2013 June 19-20 Wednesday-Thursday
Gulf of Mexico -- Ewing Bank and Mississippi Canyon
UPDATE! MANY VIDEOS OF THIS NOW POSTED ON OUR YOUTUBE SITE!
For composite videos, see Part 1 and Part 2!
For short clips, see the index of our videos here!
Calm seas and a nearly full moon were too good to miss, so days ahead of schedule, we opted to continue our aerial whale-shark survey and tagging expeditions in conjunction with Ms. Jennifer McKinney and other researchers from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries (LDWF). And are we ever glad we did! We “struck gold” this past Thursday June 20 in the Ewing Bank area, finding 24 whale sharks and helping divers get DNA samples and satellite tags on 10 of them -- limited only by the number of tags they had with them! The previous record for tagging whale sharks in one day was set when we helped Dr. Eric Hoffmayer a few years ago in the Gulf; that time they were able to get five whale sharks tagged in one day. So this is a major cause of celebration and congratulations to all. Judgment and readiness to go when weather and seas were most inviting, skills of the divers and the boat captain, and our experience with spotting and familiarity with the subsea terrain of the Gulf of Mexico combined to produce an unprecedented success -- and a downright magical day!
In May, we had flown our prescribed grid patterns (see maps below). On Wednesday, June 19 in Mississippi Canyon, we altered the grid southward a bit because green water was persisting unusually far southward, putting blue water close to 30 miles farther south than usual (much to the dismay of the research vessel stationed near the “Ursa” oil production platform that is typically a good place for sport fishing). Not only do we not expect to see as many whale sharks feeding in the green water, we also can’t spot them as easily. In May we found one whale shark, a few sperm whales, some rays and small turtles, hammerhead and other sharks, and a few pods of dolphin. The Ewing Bank area proved to be richer in large marine life (near the surface, anyway) than the areas farther east, but we were rather underwhelmed by what we found.
But this past Thursday, the Ewing Bank area greeted us with crystal clear blue water and seas as smooth as we’ve ever seen them. And that’s where the real adventure began.
We started off by buzzing our colleagues waiting on the Fisheries Research boat and proceeded along our previously planned survey grid. (Okay, formally that's called a rendezvous; but we like to drop them a Hubig Pie or at least give them a wing wag, just for good luck on the search.) But the previous day’s scarce sightings and today’s perfect sea conditions left us yearning to follow our intuition instead of sticking to the grid pattern. We told the boat crew that we would make a wide circle over the area before flying the grid, and we set off to where we thought we’d hang out if we were whale sharks.
It probably sounds whimsical to speak of following our intuition to find whale sharks. But it’s actually not. We have studied the subsea terrain here carefully, and our best spotting success has come when we choose our routes to “soar the ridges” -- just like we expect large plankton feeders would do , catching their food as the steep bank pushes it naturally upward into their waiting mouths. When we have clear, calm, blue water, which lets us see shadows of sub-surface animals down to 10 or 20 feet, flying the underwater ridges and chasing bait balls is just irresistible -- and very fruitful for finding large marine life! As we circled back around from the west, now about 25 nm from the research boat, I spotted my first shadow of something big. Then a dorsal fin poked just barely above the water for a moment. Not long after, all three of us in the plane began to see more. We hailed the boat on our marine radio and told them we had three whale sharks. But in 15 minutes it took for them to join us, that number had grown to 10, all in an area spanning less than four miles!
About the maps above: The first one shows our two survey flights south of Mississippi Canyon, on May 24 and June 19; the second one shows our two flights over Ewing Bank, on May 23 and June 20. The pink tracks were May 23 & 24, the green tracks this this past June 19 & 20. The green stars are whale sharks; we only saw one whale shark south of Mississippi Canyon, on May 24. The gold diamonds represent dolphins, the blue fish represent other kinds of sharks (hammerhead or tiger or mako - we can only distinguish the hammerheads from the air, usually), fish, rays, etc. The green circles are sperm whales. Details on the sightings are available in our transcribed flight logs, which we will publish in the future together with our GPS flight track files, after the LWF researchers have finished using them to document their research. The red triangles with the “!” represent significant surface oil sightings (alas), for which we filed NRC pollution reports (NRC# 1051048 and 1051049 for June 19,1051179 for June 20 ).
As you can see by the third and fourth maps above, once we find whale sharks and hail the tagging crew, our flying changes considerably! We fly circles to guide the boat to the shark(s), while searching for and keeping track of other sharks in the vicinity. On a day like this when they are trying to tag sharks consecutively, we also have to keep track of which ones they’ve already tagged. This is not so easy as it sounds, as from 400’ or higher, we can’t see the tags, and these guys move around a lot! By the time we headed home, our necks were pretty sore, but we barely noticed because we were so elated at the sightings. Check out these few of our favorite photos of the whole process. Videos will be uploaded in the next day or two (to this article and also to the On Wings Of Care youtube site).
We left the tagging crew when they were working on the tenth shark in that first bunch. But about five miles to their east, on our way home, we spotted more -- a total of 14 in an area similar to the size of the first! We radioed the coordinates to the boat and hoped that they could find them on their own. We needed to head back for fuel, and there was a lot of weather to fly around between us and New Orleans.
We learned later that the boat crew did indeed find the other 14 sharks we told them about, and they took identifying photographs of most of them. But they had no more tags on the boat to place on the animals! In their most ambitious dreams, they had not expected to be able to tag 10 whale sharks in one day! They also faced a long trip back to the marina through some of the worst of the weather. Times like this it’s pretty nice to be in an airplane, where we can the boundaries of the thunderstorm area and can detour appropriately with little problem.
What a banner day this was! Ten sharks tagged with satellite GPS tags, DNA samples obtained, and successful ID photos logged, all in one day. We are so proud to have been able to help Ms. Jennifer McKinney and her crew accomplish this. Thanks and kudos go to Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries for supporting this incredible research project. Little is known about whale sharks in the wild, and historically it has been so difficult for scientists to find and tag them. We think that getting “A Look From Above” is the way to go for finding marine life efficiently! (That’s a tongue-in-cheek plug for A Look From Above LLC, our Louisiana business that often supports Wings Of Care, Inc.)
Enormous thanks go to Don Abrams of Ocean Springs, MS and Mike Sturdivant of Walton, FL for joining us on this stellar day with their eyes, cameras, great skills, and endless enthusiasm! And to Flightline First at New Orleans’ Lakefront Airport for continuing to provide an excellent base of support for our aircraft and flights for the benefit of the Gulf of Mexico and her life.
Enjoy these additional photos! We’ve chosen just a few from the hundreds we have.
P.S. Our Flight Logs for these two days are appended at the bottom of this article! And our GPS Flight tracks for both days can be downloaded here: June 19 and June 20.
FLIGHT LOGS for 20130619-20 OWOC Gulf of Mexico flights for Whale Sharks
On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20130619-Wednesday
Whale Shark Flight #2013-3 - Mississippi Canyon / SackettBank Area: Survey & Tagging
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: Don Abrams (MS); Cijii Marshall (LA)
Seas and weather: Seas 1-2 ft, winds 5-10 kts from the north-northwest.
Sky & Visibility: Cloudy with thunderstorms in vicinity near and on shore, 10-mile visibility offshore but scattered cumulus clouds.
Flight time: 5.3 hours
Flight route: KNEW - south -southeast to NE corner of grid, then south to URSA platform to rendezvous with vessel, then continue survey, with N-S rows from east to west. The rows are similar to those flown 20130524 (except from east to west this time), separated by 6 minutes of longitudes (approximately 5 nm), each about 42 nm long, for a total of 7 or 8 rows (time-dependent). Returned to KNEW.
Actual Flight: 573 nm within an area of 596 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).
20130619 - 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 55 W089 00 ~80 nm south-souteast(~160°) from KNEW (approx 40 min)
-- Mississippi Canyon grid south of Sackett Bank, starting at NE corner of the following grid:
27.9º-28.6º N; 89.0º-89.7ºW: (Grid points given in decimal degrees, then degrees and minutes)
Omit: MC-NE-201305 N28.6 W089.0; MC-SE-201305 N27.9 W089.0
MC-7N-201305 N28.6 W089.1 (N28 36 W089 06)
URSA N 28.15 W89.1 (N28 09.24 W089 06.2
MC-7S-201305 N27.9 W089.1 (N27 54 W089 06)
MC-6S-201305 N27.9 W089.2 (N27 54 W089 12)
MC-6N-201305 N28.6 W089.2 (N28 36 W089 12)
MC-5N-201305 N28.6 W089.3 (N28 36 W089 18)
MC-5S-201305 N27.9 W089.3 (N27 54 W089 18)
MC-4S-201305 N27.9 W089.4 (N27 54 W089 24)
MC-4N-201305 N28.6 W089.4 (N28 36 W089 24)
MC-3N-201305 N28.6 W89.5 (N28 36 W089 30)
MC-3S-201305 N27.9 W089.5 (N27 54 W089 30)
MC-2S-201305 N27.9 W89.6 (N27 54 W089 36)
MC-2N-201305 N28.6 W89.6 (N28 36 W089 36)
MC-NW-201305 N28.6 W89.7 (N28 36 W089 42)
MC-SW-201305 N27.9 W89.7 (N27 54 W089 42) --- KNEW
New Waypoints from today’s flight 20130619 Wednesday:
Wpt #s are from BLS’ flight GPS (Garmin 496).
|607||28.626||-89.131||2013-06-19 T16:01:34Z||MC280 ExxonMobil platform, just N of first convergence line (muddy to greenish)|
|608||28.358||-89.102||2013-06-19 T16:10:28Z||Line (E-W) of sargassum. Large bulk carrier vessel SE-bound “PACC”. Heavy!|
|609||28.256||-89.109||2013-06-19 T16:13:46Z||**** 1 sperm whale!!!|
|610||28.223||-89.121||2013-06-19 T16:16:32Z||Noble Jim Day platform + supply boat (NA2280)|
|611||28.187||-89.116||2013-06-19 T16:17:42Z||Noble Jim Thompson, Ursa, and one other platform, several supply boats. (LWF boat near Ursa.)|
|612||28.036||-89.098||2013-06-19 T16:22:38Z||Platform “ATP”|
|613||27.905||-89.186||2013-06-19 T16:29:45Z||Many sargassum patches. Not yet in blue water!|
|614||28.572||-89.198||2013-06-19 T16:51:17Z||Sargassum and green-bluish line NW-SE. Still not really blue though.|
|615||28.605||-89.258||2013-06-19 T16:53:51Z||Sargassum mat, birds, and two bait balls just SW of platform (near MC-5N).|
|616||28.567||-89.316||2013-06-19 T16:56:52Z||Large sargassum patch|
|617||28.191||-89.303||2013-06-19 T17:08:52Z||(to our east) NobleBully 1 and six supply boats!|
|618||27.959||-89.298||2013-06-19 T17:16:22Z||green-bluish line (not quite blue water yet). Sargassum. Fishing boat here.|
|619||28.174||-89.410||2013-06-19 T17:30:12Z||Large sargassum patties|
|620||28.357||-89.414||2013-06-19 T17:36:14Z||“Ocean Saratoga”
|621||28.428||-89.427||2013-06-19 T17:38:48Z||Decided to cut off the NW quadrant of the grid -- water is too green for us to see sharks and don’t expect to find any here anyway. Will cut west and take the next rows farther south to search blue water. Sargassum line W-E.|
|622||28.401||-89.514||2013-06-19 T17:42:41Z||Convergence line (green-blueish)|
|623||28.347||-89.510||2013-06-19 T17:44:18Z||Large sargassum patches to W|
|624||28.257||-89.512||2013-06-19 T17:47:11Z||Large sargassum patches to E|
|625||27.722||-89.525||2013-06-19 T18:04:42Z||BLUE Water at MC-3S finally! Great water vis, will head >10 nm farther south here.|
|626||27.724||-89.522||2013-06-19 T18:05:27Z||DOLPHINS - >100! Moving fast. They’re everywhere! And flying fish.|
|627||28.225||-89.613||2013-06-19 T18:25:42Z||Innovator (ATP)|
|628||28.230||-89.675||2013-06-19 T18:27:35Z||^^OIL! Near MC709, natural? Has oil patties “globules” in it, too. ~300m x 50m, W-E. (Note last 20130524 we saw 8-10 dolphins and a sperm whale in this area.) Filed NRC Report # 1051048.|
|629||28.142||-89.699||2013-06-19 T18:32:59Z||Sargassum patties to our E.|
|630||27.749||-89.600||2013-06-19 T18:49:19Z||**Hammerhead shark|
|27.762||-89.076||18:52 Z||** Same pod of dolphins still here, huge, >100.|
|631||27.762||-89.076||2013-06-19 T19:04:43Z||Blue water line ~25 nm S of URSA, ~9 nm S of MC-SE (corner of grid).This is about 85 nm from shore! Had to turn NW here to get around a large thunderhead and downdrafts.|
|632||28.129||-89.141||2013-06-19 T19:20:29Z||^^OIL! Crescent of patties near green-brown rip line but also in green, ~300m x 30-50 m. Not associated with Ursa and other platforms -- upwind of them. Compare with #585 last 20130524, rainbow sheen then- see below. Filed NRC Report # 1051049.|
|633||28.116||-89.140||2013-06-19 T19:21:36Z||(same oil as above, 632)|
|585||28.104||-89.149||2013-05-24T20:28:43Z||Comparing with 20130524 - OIL - Rainbow, S-N curve, ~ 20-30 m wide (W-E)|
|635||29.233||-89.528||2013-06-19 T19:59:31Z||Neat isolated camp.|
On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20130620-Thursday
Whale Shark Survey Flight #4 - Ewing Bank Area
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: Don Abrams, Mike Sturdivant
Seas and weather: Seas <1 ft, wind calm.
Sky & Visibility: Scattered high clouds, mostly clear skies, 10-15 miles visibility
Flight time: 5.7 hours
Flight route: KNEW - southwest to directly over Ewing Bank, then east to Diaphus bank, circle over the entire Ewing Bank area, then begin the grid survey. (But we didn’t get to that survey, since we soon found first 10, then another 14 whale sharks, and we spent the rest of the flight helping them get tags on most of them. (!) The nominal grid was going to consist of S-N rows separated by 6 minutes of longitude (approximately 5 nm), each about 42 nm long, for a total of 9 rows (See the 20130524 flight.) Returned to KNEW.
Actual Flight: 540 nm within an area of 358 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).
20130620 - Survey Grid Area and Additional Waypoints noted during flight
-- Southwestward across Lake Salvador.
-- ADIZ xing : ~ N28 52 W090 40 or ~82 nm south-southwest (~205°) from KNEW (approx 45 min)
-- Ewing Bank area, starting near center of the following grid:
(NW: N28 24 W91 20; NE: N28 24 W90 30; SE: N27 42 W90 30; SW: N27 42 W91 20).
Or: 27.7º-28.4º N; 90.5º-91.3ºW:
(Grid points given in decimal degrees.)
PLAN: Meet LDWF Fisheries Research boat first at: EB1: N28.1 W90.97 (N28 06 W91 00)
Be sure to include Diaphus Bank (DIAPH): N28.08333 W90.7 (N28 05 W90 42)
Survey grid as follows:
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
New Waypoints from today’s flight 20130620 Thursday:
Wpt #s are from BLS’ flight GPS (Garmin 496).
|636||28.817||-90.698||2013-06-20 T14:52:13Z||Brown-to-green line (Saw schools of cownose rays and some manta rays prior to this, near Isles Dernieres)|
|637||28.373||-90.904||2013-06-20 T15:07:36Z||Small turtle - Kemps?|
|638||28.085||-90.980||2013-06-20 T15:18:13Z||1 dolphin. “Pelikan” vessel near large sargassum patch|
|639||28.089||-90.958||2013-06-20 T15:18:53Z||2 dolphins. Not yet blue water but getting bluer.|
|640||28.116||-90.881||2013-06-20 T15:24:39Z||Hammerhead shark|
|641||28.100||-90.757||2013-06-20 T15:29:33Z||Large patch(es) and line of sargassum|
|642||28.098||-90.745||2013-06-20 T15:30:40Z||Sharks, turtle, all near the rip line|
|643||28.088||-90.713||2013-06-20 T15:31:48Z||Leatherback turtle; hammerhead shark, dolphin|
|645||27.969||-90.664||2013-06-20 T15:38:06Z||Oil? (sheen)|
|646||27.890||-90.953||2013-06-20 T15:49:34Z||Dolphin - many|
|647||27.888||-90.961||2013-06-20 T15:49:48Z||MORE dolphin, !5-20|
|648||28.072||-90.983||2013-06-20 T16:13:31Z||Whale sharks! 1, 2, ... 24!|
|649||28.075||-90.995||2013-06-20 T16:18:58Z||Whale sharks: (We stopped marking. 10 at first position, just east of an abandoned yelllow platform, we left when they were attempting to tag the tenth one. We then reported 14 more a few miles east (at #650) on our way home. WOW!|
|651||28.910||-90.688||2013-06-20 T18:58:53Z||**OIL, Rainbow sheen, west of a platform. W-E~1 nm, thickest at W end, ~300 m. Didn’t get name of platform, we were racing time and weather and could not circle. Filed NRC Report #1051179.|