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. Scientists planned to be there with 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.

 

2014 June 18 Wednesday
Mississippi Canyon, Gulf of Mexico
OWOC’s fourth Whale Shark search of 2014, and our first search with a tagging boat in the Mississippi Canyon area (WS4-MC2)

On this fourth search of the season for whale sharks, we were a few days late for the full moon because we had had to wait for calmer seas and better visibility.  Our plan was to head first to an area near the “Tinkerbell” platform (MC274 lease block), where there had been a few reports from fishermen of whale shark sightings. No one had reported seeing any groups of whale sharks, so finding just single animals was going to be a long shot, but as always such a search is much more promising by air than by boat.

Here are maps showing our flight route today (in magenta).  Blue water and heavy storms forced us to remain farther east than the standard survey grid; and of course, when we work with a boat, we also restrict our area to points that the boat can reach easily. The icons show some of the more substantial sightings of fish, dolphin, sargassum, … and oil.  We’ve also overlaid today’s Mississippi Canyon flight with the first survey flight here from May 21, when we flew the entire survey grid. (See that report here.)

The sargassum was awesome again, and the wetlands were particularly beautiful as we threaded our way through many areas of thunderstorm development on the way back to New Orleans. We saw a pod of about 50 bottlenose dolphin west of the Tinkerbell platform and more dolphin with some very large fish jumping near the Medusa platform, but alas, no whales or whale sharks.  We also saw a lovely small group of white pelicans near South Pass.

About 60  nm downriver from New Orleans, we saw the federally-owned old Fort Jackson on the west bank. Its manicured lawns and easy road access contrasted strongly with the privately-owned, neglected Fort St. Phillip on the east bank.  Both were built during Andrew Jackson’s time for the War of 1812.  They were fortified and occupied during the Civil War and again during the Spanish American war.

Here are some of our favorite photos from today, followed by galleries of additional photos, and finally our detailed Flight Log.

 

2014 May 22 Thursday
Ewing Bank area, Gulf of Mexico
OWOC’s second formal Whale Shark search of 2014, and our first search in the Ewing Bank area(WS2-EB1)

On this second search of the season for whale sharks, we were excited to visit the area that historically has always been visited by large aggregations of these gentle giants of the sea — the Ewing Bank area, a wide shelf located about 200 miles south-southwest of New Orleans.  This was still early in the year, as previously the large groups have been spotted here in June.  But there had been some reports from fishermen of sightings, so we were ready and eager.

What we found was heartening — lots of dolphins and large tuna, bonito, and other fish (even some marlin!), but alas, no whale sharks.  The sargassum was gorgeous and there was lots of it. There were also many areas of surface oil sheen, some around platforms and drillships, some sitting in apparently isolated areas (pipeline leaks or natural seeps, hard for us to say).

Here are maps showing our flight survey of today. The icons indicate substantial sightings — of sargassum, of bait balls (mostly bonito and smaller except for some larger fish near some of the platforms), groups of dolphin with large tuna and a sighting of some marlin, and surface oil pollution, and some of the more interesting platforms and cargo and drillships.

2014 June 12 Thursday
Ewing Bank area, Gulf of Mexico
OWOC’s third Whale Shark search of 2014, and our first search with a tagging boat in the Ewing Bank area(WS3-EB2)

On this third search of the season for whale sharks, we hit the full moon almost perfectly, and today there would be a research boat and divers out for the day to Ewing Bank, prepared to find, identify, and tag some new whale sharks.  The date was just a week earlier than last year when we had found so many whale sharks, hence our hopes were high.  To decide where we would focus our search, we considered many factors: Where blue water was today, where we had seen wildlife (versus oil, for example) on our last flight, the most likely locations for whale sharks based on underwater terrain, and finally the mobility of the research boat.  We started out by flying the bank area — the underwater ridge between Diaphus Bank to the east and Ewing Bank (and a bit beyond) to the west. We searched as far northward as blue water or clear blue-green water permitted us to see well, and as far southward in our search as we thought the tagging boat could reach easily.  We also gave lower priority to the areas where there was lots of oil sheen (the southern portion of the survey grid).

Here are maps showing our flight survey of today, with our flight path in magenta. Below it are today’s maps superposed on the flight from last May 22, which surveyed the entire grid area. The icons indicate our substantial sightings of bait balls, a hammerhead shark and one very large manta ray, some fairly large fish and a small group of dolphins, and beautiful large arrays of sargassum.  But alas, no whale sharks! We were stymied again.

 

2014 May 21 Wednesday
Mississippi Canyon, Gulf of Mexico
-- OWOC’s first formal Whale Shark search of 2014, and our first search in MS Canyon (WS1-MC1)

The whale shark season has begun in the Gulf of Mexico!  We have searched for these elusive, mysterious, gentle giants of the sea every year in the Gulf of Mexico since 2010, right after the BP disaster.  Back in June of 2010, an enormous aggregation of more than 100 whale sharks was found at Ewing Bank, a wide shelf located over 200 miles south-southwest of New Orleans.  But since then, we have not found such large groups of whale sharks in Gulf waters within 200 miles of the Louisiana or Mississippi coastlines.  Last summer, we were very excited to find 24 whale sharks near Ewing Bank and a few isolated or small groups of whale sharks in Mississippi Canyon (see, e.g., our article from 2013 June 20). This year — well, not to spoil the surprise that will be in a later article (as we are posting this at the end of July, six flights later!) — but finally by mid-July of 2014, we did indeed find some large groups here in the Gulf again!  But here let’s just stick to our records and relate what we found on May 21, 2014, in the Mississippi Canyon.

Here are maps showing our flight survey of today. The icons indicate substantial sightings — of sargassum, of bait balls with large fish (mostly tuna), a good-sized golden ray, and one wonderful looking big sperm whale.  Our flight log, appended at the bottom of this article, describes our sightings and their times and locations in detail.  On our way southbound, we flew along the Mississippi River and checked out many of the (in)famous oil refineries and coal terminals; photos of some are included below.  And since it was on our way back home to New Orleans, we also flew over the chronic oil pollution site known as Taylor Energy. The sites of rainbow sheen and significant amounts of weathered oil at the surface helped fuel (no pun intended) the sampling flights of mid-June, which are described elsewhere in our articles for June 18&22.