Gulf of Mexico Overflight 2011 Mar 21 Monday
Today we headed directly for Grand Terre Island to determine the status of the deep red sub-surface plumes and streamers that we saw hanging within a quarter-mile of the beaches there and westward to Elmers Island last Friday and Saturday (March 18&19).
The day began by seeing nothing remarkable. But that didn't last for long.
In the areas where we had photographed heavy subsurface deep red plumes and streamers last Friday and Saturday, we saw now what looked like just a great deal of heavy silt, somewhat deep reddish brown in color but mostly just very turbid water. Heavy southerly winds stirring up the water didn't help our visibility any. We couldn't say that the subsurface reddish plumes and streamers weren't there, we just couldn't see them if they were. We saw no dolphins or other marine life in this area. There were no cleanup crews on the east side of Grand Terre Island. Recall that on Saturday Mar 19 in this area we had seen floating on the water's surface a dead read fish and, about a half-mile off shore, a dead floating green turtle. We had also witnessed a group of dolphins try unsuccessfully to revive a dying member of their pod. Today, we saw neither plumes nor animals of any sort here.
We flew west to Grand Isle, still saw nothing remarkable. Farther west to Elmers Island and Port Fourchon. Here we saw unnatural dark stuff washing up on the south beaches (this was around 12 noon CDT). The workers there had trash bins filled with plastic bags of ...?
The only animals we saw were three dolphins southwest of Fourchon. No other marine life, just sea birds. The water remained silty and choppy, visibility subsurface was very poor.
We flew west past Caillou Bay and to the far west end of the Isles Dernieres. We scoured the shores and breakwaters of all islands, low and slow, windows wide open, with zoom lenses and binoculars, looking for marine life alive or dead. We saw no dead animals washed up or floating. Nothing. (What IS in all those bags in the dumpsters at Fourchon and Elmers Island?)
As noticed on previous flights (Mar 18 and Mar 19), almost all birds are on the westernmost island of the Isles Dernieres and a few small rookery islands in southern Barataria Bay. All of the other islands, which have had extensive work done to their beaches, still abound with workers and equipment -- and few or no birds. Those islands don't resemble wildlife refuges anymore.
Returning eastbound, we revisited the beaches of Fourchon, Elmers Island, Grand Isle, and Grand Terre Island. We confirmed again the presence of dark unusual 'stuff' coming up on the beaches of Fourchon and Elmers Island. Eastward from Grand Terre Island we began to see more dark unusual stuff along edges of the marshes and in canals. It seemed particularly bad in Bay Long. There was apparently unrelated dredging going on to the north. 29.3503 N, 089.81703 W. In the protected inland marshy areas of this bay we saw those familiar dark reddish brown streamers and thick dark sheets coming right up to the shores. There were several boats in the bay area laying boom across inlets to the marsh areas. And we noticed light sheen, in pools and in long streaks of sheen in the canals leading from the bay into the marsh. There is no way for us to tell from the air what the concentration might be of hydrocarbons, but judging by the presence of all this boom and these workers, evidently we're not alone in thinking this is not just natural harmless silt.
We then headed to the Chandeleurs.
Whoa! Bad stuff starting around 29.65773 N, 089.0905 W! Same appearance as what we had seen Friday and Saturday, except here we were about 10 miles southwest of the Chandeleurs. These were huge swaths of that same-looking barely-subsurface material, dark reddish brown, in plumes. It stretched for at least four miles southwest to northeast in a wide swath(we didn't track it farther than that.) It was just under the surface again. There were two large patches of surface sheen to the east, each one about a mile square. Farther east, we crossed a strong tide line with color change, clearly not at all related to these subsurface plumes we had just passed.
Beginning at the south end of the enchanting Chandeleur Islands, we began to see much life! The water here at the Chandeleurs was beautiful in color, and quite clear. We could have been in the Bahamas.
There were cobia everywhere, we must have seen nearly 100 by the time we passed the middle of the islands northbound. They were feeding in the shallows -- maybe four feet of water.
We saw several large schools of red fish (~200 individuals in some of them). A large school of cownose rays. Several sharks, big enough to have been tiger but we couldn't quite make out the stripes. We carefully examined a beautiful large patch of weathered sargassum just to the east. Saw lot of debris but no turtles or other marine life there. In fact, we saw no turtles at all today, dead or alive. At least 7 pods of dolphin with 7-10 individuals in each. We saw only two juvenile dolphin that we were sure of. A dead one on the west beach at the northern end of the islands, looking bloated and brown -- presumably sunburned?
We proceeded northward to west Ship Island and saw there lots of cownose rays, rmany more red fish, some schools of mullet and maybe sheephead on the north shore, and dolphins. We scoured those shores and then the shores of Cat Island and found no bodies of dead marine animals.
Spotter and photographer for today's flight were Jim Franks and Don Abrams from the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Mississippi. A superb team of scientists we were, analytical to a fault and determined to err on the side of conservativeness by not presuming that anything we saw was unnatural unless we had good reason to suspect otherwise. We had a marvelous time, especially from the Chandeleurs on, where we could begin to enjoy wildlife instead of bear the constant burden of concern and sadness at the sight of unnatural substances and no wildlife.
Photos will be posted with this article as soon as possible.