2013 January 20, Sunday
Gulf of Mexico - Offshore Louisiana, from the Chandeleurs to the Macondo
Everywhere you go along the Gulf Coast, there is awesome natural beauty. Viewed from above, rivers and bayous rule the land mass. Thousands of birds, including huge groups of brown and white pelicans, live and raise their young in the wetlands that separate the Gulf of Mexico from noisy humanity. As beautiful and impressive as the New Orleans skyline and the mighty Mississippi River and its barges and ships are, there is no thrill like flying beyond them, across these grasslands to the open sea.
We fly offshore to find wildlife and to document oil spills and pollution events that threaten the lives of all marine and coastal life. These problems seem to get overlooked to a large degree by humanity, or at least by those with the power to correct the problems. It is a labor of love for us, and it takes every extra penny we have to do it. But the alternative is that fewer people will know of the damage being done and therefore it is less likely to be stopped and corrected. That seems to us an unaffordable shame. We hope that by our sharing what we see with you, you will lend your wisdom and power to help turn the wheels needed to correct these issues.
Since the weather today was spectacular, 100-mile air visibility and seas calmer than we've seen for months, we made a quick decision to go, even though we had no arrangements to fund this flight. Experience has proven that one flight under the right conditions is worth many when weather and lighting are not optimum. One pilot, one photographer, four eyes and unlimited enthusiasm made for great success. We kept close to our plan to check out the surface oil slick in MC253, which we first documented early last fall. It is within a mile of the site of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 April, and although neither BP nor the US Coast Guard seem to have any idea of its source or cause, it is causing a very sizable surface oil slick, rivaling the chronic Taylor Energy slick off the southern coast of Louisiana in its size. A photo of it is on the left below, with the ENSCO 8502 drilling rig about two miles away. (ENSCO 8502 is a deepwater semi-submersible drilling rig built in 2010 and currently leased by LLOG from Nexen Petroleum for $0.5M/day. It is being used to drill and test up to five wells in the Gulf at about three months per well; activity seen there today suggests flaring is beginning and that they may be completing operations here.)
For comparison, the photo on the right below is the chronic oil pollution site we refer to as "Taylor Energy", named after the owners of the defunct platform destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 along with many broken pipelines which continue to spill fresh and weathered oil into the Gulf at an astonishingly large, continuous flux rate. This nightmare persists barely 12 miles off the southern tip of Louisiana, in "green water" not even a third of a mile deep.
Many more photos and details are given below on these two persistent oil pollution sites. We also documented three other sites with significant amounts of surface oil sheen (and of course filed NRC incident reports for these as well): one that comprised two adjacent slicks in Black Bay off the east coast of Louisiana, one south of the Macondo near a known natural seep in lease block MC294, and one about 15 miles northwest of the Macondo, which also could be from a natural seep, since there were no obvious sources such as platforms or pipelines in the vicinity.
We returned to New Orleans by way of the exquisite Chandeleur Islands -- or rather, what is left of them. How they have changed just in the past two years! For all the damage and changes caused by mankind, it is obvious from the air that storms have also been changing offshore Louisiana markedly. The amount of land surface in the fragile and exquistely beautiful Chandeleur Islands appears to have dropped by 30-50% since the summer of 2010. So has the number of nesting seabirds, and those birds who remain are crowded together very closely. The seas were amazingly calm today. The waters from the Chandeleurs westward toward the mainland were mirror smooth and gave a haunting appearance as the sun dropped toward the horizon.
Last but not least, we reveled in watching white and brown pelicans all over the wetlands and coastal marshes. We have lots of great photos to share with you of those -- like these:
Photos and full descriptions are given below including our Flight Log with descriptions and GPS coordinates for all that we saw. The GPS file of our flight tracks can be downloaded here (or at the main menu item "Flight Tracks" on this website). We've saved the best photos for last -- the Chandeleurs, and photos of wildlife. Alas, today, we saw little marine life, only an occasional dolphin around the Chandeleurs. But oh the birds! Enjoy!
2013 January 04, Friday
Taylor Energy and MC252 (site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010)
Today we made good use of the first window of good flying weather for southern Louisiana and the Gulf in weeks. We flew out to check on the chronic oil slicks we have documented in the past -- the chronic leak at the Taylor Energy site just off the southern tip of Louisiana, and the substantial surface sheen that has appeared intermittently in the past couple of years over BP's abandoned wellhead in Mississippi Canyon lease block 252 (MC252) -- the scene of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and environmental disaster of April, 2010.
The past few weeks have seen nonstop wild weather in these parts, ranging from strong gusty cold northerly winds to storms coming up from the southwest, all causing very rough seas, almost daily rainstorms or showers, beautiful displays of clouds from scattered to dark and foreboding, and generally poor flying conditions for aerial viewing of oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico. We expected that the strong winds and currents and heavy rains would have prevented surface slicks from holding together, and that therefore the slicks we have documented so frequently in these two areas would probably be dispersed. (Bad pun, that word, sorry!) However, despite only fair air visibility today and rough seas (4-6 ft waves), these two slicks were impossible to miss.
Taylor Energy: The Taylor Energy slick first appears as a long white line on the horizon, then as a substantial geometric shape on the ocean surface as you approach it, generally oriented southwest to northeast. Flying directly over it at about 1000' above, even with the rough seas, our small video camera looking out our belly viewer saw lots of rainbow sheen and thick lines of metallic gray oil, interspersed with some deep reddish-brown material -- most likely weathered oil. Photos and videos of this area are below. Today, this slick was about 400m wide (NW-SE) and 2 nm long (SW-NE, approximately 035°). We filed an NRC report #1034841 for this sighting after our flight. (Many thanks to Gulf Coast resident Susan Forsyth for her help in getting that submitted promptly!) Many more photos and three videos of the Taylor Energy slick are included below, thanks to the substantial help of Gulf Coast residents and enthusiastic photographers Terese Collins and Brayton Matthews. Here are a few sample photos:
MC252 and the Macondo Prospect: The MC252 slick also shows up clearly from a distance. Since the ENSCO 8502 drilling rig has been parked right there for over a month, it's almost impossible to miss the slick these days! There is an obvious discharge from that rig, but the large, well-defined slick to its east is clearly not coming from the ENSCO, but from its own source right there at or very near the abandoned wellhead. The slick's dimensions are approximately 1.5 nm SW-NE, and 1 nm NW-SE. Within the light sheen, there are many “streamer” lines of shiny metallic-gray clearly visible on the surface. Many photos and a video are included below. Here are a few sample photos. (We filed NRC Report #1034839 for this sighting.)
A few other sights of interest are included below as well -- many hundreds of birds gathered together and flying in huge V-formation southward, and some beautiful and intriguing sights in the wetlands and coastal areas. Photos are included below (or will be by tomorrow!), and locations are given in our flight log.