

4192

27.752

-91.202

2013-05-2 3T16:38:58Z

?Natural oil seeps? W-E ~2 nm x 30-79 m side S-N.  Several lines, parallel.

4202

28.160

-91.188

2013-05-23 T16:50:46Z

Small white buoy, about 1 ft tall. Wx?

4212

28.285

-91.190

2013-05-23 T16:54:24Z

School of fish - bonita? >100. (WS eat bonita eggs; spawning?)

4222

28.341

-91.196

2013-05-23 T16:55:59Z

Blue/Green line.

4232

28.096

-91.098

2013-05-23 T17:09:33Z

?Oil slick W-E 3/4 nm x 20 m N-S wide.

4242

27.832

-91.100

2013-05-23 T17:18:22Z

Sheen, NE-W ~1 nm, X 30-50 m wide, + many thinner parallel lines.

4252

27.734

-91.105

2013-05-23 T17:21:36Z

Large Vessel - flaring! “Helix Producer 1”

4262

27.946

-91.028

2013-05-23 T17:32:57Z

Oil platform (“#28....”)

4272

28.038

-91.031

2013-05-23 T17:35:38Z

Two platforms (1 to our NW)

4282

28.093

-91.029

2013-05-23 T17:37:13Z

4 Fishing boats! A sub-surface bait ball!

4292

28.260

-91.059

2013-05-23 T17:43:52Z

White platform, many nearby platforms, sheen emanating from all!

4302

28.397

-90.941

2013-05-23 T17:49:48Z

Sargassum line & patches

4312

27.880

-90.900

2013-05-23 T18:07:46Z

Large platform + 2 supply boats “DORGC65”, sheen

4322

28.397

-90.689

2013-05-23 T18:39:35Z

Platform -CB-7N + supply boat. (old wpt #0323: Ship Shoals platform 259JA)

4332

28.261

-90.695

2013-05-23 T18:43:54Z

3 shrimp boats

4342

27.768

-90.698

2013-05-23 T18:59:41Z

1 large sperm whale!

4352

27.753

-90.575

2013-05-23 T19:09:00Z

LOTS of sheen, N-S ~4 nm, W-E several rows, each 40-80m wide.

4362

27.995

-90.581

2013-05-23 T19:17:36Z

Ship -”Ocean Alliance”

4372

28.125

-90.531

2013-05-23 T19:22:37Z

Platform + Supply Boat “Rowan Gorilla IV”

4382

28.285

-90.552

2013-05-23 T19:56:04Z

Large ship “BLANK”, tanker?

4392

28.303

-90.521

2013-05-23 T19:57:07Z

Tanker “Cape Bonny” (in green water)

4402

28.549

-90.451

2013-05-23 T20:05:05Z

DOLPHIN! Large pod, 40-50+.

4412

28.615

-90.423

2013-05-23 T20:09:19Z

2 large bait balls, one near platform

4422

28.655

-90.425

2013-05-23 T20:11:44Z

Baitball + many cownose rays! & sargassum

4432

28.715

-90.393

2013-05-23 T20:14:16Z

Oil sheen, NE-SW ~-1/4 nm x 20-40 m wide (light surface gray)

 

 

 

 

NOTE on estimating oil sheen/slick volumes:
1 acre x 1 micron ~ 1 gal.   263 gal = 1 m
3 = 1 micron x 1 km2; 1042 gal = 1 micron x 1 nm2;
1 nm ~ 2 km ~ 6000 ft ~ 1.15 statute mile (sm).  (1 micron is easily visible from above.)
1 acre ~ 36,000 ft2 ~ 120 ft x 300 ft ~ 30 m x 100 m.   1000 acres ~ 4 km2 ~ 1 nm2.

 

 

20130524:
On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20130524-Friday 
Whale Shark Survey Flight #2 - Mississippi Canyon / SackettBank Area

 

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.
Pilot: Bonny L. Schumaker, Ph.D. (ATP, CFI-AIM)
Spotters/Crew: Jennifer McKinney, LDWF; Terese Collins, Don Abrams (MS)

Seas and weather:  Seas 1-2 ft, winds 10-15 kts from the north-northeast. 
Sky & Visibility: Mostly clear but somewhat hazy skies,  10-15 mile visibility
Flight time:  5.5 hours  (5.3 hrs in flight)
Flight route: KNEW - south to NW corner of grid, then S-N rows separated by 6 minutes of longitudes (approximately 5 nm), each about 42 nm long, for a total of 8 rows. Returned to KNEW.
Actual Flight:  570  nm within an area of 4,394 sq mi

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

20130524 -  Survey Grid Area and Additional Waypoints of Interest
-- KNEW
-- South across Barataria Bay, Grand Isle, to the grid south of Sackett bank.
-- ADIZ Outbound: N28 45 W089 45 or ~80 nm south(~170°) from KNEW (approx  40 min)
-- Mississippi Canyon grid south of Sackett Bank, starting at NW corner of the following grid:
27.9º-28.6º N;  89.0º-89.7ºW:  (Grid points given in decimal degrees, then degrees and minutes)

MC-NW-201305 N28.6 W89.7 (N28 36 W089 42)
MC-SW-201305 N27.9 W89.7 (N27 54 W089 42)
MC-2S-201305 N27.9 W89.6 (N27 54 W089 36)
MC-2N-201305 N28.6 W89.6 (N28 36 W089 36)
MC-3N-201305 N28.6 W89.5 (N28 36 W089 30)
MC-3S-201305 N27.9 W089.5 (N27 54 W089 30)
MC-4S-201305 N27.9 W089.4 (N27 54 W089 24)
MC-4N-201305 N28.6 W089.4 (N28 36 W089 24)
MC-5N-201305 N28.6 W089.3 (N28 36 W089 18)
MC-5S-201305 N27.9 W089.3 (N27 54 W089 18)
MC-6S-201305 N27.9 W089.2 (N27 54 W089 12)
MC-6N-201305 N28.6 W089.2 (N28 36 W089 12)
MC-7N-201305 N28.6 W089.1 (N28 36 W089 06)
MC-7S-201305 N27.9 W089.1 (N27 54 W089 06)
MC-SE-201305 N27.9 W089.0 (N27 54 W089 00)
MC-NE-201305 N28.6 W089.0 (N28 36 W089 00)
KNEW

New Waypoints from today’s flight 20130524 Friday:
Wpt #s are from BLS’ flight GPS (Garmin 496)

WPT

LAT

LON

TIME (Z)

    DESCRIPTION

562

29.360

-89.861

2013-05-24  T17:35:07Z

    ***OIL! Rainbow sheen, 0.5 nm N-S, ~30 m W-E.

563

29.263

-89.862

2013-05-24 T17:37:53Z

***Surface oil sheen ~1 nm west of this position, well behind a pogey boat. Lots of bait balls in this area.  3 Mola Mola, 2 small turtles

564

28.821

-89.766

2013-05-24 T17:51:03Z

8 buoys around a ship.  Also 1 hammerhead shark!

565

28.719

-89.726

2013-05-24 T17:54:26Z

Large ship with crane (?) on our back, moving eastward

566

28.499

-89.697

2013-05-24 T18:01:06Z

Sargassum patties and strings, very nice.  Blue water!

567

28.224

-89.676

2013-05-24 T18:10:34Z

SPERM WHALE! 1 adult Large

568

28.163

-89.688

2013-05-24 T18:12:42Z

8-10+ dolphins

569

27.996

-89.697

2013-05-24 T18:18:09Z

1 WHALE SHARK!

570

27.952

-89.719

2013-05-24 T18:22:23Z

2 buoys

571

28.467

-89.598

2013-05-24 T18:49:20Z

(N of this, no waypoint: Innovator platform + a supply boat. And a floating barrel!  And great sargassum patties in the area.)  #571:  Vessel northwest-bound “ACO Keith Duggan”

572

28.524

-89.494

2013-05-24 T18:59:25Z

Blue-Green line, 4-5 nm S of north grid boundary here.  ~ 2 nm N of grid boundary at MC-2N a platform with large flare burning, + 2 boats, one with crane on back.

573

28.455

-89.504

2013-05-24 T19:04:25Z

?Hammerhead shark? Lots of flying fish.

574

28.386

-89.505

2013-05-24 T19:06:42Z

Tanker, eastbound “MISTREL”

575

28.284

-89.511

2013-05-24 T19:10:04Z

SPERM WHALES x3!

576

28.338

-89.381

2013-05-24 T19:43:03Z

MODU + 2 supply boats to our west ~2 nm

577

28.603

-89.307

2013-05-24 T19:53:55Z

Platform “ ENI-CORRAL”

578

28.193

-89.288

2013-05-24 T20:06:30Z

Drilling platform “Noble Bully 1” + large vessel + fishing boat

579

28.146

-89.274

2013-05-24 T20:08:01Z

~1.5 nm W of here a large ship with 2 cranes, orange “BALDER”

580

27.947

-89.297

2013-05-24 T20:14:01Z

***OIL sheen, extensive, arcs from NE ~2 nm then back up to NW for ~1 nm

581

27.942

-89.299

2013-05-24 T20:15:50Z

***RAINBOW sheen in part of above sheen (#580)

582

27.958

-89.176

2013-05-24 T20:23:44Z

Large vessel, Westbound “D’AMICO”

583

28.023

-89.173

2013-05-24 T20:25:55Z

***Huge area of sheen, NE-SW ~ 4 nm, 100m+ wide (we passed through central area SW-NE)

584

28.090

-89.153

2013-05-24 T20:28:15Z

***OIL!

585

28.104

-89.149

2013-05-24 T20:28:43Z

***OIL - Rainbow, S-N curve, ~ 20-30 m wide (W-E)

586

28.143

-89.139

2013-05-24 T20:29:59Z

Vessel, Northbound toward platform “HOS SIlver Arrow”

587

28.172

-89.123

2013-05-24 T20:31:07Z

Platform “Noble Jim Thompson” + supply boat “Dianne Chouest”

588

28.359

-89.110

2013-05-24 T20:37:20Z

***Surface sheen, NE-SW ~0.5 nm, ~20 m wide.

589

28.447

-89.041

2013-05-24 T20:42:52Z

Platform - Noble Amos Runner

590

27.985

-88.992

2013-05-24 T20:57:26Z

Sargassum, patties and strings, beautiful.

591

28.487

-89.000

2013-05-24 T21:14:38Z

(S of this point: Platform “LLOG-Opti-EX MC547A” and supply boat)  Here, Large vessel “HELIX”

592

28.624

-89.002

2013-05-24 T21:19:20Z

***Surface oil sheen, NE-SW ~4 nm and then also to the W extending about 3 nm. HUGE!  (This is well south--maybe 10 nm south-- of the Taylor slick, but as large or larger!)

593

28.884

-89.031

2013-05-24 T21:28:15Z

***Taylor Energy slick, flew to buoy at NE end.

594

29.401

-89.342

2013-05-24 T21:50:24Z

***Rainbow oil slick, W-E ~100m x 10 m

595

29.456

-89.400

2013-05-24 T21:52:43Z

***Sheen extending from platform NW-SE ~ 4 m x 200 m

596

29.573

-89.510

2013-05-24 T21:57:16Z

***Surface sheen (not reported to NRC, notes lost)