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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 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 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 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.

2014 June 18 and 22
12 miles offshore from the tip of Louisiana
The “Taylor Energy” oil slick — a chronic 10-year-running severe oil pollution site

Barely 12 miles off the tip of Louisiana in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico lies a semi-permanent, large, poisonous oil slick.  It has been renewing itself daily since it first appeared in the summer of 2004, when Hurricane Ivan destroyed an oil production platform together with several tens of active pipelines.  There is no end in sight for this ongoing sickening pollution.  The blame lies primarily with imprudent drilling practices, not by a single corporation but by most if not all of the oil and gas industry. Put most simply, the wells in this area, most of which were put in place prior to the 1990s, were drilled too vertically and in too close proximity to each other.  And, like most other wells in the Gulf of Mexico, they are located in the natural paths of hurricanes.  The seafloor in this area is covered with mud, and underwater mudslides are the rule, not the exception. The end result is a chronic pollution crisis that threatens anyone near enough to see, smell, taste, or contact it with a life-threatening dose of hydrocarbon poisoning. To those of us who fly offshore regularly, its site is a frequent reminder of what an even larger area looked like after the 2010 BP disaster.

We have documented this pollution site from the air for over four years in articles on the OnWingsOfCare.org website and elsewhere, and we have provided aerial spotting support to scientists and engineers studying the site and ways to address the problem. On these two recent flights, we provided aerial guidance to scientists collecting samples of fresh and weathered oil from various locations in this area (June 18) and taking specialized aerial photos and videos to study properties of the oil (June 22). Results of these missions, like those before, will be published in scientific journals and publicly accessible websites, presented at scientific conferences, and used by government agencies as well as oil and gas companies.  With the permission of these scientists, we are continuing our practice of sharing some of these photos and videos with the public.  We know that citizens can only be as effective as they are well-informed, and the only way that our oceans will be preserved as healthy natural habitat for years to come is if a majority of human beings are informed and take action, whether directly or indirectly through effecting prudent legislation.

Here are maps showing the location of this site and these two recent flyovers.  At the end of this article we’ve reprinted our Flight Log for June 22, which covered roughly the same areas as the June 18 flyover except that the slick had moved somewhat, as it does regularly according to winds, sea currents, and weather.  Stormy weather between June 18 and June 22 had caused the appearance of the slick to change also, primarily in that less weathered oil had accumulated on the surface.

 

20140411 Friday
Barrier Islands Tour, Gulf Coast

Today was a long day of flying over the Gulf of Mexico! But good weather windows like this are hard to miss, and we also had some very special people who had been waiting for a chance to get their first look at some of the Barrier Islands off the coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana. Of special interest to them also was some dredging going on toward th east end of coastal Mississippi, around Round Island and Singing River Island.  On the flight we caught a brief glimpse of Ship Island and also gave them a quick tour of the Chandeleurs. South of the Chandeleurs we were treated to the site of a pod of more than 10 dolphins, including a couple of juveniles.  

Here are some of our favorite photos, thanks to Terese Collins and Vernon Asper.  These are followed by a few Google Earth maps showing where all of these islands are, and more photos are in the galleries below.  Enjoy!

2014 March 19 Wednesday
Island and coastal tour of eastern Louisiana

The interlude between end of the  work day and sunset and some clear skies gave us just enough time for a quick tour of the Chandeleur Islands and the eastern coastal areas of Louisiana.  Our special guests today were people whose life work involves aerial monitoring of ecological systems throughout North America and living close to the land in rural Wisconsin. The wetlands and coastal islands of Louisiana were a new and fascinating study for them, and they were even so fortunate as to see a small pod of adult and juvenile dolphins frolicking near the Chandeleurs.  Here is a map showing our clockwise tour.

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The Chandeleur islands are always a thrill to see, although each flyover also reveals their continuing diminution in size, a poignant reminder of their fragility and vulnerability to erosion and storms. It is sobering to think that one day we may see only sandbars where we now still can find long stretches of beach with beautiful plant life and inland ponds.  To the south of the Chandeleurs, Breton Island stands as a clear reminder of how much land has been lost, the site of what once was a busy research facility now a circle barely visible as it fades into the shallows.  The shallow waters outside these islands teem with dolphin, sharks, cobia, mullet, and large bait balls, and the beaches are filled with birds.

2014 April 11 Friday
Taylor Energy Slick off the coast of Louisiana

On our way back from studying  natural seeps far off shore today (see that story here),  we couldn't resist flying over the infamous Taylor Energy pollution site less than 15 miles off the coast of Louisiana. We've published many articles and countless photos and videos of this desperately sad chronic, vast oil slick whose origin dates back to Hurricane Ivan in 2004.  We've talked at length with the US Coast Guard and government experts on the status of this pollution site and the work that has been done over the past ten years to mitigate it, and we understand the explanations that not much more can be done to stop it at this point. With USCG permission, we will publish more on that in the future. In the meantime, however, we continue to monitor it, and we will continue to share photos or videos with the public on a periodic basis. Suffice it to say, however, that it continues to loom large and ugly, a miles-long barrier between the muddy waters of the Sound and the green waters beyond.

We have a selection of photos taken both from the aircraft windows (obliquely) and the aircraft belly (vertically). As with the natural seeps, scientists like the nadir-viewing photos for studying properties of the oil. We like them because they offer such different views from those we're used to seeing when we look out from a boat or out and down from an aircraft.  The first photos below are of the oil at the Taylor Slick. Below those, we've collected some of the nicer photos of sargassum along today's route, as well as a few special sites such as a huge colony of egrets on one of the few remaining sizable coastal islands, and some interesting pictures of another offshore drilling platform, the "Deepwater Champion."  Enjoy!

2014 April 11 Friday
Lease Block Green Canyon 600 area -- Natural Gas/Oil Seeps
Gulf of Mexico 

Today we re-visited this area located almost 200 miles south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico that is famous for its sea floor.  Not because of its exotic beauty or fascinating marine life, but for its cracks, from which emanate massive plumes of gas and oil. Two of these seafloor openings exude such strong streams of oil and oil-coated gas bubbles that scientists have nicknamed them "MegaPlume" and "Birthday Candles" after how they look in underwater camera footage. This is the Lease Block known as Green Canyon 600. A research vessel named "Atlantis" was there this week, carrying several scientists who have studied these plumes for years. They had with them a small boat called the "Avon" which they wanted to use to take surface oil samples from the area. We were there to direct the crew of the small sampling boat to those areas, because as you can see from the photos below, and as anyone who has attempted to find oil or marine life solely from a surface vessel, there is no substitute for "a look from above" for seeing the big picture of where things are.  

Here are a couple of  photos just to give you a sense of the scale of this seep area.  The Atlantis is 274 ft long; the little Avon is about 14 ft long.  The surface oil lines stretch for several nautical miles!

This Google Earth map showing our flight path also shows icons which refer to the sightings described in our Flight Log appended below.  You'll see the usual red circles denoting oil (circles with lines through them refer to surface oil that is a pollution incident, not a natural seep) as well as other icons denoting extraordinarily large patches or lines of sargassum as well as sightings of whales, sharks, turtles, large fish groups, large dolphin pods, and so on. Unfortunately, on today's flight we saw some fish groups (bait balls) and lots of sargassum, but we did not see any large marine life. We expect that is for two reasons: One, it is still early in the year for large marine life to be returning to feed in the Gulf; and Two, being that we were looking for surface oil, it's not much surprise that we would not find much marine life near those areas.  What never fails to surprise us, though, is just how many areas we find with substantial surface oil sheen.

2014 March 14
Coastal Wetlands of Louisiana

Today we were privileged to host friends from Oceana who have been monitoring the health of the Gulf here off the coast of Louisiana regularly since the BP disaster of 2010. They wanted to talk with people here -- fishermen, local citizens, people who worked the VOO boats, biologists, and more. And they wanted to see some things for themselves.  They took boats and were briefed extensively on the status of fisheries, wetlands and marsh restoration, and community health issues that remain a concern. And they also wanted to get "a look from above" to help put the big picture into better perspective.  Weather wasn't entirely cooperative while they were here, but we found a couple of hours with decent visibility and fairly calm seas, when we could squeeze into their busy schedules. They pitched in to help with our fuel costs, and off we went. Here is a map showing our flight route:

20140314-OWOCWetlandsTour4Oceana-MapLarge1