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2013 May 23 & 24, Thursday & Friday
Gulf of Mexico 

As summer arrives and warm weather returns to the Gulf of Mexico, there are plenty of people yearning to know whether some very special marine life will be returning, too! The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries and scientist Jennifer McKinney are among them, and over the past three years they've learned that getting "a look from above" is a very efficient way to augment the occasional serendipitous sightings by fishermen and oil workers. They have used On Wings Of Care's well-developed skills and network of spotters on many occasions to help them keep whale sharks in sight long enough to have swimmers from dive boats fit them with GPS tags. This year they decided to augment the information from tagged whale sharks with some systematic surveys of areas that have historically had the largest number of whale-shark sightings. We began the first two such surveys this past week, flying an 1800-sq-nm grid over the Ewing Bank area on one day, followed by a similar-sized grid in an area south of Sackett Bank the next day.  Each of these grids took us out over the Gulf about 160 nm south of New Orleans, well into the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Finding whale sharks and other sharks from the air is one of the toughest aerial spotting challenges. By comparison, finding marine mammals like whales and dolphins is a no-brainer; after all, air-breathing animals frequent the surface, disturbing the water with fins and tails. The spouts from sperm whales as they breathe are visible above the surface for more than a mile; and from the air, whale "poop" is a huge sub-surface cloud that's hard to miss when the water is clear! Sea turtles also disturb the surface and frequently lounge about at or near the surface, making them easy targets to spot from the air. "Bait balls" of smaller fish show up very distinctly from the air, first as a dark circular-type spot on the water from a mile or so away, then from closer up as a circle of sparkling wavelets and silvery bodies jumping. Large tuna often make dramatic jumps in such bait balls, and we can spot them jumping from a good distance.

But sharks, even the huge 30-40-ft distinctive spotted whale sharks, don't break the surface much, and they don't cruise the surface all that much, either. To find them, we need fairly calm, clear water, so that we can see down to several feet below the surface. We also need trained, sharp, concentrating eyes that scan the sea surface without stopping for more than a few seconds in any one place.  It is demanding and sometimes tedious to strain one's eyes for 5-6 hours at a time looking for the elusive shadows of sharks just below the surface.  And when we spot one, watch out! Whatever kind of maneuvering it takes, we don't want to lose sight of it! Bank the plane, pull the power, put in a notch of flaps so we can slow down, go down, and turn tightly! 

So here's what we found -- but first just a few photos to whet your appetites!  Many more photos are in the galleries below. First a few of a whale shark swimming about five feet below the surface, viewed from about 600 ft above:

By contrast, look at how much easier it is to see sperm whales -- of which we saw several:

No trip would be complete without showing some of the spectacular and strange-looking sea phenomena as viewed from the air, such as these convergence lines between muddy and green water, and green and blue water, and the beautiful patterns of sargassum:

Last but not least, the wetlands of coastal Louisiana are a sight of beauty that stirs the hearts of all who live here:

So now down to the details of what we found, and many, many more photos! Our detailed flight logs are included at the end of this article, and you may download our GPS Flight Tracks here -- May 23 and May 24.  

2013 April 02 Tuesday
Gulf of Mexico off of Louisiana

UPDATE (20130420) - "Belly viewer" video of the Taylor Energy slick has now been added!   See below.

For weeks, we had planned to fly the Gulf on Wednesday April 03, in conjunction with a high-altitude flight of NASA's Unmanned Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR) and some satellite radar passes, over a long rectangular area that extended from Lake Pontchartrain southeastward to several miles south of the  Macondo area, covering also most of the Taylor Energy site. The gusty thunderstorms here made that impossible, but fortunately we all squeezed in our flights the afternoon of Tuesday Apr 02, even the Gulfstream 3 with the UAVSAR, whose crew had to fly their lines at the end of an already-long commute up from central America. Nearly simultaneous viewing is desired in order to compare what we see visually (half-micron-scale wavelengths) and what the radars see at their meter-scale wavelengths. By understanding the correlated signatures of both visible and radar data, we are able to make more accurate interpretations of data from one or the other data source alone, in searches for oil slicks and sheen.

2013 February 13 & March 12
Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, Gulfport, MS

We’ve learned a great deal from some recent visits to Moby Solangi’s Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) in Gulfport, MS. Moby has spent considerable time with us showing us around all of the facilities and answering many questions. Some of our questions arose originally because of a request of us from Moby to help transport two orphan sea lion pups from California to IMMS. Those two young female sea lions -- “K.T.” and “Sage”-- are now safely and happily ensconced at IMMS, thanks to FedEx, a private jet, and much careful work by many. While we did not support the accomplishment of this transport, Moby’s request gave us the opportunity to look closely at IMMS for ourselves and to ask many pointed questions about past, present, and planned activities regarding captive marine mammals at IMMS and elsewhere.

2013 March 16 Saturday
Gulf of Mexico - Macondo prospect, Taylor Energy, Breton Sound

(Today's Gulf overflight was made possible by donations from the listeners of the radio station Thank You Joyce Riley and all of your listeners for putting us back in the air to bring you the facts!)  

We jumped at another day of clear skies and calm seas to make a quick flight to check on some of the fifteen oil pollution sites we documented and reported from last Friday's flight over the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. We were particularly interested to see the status of the extensive sheen we saw in the Macondo area last Friday. To our surprise, that area looked mostly clear today -- clear of surface oil, and void of life. The water was beautifully calm, even 50 miles off the coast. Plenty calm enough to see sharks and fish who do not need to break the surface. And yet we saw no bait balls, no flying fish, no seabirds hunting, no rays, turtles, sharks, dolphins, whales. Nada; nothing alive was seen along our flight route today.

The Taylor Energy site -- that chronic oil pollution debacle about 12 nm off the coast of Louisiana that has been spewing oil into the Gulf since Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004 -- continues to horrify. We filmed plenty of thick rainbow oil, even some brown weathered crude hanging in a portion of it. The thickest part of the slick has moved a few miles northward from where it typically has been in the past, perhaps due to prevailing strong southerly winds of late. But it's never difficult for us to find it; we usually can spot it more than ten miles away, even on cloudy days.

In addition to the Taylor site, we reported another of what we have seen and reported before and presume to be a natural seep, this one about 12 nm west-southwest of MC252. We also saw and reported a substantial slick (over a mile long) along Louisiana's eastern coast, east of Empire, LA at the south end of California Bay.  These comprised our three NRC reports, detailed below in our Flight Log. Here are a few sample photos.  Many more follow, in the galleries below.