2014 July 10 Thursday
Ewing Bank area, Gulf of Mexico
OWOC’s fifthWhale Shark search of 2014, and our second search with a tagging boat in the Ewing Bank area(WS5-EB3)

On this fifth search of the season for whale sharks, the weather was perfect for us to be there just prior to the full moon, and we were very excited and hopeful that there would be many eager hungry whale sharks and other opportunistic feeders enjoying the Ewing Bank area today.  The Louisiana Fisheries Research vessel was there with all of their allotment of whale shark satellite tags and identifying equipment, and in the plane we had our most experienced and enthusiastic OWOC spotting team ready to find whale sharks — or exhaust ourselves trying.  This was also the maiden voyage of our new airplane, as our faithful plane Bessie gave up her job today to “Gus,” a high-wing Cessna like Bessie but with retractable gear and a whopping 8.5 hours of fuel on board.  (Do you get the idea that we have become quite determined in our quest to find wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico?)

Our plan was to head directly to Diaphus Bank and from there fly westward toward Ewing Bank, and to comb that “ridge line” carefully before spreading out farther.  On our way offshore we saw three sea turtles, two smaller ones (we think loggerheads, but we weren’t sure) and a leatherback.  Then a very large manta ray just west of Diaphus Bank.  We rendezvoused with the fisheries boat near Diaphus Bank and proceeded westward.  Within 15 minutes we were calling the boat on the radio, with great excitement!

“Four whale sharks — no wait, that’s five.  Hold on!  We  have TEN whale sharks!”

By the time we had given them GPS coordinates and they were on their way, we were already finding more.  Within five minutes we had 23 whale sharks!  The games of “tag” were about to begin.  It might sound like our work was over, but actually, it had just begun.  The people in the boat can see a whale shark that happens to be at the surface (dorsal showing) within maybe 150 meters of the boat. But they can’t begin to know if there are more beyond the ones they see, or if they are heading away from the group instead of toward it.  And if water conditions aren’t optimal, they may barely be able to see whale sharks beyond 50 meters. They depend critically on the spotting aircraft to tell them where the animals are or are going.  And from the plane, we’re also trying to get clear photographs of the animals in order to help with their individual identification.  This kind of flying is not for the faint of stomach, nor for anyone not feeling well enough to concentrate very intently and for hours at a time.  Eyestrain and neck aches are part of the job, but so is excitement in seeing all of the marine life.  Especially since the BP disaster of 2010, having not seen large aggregations here for four years, we have yearned to see them again and feel some reassurance that they are alive and well and that some, at least, still find it desirable to return to the northern Gulf of Mexico this time of year!

Here are maps showing our flight survey of today, with our flight path in orange. Icons show where we saw sea turtles, large pods of dolphin, some very large manta rays, and of course whale sharks.

Here are some of our favorite photos, followed by videos and galleries of many more great photos, and finally by our detailed Flight Log.  We would be remiss if we did not include the never-failing sightings of surface oil, so you’ll also see a few photos of a rainbow sheen in North Timbalier Bay and a peculiar long line of sargassum southwest of Diaphus Bank that showed rainbow and metallic sheen throughout.

Read the full article and enjoy all of the photos and videos here!