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2014 September 08 Monday
Gulf of Mexico, 12 miles off the tip of Louisiana
The chronic oil leak known as the “Taylor Energy slick”

As part of our non-profit mission, which includes the protection of wildlife and natural ecosystems as well as humanitarian work, we continue to make regular flyovers of the Gulf of Mexico, its northern barrier islands, and the wetlands associated with the five Gulf Coast states.  With photos, videos, and detailed flight logs, OWOC documents wildlife, sargassum, and significant oil or gas pollution incidents and shares this information with the public and with government agencies such as NOAA, NMFS, and the US Coast Guard.

Today’s flight had a very specific mission: to photograph and video the chronic ten-year-running oil leak into the Gulf known as the “Taylor Energy” slick located about 10-12 miles off the tip of Louisiana.  It is the result of damage during Hurricane Ivan in 2004, during which a platform and tens of pipelines were destroyed.  Exacerbated by mud flows and subsequent storms, the continuing steady leakage of oil from the seafloor is now deemed impossible to mitigate.

For several years now, we've been reporting regularly on the Taylor slick, but in the past year we've also been supporting scientific studies by flying it at precisely the same times that observation satellites are passing overhead.  Our coincident low-altitude (500’-1000’ MSL) flights  help scientists understand how to  use satellite data to identify and characterize surface pollution incidents — spatial extent, thicknesses of surface slicks, even age and degree of weathering of crude oil, etc.

Today, the Earth-orbiting Terra satellite (launched in 1999 by NASA) would be aiming the Japanese sensor known as ASTER (or Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer) at this area around noon local time. ASTER gives images with resolution of several tens of meters  at more than 10 different wavelengths ranging from the visible (about 0.5 micron) to thermal infrared (about 11 microns) and is used to make maps of surface temperatures, reflectances, and other properties. 

We followed a heavy line of rainbow sheen from its abrupt starting points southwestward along a winding line that stretched about 13-15 nm (nautical miles) and was typically not wider than about 50-100 meters (m). We took photographs as we flew southwestward with the slick to our left (approximately east of us), and we took video as we flew northeastward with the slick to our left (approximately west of us).  We haven’t included all of the photos here, but the order of these photos still reflects our steady progression along the slick, as does the video (taken in the reverse direction, northeastward back to the starting point of the slick).

Here are a few of those photos and a video.   Notice the abrupt start of the line of rainbow sheen in the very first photograph; this is at the northeast end of the long line which we photographed and videotaped today.  More photos are in the galleries below the video.  At the end of this article is today’s flight log.



2014 August 14 Thursday
Mississippi Canyon, Gulf of Mexico

After yesterday's exciting find of a huge aggregation of whale sharks in the Ewing Bank area, we couldn't help hoping for similar success in the Mississippi Canyon, the area more due south-southeast of New Orleans and closer to the scene of 2010's Deepwater Horizon disaster.  We haven't found whale sharks here yet this summer, but in years past we did find them, so we remained hopeful.  Well, we didn't find any today.  But we did find two large pods of short-finned pilot whales, and one gorgeous huge long sperm whale. The water was beautiful, blue and calm, so we can say for sure that had there been whale sharks surface-feeding in the area during our five or so hours there, we would have seen them. Any day in the Gulf when we find whales and dolphins and turtles is a great day, since we have been seeing so few in this area in the past couple of years!   

Here are a few of our favorite photos from today, which includes some of the always-extraordinary wetlands of Louisiana and the interesting platforms out there:



 2014 August 13 Wednesday
Ewing Bank area, Gulf of Mexico south of Louisiana


Oh What a Day!!

Within ten miles of where we have seen groups of whale sharks in the past, today we found the largest aggregation reported in this area of the Gulf of Mexico since June of 2010!  We counted at least 57 whale sharks, all surface feeding together within about one square mile. Some looked to be 35-40 ft long, a few only 20-25 ft long. We had no boat with us today, so we can’t know the distribution of gender or maturity among them, unless scientists can make inferences from our high-resolution photos (of which we have many!).  What matters most to us is to realize that these gentle giant plankton feeders are still coming to the Gulf, and in numbers that seem to be growing. We can’t wait for the day we see hundreds gathered again, as had been found in 2010 and earlier.

From the ten whale sharks tagged and many more sampled in our successful search last July, much information will be gained over the next year. Those tags stay on the animals for several months to a year, gathering information about depth, water temperature, ambient light, etc. When they pop off, scientists retrieve them and can read the history of the sharks’ diving, feeding, and other habits.

Non-scientifically speaking, of course, we have to say we got a real kick out of seeing something we’re pretty sure has not been seen by many from the air before.  Uh, to put it simply, we watched the sharks start to disperse around an individual member of the group, and then there was a large white swoooosh in the water that was as long and large as several whale sharks. Then came a technical discussion among us of what color whale shark excrement is. I volunteered that I have seen humpback whale poop often, and it is brownish in color. So the question was raised whether this could be eggs or sperm, but then we remembered that sharks mate, and the females give birth to live young.  We finally concluded that whale shark poop must be whitish in color.  Anybody out there an expert on this? The photos and videos of it don’t capture the drama it held for us at the time, as we saw one individual animal become somewhat isolated from the others and then, er, let loose.  Maybe flying low and slow over the ocean does something to one’s brain, but at the time we thought it was pretty darned interesting.

Here are a few of our favorite photos, with lots more in the galleries below as well as a video, and of course our flight log with more details at the end of this article.  We’ve separated them into photos of single whale sharks, pairs, groups of three to eight, groups of nine to 20, and finally larger aggregations.  A separate article for today’s flight will be posted later, showing you all of the other animals and sights we saw today.  But in consideration of International Whale Shark Day on August 30, this article is dedicated to whale sharks alone!

2014 August 06 & 07, Wednesday & Thursday
Gulf of Mexico, offshore from the Florida Panhandle

The Gulf of Mexico waters south of Destin, Florida are very different from the waters south of Mississippi and Louisiana. Along the Florida panhandle, the beaches are covered with white sand and the water is often a clear emerald green out to a few miles off shore.  Even when the surf is up and seas are two to three feet, you can still see into the water from above, so flights are almost always rewarded with sights of dolphins, sharks, turtles, rays, and small fish balls.

We hadn’t been able to fly those waters in over a year, so when we were asked if we could provide some aerial spotting support for a seaturtle research mission, we moved mountains and worked long extra hours whenever we could in order to afford these flights.  The weather wasn’t ideal, but the tagging boat’s schedule wasn’t very flexible, and with rough seas they were unlikely to be able to find many turtles without “a look from above.”   So we chose the two days that looked best for weather and made the commute from New Orleans.

Aerial spotting for sea turtles differs from spotting for larger marine animals like whales, dolphins, or whale sharks. Turtles seem to be very sensitive to unusual disturbances around them. If we fly too low or cast a shadow in front of them, they dive. So for aerial turtle spotting, we try to keep our engines quiet and our altitudes constant and not too low, and then seek a compromise between the photographic ideal of having the sun behind us and the inconvenience of our plane casting a shadow that might make the turtle dive.  In  close to ten hours total of spotting over these two days, we found about seven leatherback turtles and about 15 loggerheads. But each time the tag team approached them by boat, the turtles dove. The boat tried for another couple of days after we had to leave, but weather was deteriorating and with rough seas, it was too difficult to find turtles just from a surface vessel.

Despite the rough seas and hazy skies with thunderstorms all around, we did get some nice photos to share with you — of turtles, dolphins, hammerhead sharks, and more. We’ll spare you the many photos of plastic trash that always seems to collect in lines of sargassum. We’ll share just a few photos of thick rainbow surface oil sheen, which is a common sight in waters offshore from Louisiana but which was a suprise to see within 5 miles of the beautiful beaches of Destin, Florida.   

We have lots of interesting photos of the shallower waters, coastlines, barrier islands, and our inland commute between Ocean Springs, MS and Destin, FL.  On August 06, when we left Ocean Springs shortly after sunrise, the runway was occupied by two sandhill cranes! We were happy to wait and enjoy watching them until they were safely clear of the runway.  Photos and videos of how turtle tagging is accomplished at sea will have to wait for another venture in better weather.

Here are a few of our favorites, followed by many more in the galleries below, and at the bottom of this article there is a detailed flight log of our sightings and their locations.






2014 July 17 Thursday
Mississippi Canyon, Gulf of Mexico
OWOC’s sixthWhale Shark search of 2014, and our second survey flight in the Mississippi Canyon area (WS6-MC3)

 

On this sixth search of the season for whale sharks, weather made us wait for a good five days past the full moon, but this was the only weather window we would get for a while, and we didn’t want to miss it.  Last week had been so productive in the Ewing Bank area, we just had to check out Mississippi Canyon. And, today we were bringing along two scientists who usually work as captains or divers on the boat, so they were really eager to see whale sharks from a spotter plane. We had no recent reports of whale shark sightings by fishermen in the area, and water visibility not great and restricted us to the eastern portion of the nominal survey grid.  Cutting the grid short did, however, give us enough time to plan a detour over to Ewing Bank on the way home, to see if there were still groups of whale sharks surface-feeding there.

Here are maps showing our flight route today (in yellow).  As usual, the icons show some of the more substantial sightings of baitballs, pods of dolphin, sperm whales, etc., and any large stretches of surface oil or sheen.  We’ve also overlaid a close-up of today’s detour to Ewing Bank with last week’s banner day over Ewing Bank. We examined very carefully the areas where we saw so many animals surface-feeding last week, but we found no whale sharks today.

But we were treated to the first sightings this year of many sperm whales, including mothers and calves, to the west of Ewing Bank!  And the rest of Ewing Bank was jumping with large tuna. We also saw two large pods of spinner dolphin and a lone sperm whale south west of Sackett Bank (not far from the Innovator platform), and another large pod of bottlenose dolphin a bit farther southwest.  On our way back to New Orleans from Ewing Bank, we saw a sea turtle (loggerhead, we think) and myriad bait balls, with very active areas that looked to be king mackerel chasing bonito.  So it was a fine day for seeing some marine life, but alas, the whale sharks were nowhere to be seen.

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.

20140319-CoastalTour-MapLarge1

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.