2014 September 08 Monday
Gulf of Mexico, 12 miles off the tip of Louisiana
The chronic oil leak known as the “Taylor Energy slick”

As part of our non-profit mission, which includes the protection of wildlife and natural ecosystems as well as humanitarian work, we continue to make regular flyovers of the Gulf of Mexico, its northern barrier islands, and the wetlands associated with the five Gulf Coast states.  With photos, videos, and detailed flight logs, OWOC documents wildlife, sargassum, and significant oil or gas pollution incidents and shares this information with the public and with government agencies such as NOAA, NMFS, and the US Coast Guard.

Today’s flight had a very specific mission: to photograph and video the chronic ten-year-running oil leak into the Gulf known as the “Taylor Energy” slick located about 10-12 miles off the tip of Louisiana.  It is the result of damage during Hurricane Ivan in 2004, during which a platform and tens of pipelines were destroyed.  Exacerbated by mud flows and subsequent storms, the continuing steady leakage of oil from the seafloor is now deemed impossible to mitigate.

For several years now, we've been reporting regularly on the Taylor slick, but in the past year we've also been supporting scientific studies by flying it at precisely the same times that observation satellites are passing overhead.  Our coincident low-altitude (500’-1000’ MSL) flights  help scientists understand how to  use satellite data to identify and characterize surface pollution incidents — spatial extent, thicknesses of surface slicks, even age and degree of weathering of crude oil, etc.

Today, the Earth-orbiting Terra satellite (launched in 1999 by NASA) would be aiming the Japanese sensor known as ASTER (or Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer) at this area around noon local time. ASTER gives images with resolution of several tens of meters  at more than 10 different wavelengths ranging from the visible (about 0.5 micron) to thermal infrared (about 11 microns) and is used to make maps of surface temperatures, reflectances, and other properties. 

We followed a heavy line of rainbow sheen from its abrupt starting points southwestward along a winding line that stretched about 13-15 nm (nautical miles) and was typically not wider than about 50-100 meters (m). We took photographs as we flew southwestward with the slick to our left (approximately east of us), and we took video as we flew northeastward with the slick to our left (approximately west of us).  We haven’t included all of the photos here, but the order of these photos still reflects our steady progression along the slick, as does the video (taken in the reverse direction, northeastward back to the starting point of the slick).

Here are a few of those photos and a video.   Notice the abrupt start of the line of rainbow sheen in the very first photograph; this is at the northeast end of the long line which we photographed and videotaped today.  More photos are in the galleries below the video.  At the end of this article is today’s flight log.



2014 August 14 Thursday
Mississippi Canyon, Gulf of Mexico

After yesterday's exciting find of a huge aggregation of whale sharks in the Ewing Bank area, we couldn't help hoping for similar success in the Mississippi Canyon, the area more due south-southeast of New Orleans and closer to the scene of 2010's Deepwater Horizon disaster.  We haven't found whale sharks here yet this summer, but in years past we did find them, so we remained hopeful.  Well, we didn't find any today.  But we did find two large pods of short-finned pilot whales, and one gorgeous huge long sperm whale. The water was beautiful, blue and calm, so we can say for sure that had there been whale sharks surface-feeding in the area during our five or so hours there, we would have seen them. Any day in the Gulf when we find whales and dolphins and turtles is a great day, since we have been seeing so few in this area in the past couple of years!   

Here are a few of our favorite photos from today, which includes some of the always-extraordinary wetlands of Louisiana and the interesting platforms out there:



2014 August 06 & 07, Wednesday & Thursday
Gulf of Mexico, offshore from the Florida Panhandle

The Gulf of Mexico waters south of Destin, Florida are very different from the waters south of Mississippi and Louisiana. Along the Florida panhandle, the beaches are covered with white sand and the water is often a clear emerald green out to a few miles off shore.  Even when the surf is up and seas are two to three feet, you can still see into the water from above, so flights are almost always rewarded with sights of dolphins, sharks, turtles, rays, and small fish balls.

We hadn’t been able to fly those waters in over a year, so when we were asked if we could provide some aerial spotting support for a seaturtle research mission, we moved mountains and worked long extra hours whenever we could in order to afford these flights.  The weather wasn’t ideal, but the tagging boat’s schedule wasn’t very flexible, and with rough seas they were unlikely to be able to find many turtles without “a look from above.”   So we chose the two days that looked best for weather and made the commute from New Orleans.

Aerial spotting for sea turtles differs from spotting for larger marine animals like whales, dolphins, or whale sharks. Turtles seem to be very sensitive to unusual disturbances around them. If we fly too low or cast a shadow in front of them, they dive. So for aerial turtle spotting, we try to keep our engines quiet and our altitudes constant and not too low, and then seek a compromise between the photographic ideal of having the sun behind us and the inconvenience of our plane casting a shadow that might make the turtle dive.  In  close to ten hours total of spotting over these two days, we found about seven leatherback turtles and about 15 loggerheads. But each time the tag team approached them by boat, the turtles dove. The boat tried for another couple of days after we had to leave, but weather was deteriorating and with rough seas, it was too difficult to find turtles just from a surface vessel.

Despite the rough seas and hazy skies with thunderstorms all around, we did get some nice photos to share with you — of turtles, dolphins, hammerhead sharks, and more. We’ll spare you the many photos of plastic trash that always seems to collect in lines of sargassum. We’ll share just a few photos of thick rainbow surface oil sheen, which is a common sight in waters offshore from Louisiana but which was a suprise to see within 5 miles of the beautiful beaches of Destin, Florida.   

We have lots of interesting photos of the shallower waters, coastlines, barrier islands, and our inland commute between Ocean Springs, MS and Destin, FL.  On August 06, when we left Ocean Springs shortly after sunrise, the runway was occupied by two sandhill cranes! We were happy to wait and enjoy watching them until they were safely clear of the runway.  Photos and videos of how turtle tagging is accomplished at sea will have to wait for another venture in better weather.

Here are a few of our favorites, followed by many more in the galleries below, and at the bottom of this article there is a detailed flight log of our sightings and their locations.






 

2014 August 13 Wednesday
Ewing Bank area, Gulf of Mexico south of Louisiana


Oh What a Day!!

Within ten miles of where we have seen groups of whale sharks in the past, today we found the largest aggregation reported in this area of the Gulf of Mexico since June of 2010!  We counted at least 57 whale sharks, all surface feeding together within about one square mile. Some looked to be 35-40 ft long, a few only 20-25 ft long. We had no boat with us today, so we can’t know the distribution of gender or maturity among them, unless scientists can make inferences from our high-resolution photos (of which we have many!).  What matters most to us is to realize that these gentle giant plankton feeders are still coming to the Gulf, and in numbers that seem to be growing. We can’t wait for the day we see hundreds gathered again, as had been found in 2010 and earlier.

From the ten whale sharks tagged and many more sampled in our successful search last July, much information will be gained over the next year. Those tags stay on the animals for several months to a year, gathering information about depth, water temperature, ambient light, etc. When they pop off, scientists retrieve them and can read the history of the sharks’ diving, feeding, and other habits.

Non-scientifically speaking, of course, we have to say we got a real kick out of seeing something we’re pretty sure has not been seen by many from the air before.  Uh, to put it simply, we watched the sharks start to disperse around an individual member of the group, and then there was a large white swoooosh in the water that was as long and large as several whale sharks. Then came a technical discussion among us of what color whale shark excrement is. I volunteered that I have seen humpback whale poop often, and it is brownish in color. So the question was raised whether this could be eggs or sperm, but then we remembered that sharks mate, and the females give birth to live young.  We finally concluded that whale shark poop must be whitish in color.  Anybody out there an expert on this? The photos and videos of it don’t capture the drama it held for us at the time, as we saw one individual animal become somewhat isolated from the others and then, er, let loose.  Maybe flying low and slow over the ocean does something to one’s brain, but at the time we thought it was pretty darned interesting.

Here are a few of our favorite photos, with lots more in the galleries below as well as a video, and of course our flight log with more details at the end of this article.  We’ve separated them into photos of single whale sharks, pairs, groups of three to eight, groups of nine to 20, and finally larger aggregations.  A separate article for today’s flight will be posted later, showing you all of the other animals and sights we saw today.  But in consideration of International Whale Shark Day on August 30, this article is dedicated to whale sharks alone!



 

2014 July 17 Thursday
Mississippi Canyon, Gulf of Mexico
OWOC’s sixthWhale Shark search of 2014, and our second survey flight in the Mississippi Canyon area (WS6-MC3)

On this sixth search of the season for whale sharks, weather made us wait for a good five days past the full moon, but this was the only weather window we would get for a while, and we didn’t want to miss it.  Last week had been so productive in the Ewing Bank area, we just had to check out Mississippi Canyon. And, today we were bringing along two scientists who usually work as captains or divers on the boat, so they were really eager to see whale sharks from a spotter plane. We had no recent reports of whale shark sightings by fishermen in the area, and water visibility not great and restricted us to the eastern portion of the nominal survey grid.  Cutting the grid short did, however, give us enough time to plan a detour over to Ewing Bank on the way home, to see if there were still groups of whale sharks surface-feeding there.

Here are maps showing our flight route today (in yellow).  As usual, the icons show some of the more substantial sightings of baitballs, pods of dolphin, sperm whales, etc., and any large stretches of surface oil or sheen.  We’ve also overlaid a close-up of today’s detour to Ewing Bank with last week’s banner day over Ewing Bank. We examined very carefully the areas where we saw so many animals surface-feeding last week, but we found no whale sharks today.

But we were treated to the first sightings this year of many sperm whales, including mothers and calves, to the west of Ewing Bank!  And the rest of Ewing Bank was jumping with large tuna. We also saw two large pods of spinner dolphin and a lone sperm whale south west of Sackett Bank (not far from the Innovator platform), and another large pod of bottlenose dolphin a bit farther southwest.  On our way back to New Orleans from Ewing Bank, we saw a sea turtle (loggerhead, we think) and myriad bait balls, with very active areas that looked to be king mackerel chasing bonito.  So it was a fine day for seeing some marine life, but alas, the whale sharks were nowhere to be seen.