2012 December 02, Sunday
Macondo area, Gulf of Mexico

-- Many thanks to j. Brayton Matthews of Flightline First at New Orleans' Lakefront Airport for providing all photos and videos for this flight and this article. --

Since our November 9th flyover of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead and our publishing of the large surface oil slick there, BP has announced plans to begin further investigation of the wreckage and seafloor in that area, beginning tomorrow, December 3. Since the weather was perfect today and seas calm, we made a quick flight to see how things look out there, now three weeks since our Nov 9th flyover.  We were surprised to find a new drilling platform sitting almost right over the wellhead, and a large drillship also in the vicinity. We were dismayed to find many large surface slicks in the area, as well as some new ones along the eastern coast of Louisiana south of Black Bay. And of course it's unfortunately no surprise anymore to see the large, chronic Taylor Energy oil slick that has plagued the southern tip of Louisiana since 2004.

The new platform that has appeared over the Deepwater Horizon wellhead bears the name "ENSCO 8502" (photo on the right below). There was a fairly large slick about 2 miles northeast of it (photo on the left below), about 2 nm long and about 100 m wide.  But an even larger slick extended northwest almost directly from the new platform -- this one almost 2 sq nm (4 sq km) in size. In the maps below, the point marked "04221" is almost directly over the wellhead. The ENSCO platform was at the point marked "04381."  (Note: High-resolution photos are available on request.  These same photos appear in the galleries below, where they will show up in a larger view when selected individually.) 

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In the first video below, you'll see the smaller of the above two slicks for the first 45 seconds, after which we pan to the ENSCO 8502 platform and the larger slick adjacent to it. There is another slick about 1 nm to the east, which is about the same size as the smaller one to the north (see photo on right below). Finally, there was yet another slick south of here, which was about 1 nm long (north-south) and about 50 m wide (no photo of that one is shown here).

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About 10 nm south of the ENSCO 8502 platform and the wellhead, we found a large mobile drillship named "ENSCO DS-3" with two supply boats -- the C Legacy and the Jack Edwards.  A small oil slick was adjacent to this drillship running westward about 500 m, about 10 m in width.  Another 2 nm farther south was a working BP platform "MC474A", which was flaring and which also had a small slick extending westward from it, about the same size, roughly 500 m in length and about 10 m wide.  A video showing this platform is included below.

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2012 November 14 Wednesday
Barrier Islands, Gulf of Mexico

We have long wanted to help some local photographers and artists give us all some current aerial views of the Gulf Coast's extraordinary and unique Barrier Islands. As time passed, holidays approached, and travel plans grew more complicated, a few of us decided we should make a "recon" flight as soon as possible. Last night, it looked like today might be nearly perfect for it. We had good weather with fairly calm seas, a chance to put one of our favorite local artists (John Anderson) in the front seat, and two avid local photographers from Mississippi -- Terese Collins and Don Abrams -- who were eager to come along. Despite a late start and non-ideal light conditions, we captured some stunning sights. But Terese and Don also managed to achieve another end, which historically might prove as precious as their beautiful photographs: their photos show an almost shocking contrast between the natural and breathtakingly beautiful islands south of Mississippi -- Cat, Ship, Horn, and the Chandeleurs -- and the highly developed Dauphin Island surrounded by oil and gas platforms, barges, and dredging vessels. 

All of the photos you'll see here are available to the public in high-resolution form for a small donation that will be shared by the photographers and On Wings Of Care to help cover our costs. Contact us with the filenames of the photos you want, and we'll arrange for the electronic or other transfer of them.  If you'd like an aerial tour for yourselves, we can help arrange for that, too, at a very reasonable cost.

Here is a map of our flight, and a few photos (courtesy of Don) of John and Bonny in the front seat and of Terese working through one of the back photo-windows.  These are followed by some of our favorite photos, separated into the following areas:  Horn Island, Ship Island (east and west), Cat Island, the Chandleurs, Petit Bois and Dauphin Island, and the Gulf Coast (including Deer Island and the coastline east of Gulfport).  Following these favorites are galleries of more photos for each of these areas.  Finally, we have some videos shot through our "belly viewer" -- a true bird's eye view looking nearly straight down, of the Chandeleurs and Ship Island.  As always, our GPS flight tracks can be downloaded here. ENJOY!

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2012 November 17, Saturday
Gulf of Mexico - Black Elk Platform

The report came in before 10 am CST Friday Nov 16 -- another explosion at an oil platform in the Gulf, only about 20 nm offshore from Grand Isle, Louisiana. A total of 11 people were flown by helicopter to area hospitals, several of whom were in critical condition. An oil sheen about 200 m by 0.5 nm in size was said to be present on Friday, but on today’s flight we did not see significant surface oil in the vicinity.

On Wings Of Care was contacted immediately on Friday and asked to do a flyover. Here are photos and videos taken this morning of the area and the platform on which the explosion occurred, including an unidentified platform discharging smoke a few miles east of the Black Elk platform. The GPS coordinates of the Black Elk platform and a nearby unidentified platform are given at the bottom of this article, and our detailed GPS flight tracks can be downloaded here.

According to the NRC report, the fire and resulting explosion resulted from contractors performing maintenance.  In the course of replacing a skimmer, they used a torch to cut into a 3-inch diameter, 75-foot line coming from a wet oil tank, a line designed to hold about 28 gallons of oil. Apparently the line had not been purged completely before they cut it.

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2012 November 10, Saturday
Gulf of Mexico -- East Bay, Taylor, Macondo to Green Canyon

No two days of flying in the Gulf of Mexico are the same.  Yesterday we reveled in smooth seas and mostly clear skies, with excellent lighting and visibility for seeing surface oil slicks.  Today, winds were picking up, seas were growing choppy, and the sky was mostly overcast, making for very poor lighting and visibility for surface oil slicks.  But today was the day that our scientific colleagues were able to make it from Florida State University for a flight, with all of their sophisticated observing instruments.  And even though we didn’t get photographic footage that would impress the untrained eye, we obtained some valuable scientific information.

For starters, we located the source of a substantial oil leak in East Bay, just off the coast of Louisiana.  Our report to the US Coast Guard resulted in the responsible company promising to repair it immediately.

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Next, we showed our colleagues the infamous chronic Taylor Energy slick. Despite the very poor lighting, the enormous expanse of this oil slick was still obvious, and our belly cameras saw plenty of the telltale rainbow lines and patches of oil.  We have a youtube video below to show you an example of what our belly cameras saw while flying over the Taylor Energy slick.

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We joined our colleagues aboard the R/V Falkor again out at the infamous Deepwater Horizon wellhead in that section of the Gulf known as MC252 (Mississippi Canyon block number). Dr. Ian MacDonald and his colleagues had been working nonstop since yesterday when we had used our aerial vantage point to lead their small sampling boat around the slick yesterday, and they had learned much. Today we left them a small care package with some equipment they needed, and they told us that they had succeeded in tracking the sub-surface plumes to a source that appeared to be in some salt domes a mile or two east-northeast of the wellhead.  They had also explored the wellhead carefully and found it to be free of active leaks. Quotes from Dr. MacDonald can be found in our update to yesterday’s article, here. Our reports of this new and significant slick in MC252 have resulted in the US Coast Guard requesting that BP carry out another more careful investigation to determine the source of this surface oil, which investigation will include a careful survey of the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon.  We look forward to learning more from these future careful surveys, and hope that scientists do not find evidence for widespread damage to the seafloor.

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From here, we flew nearly 200 miles southwest to the “Green Canyon” area of the Gulf, where there are other known natural oil seeps of considerable size. Along the way, we revisited “MC709”, a natural seep site that had shown plenty of oil in yesterday’s flight.  Despite today’s poor visibility, it was not difficult for our trained eyes and looking from above to see these natural seeps. As signifcant as they are, notice how subtle they are compared to the human-caused oil slicks:

 

2012 November 09, Friday
Gulf of Mexico, MC252 and vicinity 

UPDATE 2012 NOV 11, SUNDAY  (see in red below)

We weren't supposed to see any more surface oil lingering around the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster that occcurred over two years ago in 2010 April, were we? Well, today we did.  So did the scientists aboard the research ship Falkor, both underwater with their scientific instruments and on the surface with their small boat and sampling equipment. It was impossible to miss this large slick, located within a mile of the site of the DWH incident. It is quite a bit larger than known natural seeps within 20 miles of this vicinity. We did not see the thick rainbow sheen we saw here last October 05, so we hope that implies some progress in finding and arresting any leakage left from the DWH incident.  But this large slick rivals the largest of natural seeps we've seen and documented in the Gulf, and it is outdone in its horror only by the chronic Taylor Energy pollution monster off the southeast tip of Louisiana.  If it is not from the wellhead or residual leaking debris, have we a new "natural" seep nearby? Time and research will tell.

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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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2012 October 5, Friday
Gulf of Mexico

MORE PHOTOS from Oct 05 ADDED TODAY! (20121016) -- See Below
(and download our GPF flight tracks here!) 

Today we flew a long and carefully planned route over Gulf of Mexico waters south of Louisiana, in order to look for surface oil slicks.  We had planned the flight for Sep 17, but weather and travel forced us to delay til today.  The route would cover 22 known sites, all based on our previous sightings and known natural seeps, including three recently reported sights, and of course that area of chronic interest -- MC252 and surroundings, home to BP's infamous well and the Macondo reservoir. We found what we were looking for, and much that we had hoped not to find.  

In short -- the natural seeps remain, some of them narrow lines of "pancakes" of oil and some of them wide areas of shimmering surface slicks. Pollution cleanup debacles like the chronic Taylor Energy site less than 15 miles off the coast of Louisiana remain, egregious sites covering miles and miles, and flowing substantially still, as evidenced by the heavy patches of rainbow sheen.  What we did not expect was to see that kind of rainbow sheen and substantial amounts of fresh-looking oil around the Macondo reservoir. But find it we did.  

The stuff within a few miles of MC252 looked like this (GPS waypoints 0411, and a slick between waypoints 0415 and 0416 from our flight log below):

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(That's our nose wheel in these still photos taken from the video camera that looks slightly forward from a belly viewer in our plane, which we view and control via a remote monitor.)  A video of what we saw in this area is included below.

Here is a large-scale map of our planned route (pink) and our actual flight path (blue), together with a close-up of the eastern part of our route (near the Macondo).  We went first to the site of the chronic Taylor Energy oil leak south of Breton Sound, then to the vicinity of MC252 and the DWH disaster of 2010, then southwestward nearly 175 nautical miles to check out locations of known natural seeps and of recently documented surface oil slicks, then headed back to Lakefront Airport via Grand Isle, LA.

As you know from our previous articles, our actual flights go where "the stuff" is, so the actual paths are usually circles and spirals and meandering paths that track the oil or the animals or whatever it is that we're tracking.  You can read from these actual paths almost as clearly as you can from our GPS waypoints, just where "the stuff" was.  The actual GPS coordinates are given in our Flight Log appended below.

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Here is a short video of the oil seen near the Macondo.  This rainbow sheen was seen within a few miles of the site of the 2010 BP disaster; the slick was at least one nautical mile (2 km) long and on average about 400-500 meters wide. This video was taken from a small video camera looking through the belly of our plane, at between 800' and 1000' above the water.  The small narrow line of oil you see at the end of the video is the way sites of known natural seeps tend to look (except for some which cover much wider areas of surface).  The rainbow nature of this slick suggests a much more substantial flow of oil than is associated with most of these natural seeps.  (See, e.g., the photo of the natural seep in Green Canyon, about 175 miles southwest of here.)  Many more photos can be found in the galleries below.

 

 

2012 September 14, Friday
Gulf of Mexico, 50-150 miles southeast of New Orleans, LA

The R/V Endeavor (a UNOLS vessel operated by the University of Rhode Island) has been busy in the Gulf off of Louisiana again, studying natural and not-so-natural oil seeps and the status of the ocean floor.  They contacted us a few days ago to advise us that they found themselves sitting in a surface oil slick, in the vicinity of the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) "spill" site of April 2010.  Today was the first day we could arrange to fly out there, and yes, we did indeed find oil slicks in that good old MC252 quadrant.  We hope to learn from their samples whether the surface oil there is from long-existing natural seeps, or whether it is from the reservoir that unleashed its contents just 2.5 years ago.

Here are maps of today's 3.9-hour flight.  We flew to the DWH site via Breton Sound, to check out some suspiciously slick-looking areas near there, according to MODIS satellite data.  We didn't stop to look around carefully, but we didn't see any obvious surface oil in this area. But what was unusual was how high the water seemed to be. The usual islands were scarcely visible. Fortunately, we had heard that the tides were unusually high today, so we were relieved not to have to think that this situation was some permanent consequence of Hurricane Isaac.

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On reaching the DWH site, we immediately saw two surface oil slicks, separated from each other by about a mile.  The first one was about a third of a mile long and about 100 meters wide, the other a bit smaller.  The water was choppy, and it was difficult to get good footage of the slicks from the air.  We also saw another slick a bit northwest of here on our way back. Here are a few still photos of those slicks. More are in the photo galleries below.

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2012 September 09, Sunday
Plaquemines Parish and Lafourche Parish, south and southeast of New Orleans, Louisiana

Hurricane Isaac may have taken our plane, but he didn't take our eyes.  We rented a friend's "Fun Wifty-Two" (Cessna 152), a small two-seat high-wing airplane, and set out to take a look at the northern parts of Plaquemines Parish and Jefferson Parish, around the Mississippi River and the new levee boundaries, and also southward to Grand Isle and west to Port Fourchon in Lafourche Parish. Then we headed eastward and returned back to New Orleans along the eastern coastal bays of Louisiana.  

There is a stark contrast indeed between land conditions outside and inside the new levee boundary, and on opposite sides of the Mississippi River. Things look terrific inside the levee. Outside, however, many structures remain flooded, and there are signs of enormous wind damage.  Lafourche Parish shows much damage as well.  The beaches on the seaside of Grand Isle and especially farther westward to Port Fourchon look as black and dirty as they appeared in the summer of 2010.  A few crews are out there working, but many fewer than in 2010, and there are no tents or boom scattered about.  

The only wildlife we saw were a few small groups of frigate birds and pelicans.  One of the most disturbing discoveries was that the island rookeries that were so full and beautiful in 2010 have for the most part been reduced to small clumps of dirty grass. 

Along the coasts and in the bays east of the peninsula, we saw isolated patches of rainbow oil sheen. The marshes south of Lake Borgne show very dark edges.  We are anxious to hear from experts just what that means, but it sure didn't look healthy. On our way home, there was a medium-sized marsh fire on the west side of the MRGO (Mississippi River Gulf Outlet), a few miles south of Lake Borgne.

 

UPDATED 2012 SEP 09 WITH VIDEOS OF THE FLOODING!  SEE BELOW.

2012 August 30 Thursday
Lakefront Airport, New Orleans, LA

It was fun to watch Hurricane Isaac arrive.  After all, we had been assured that all drains were open, the maximum expected surge was 5 ft -- and hey, Katrina had been 25 ft, and this hangar and building were as stout as anything ever built here.  Well, this was all true.  Problem is, it was irrelevant.  The drains backed up. I have no idea what the final surge was. The hangar and building did not fall down. But they sure filled up.  

I'm very glad we hunkered down and stayed here at Flightline First. I wasn't about to leave our trusty On Wings Of Care plane ("Bessie") alone in a storm any more than I'd leave my pets or family. But I should have made sure they all left, and then if I wanted to stay here, I should have stayed by myself. Nobody living is in any danger here; we have modest power thanks to a generator, we have a supply of fresh bottled water, and some great pecans left from picking trees at a friend's place in Mississippi a while back. Even the dogs finally agreed to urinate in a tub in the bathroom (they are great dogs!). But Bessie, our trusty airplane.  Ohhhhh Bessie dear, I am so sorry. 

Yesterday morning, Wednesday August 29, water began spraying into the hangar through the huge east-facing door. Well okay, that happens in any hard rain storm. The floor gets a little slick, and a few puddles form here and there. But by this time, all my hunches were screaming "Why didn't you listen to me yesterday?!!!" So at 5am yesterday, the two of us began moving airplanes about the hangar, to get them out of the low spots and herd as many as we could to higher ground toward the back.  It's hard enough on dry ground in open space for just two people to move an airplane around, but on slippery wet painted concrete in very crowded space, with one of us weighing less than 5% of what even the smallest airplane there weighs, it was arduous. Where we could, we used the electric tug. (Today, that tug is four feet under water.) But when it got really close, with wings and elevators and propellers squeezing by within inches of each other, it was up to us to push. And pull. And lean.

The three primary aircraft that we were able to move to higher ground, we moved.  And we re-wrapped their landing gear (wheels in the case of Bessie, which has fixed gear, not retractable gear) with heavy-duty Hefty trash bags and duct tape. No sense in having to repack all those bearings if we didn't need to! Our mantra became "Praying to Hefty that the trash bags hold and the water don't rise!" We felt like we had it beat.  

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2012 August 28, Tuesday
Lakefront Airport and Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans, LA

Hurricane Isaac has started to make himself known!  By 4pm today, Lakefront Airport was deserted, gates all locked, buildings and airplane hangars shut tight. The two of us from On Wings Of Care here at the airport business Flightline First are the only humans left here, with our faithful dogs and our trusty On Wings Of Care airplane "Bessie" and several other airplanes huddled together inside this huge, sturdy hangar.  The airplanes all have heavy-duty trash bags tied around their wheels for the possible intrusion of standing salt water.  We'll stay here through the storm, mostly because if we leave, we'll never get back in!  The airport is on the "wrong" side of the levee, and what Lake Pontchartrain experiences, we experience here, for the highest point here is only 10' above sea level.  

For me, having grown up in a northern winter climate and spent most of the last several decades in the arid west, this adventure into a tropical coastal climate is nothing but wonderful. Brayton hasn't stopped laughing at me yet. Well, except when he gets a little annoyed or worried at my "eight-year-old antics" as I find this adventure of nature no end of exciting.  So he handed me my own personal disposable "Saints" poncho and a Flightline First baseball hat, donned his own trashbag and hat, and he said "Okay, little girl, you asked for it, let's go!" And that's how I got to see my first hurricane first hand, or at least the start of it.  

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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.

2012 July 11 Wednesday
Gulf of Mexico

Today we went searching for whale sharks again, to help a team of scientists who were ready and eager to place some satellite tags.  With serious thunderstorms to the west and east, their target area was south of New Orleans, beyond Sackett Bank and on toward the Mars and Ursa platforms and an area known as the "Mississippi Canyon." (Recall the oil we documented in that vicinity last April 12 and 18?  It's still there!)  Some whale shark sightings had been reported in that vicinity by fishermen during the preceding week, so we were hopeful, even though this area was well east of the Ewing Bank area where we had seen a group of whale sharks on June 29. We did a very careful search of this area for several hours, but we found nothing! Nada. Nobody. Not even flying fish!  It seemed a desert.  

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As we exhausted our search in the area accessible to the boat, we bid them adieu with disappointment. There were heavy thunderstorms between us and New Orleans, so we would have to thread our way westward around them -- which was just the excuse we needed to keep on searching. We headed westward toward Ewing Bank, more determined than ever and all eyes scanning intently through our open windows. 

This year we've found very little life out in the deep water within 70 miles or so of the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010. Each time we fly, we hope that maybe the animals are just late in returning this year. The water looks as blue and beautiful as ever; it's just that we are seeing no fish, no birds, no whales, no sharks. We don't get used to it, and we can't accept it yet.  Not finding life out there just makes us more determined than ever to keep searching. The alternative -- the conclusion that the marine life is just not there -- is as unacceptable to our hearts as it is apparently unspeakable for either government "experts" or the oil companies. Time will tell.

No sooner were we out of radio communication range with the boat than we spotted some fins and spouts! Three sperm whales! Looked like maybe a mother and calf, with a larger male some ways away. The mother and calf were just hanging there vertically, as if perhaps they were recovering from a long dive.  This behavior continued for a good ten minutes, after which we continued on our way to search for whale sharks.   

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