This past Saturday, 9/4/10, I had the pleasure of joining pilot Bonny Schumaker (of OnWingsOfCare.org), Jim Franks, a longtime marine biologist at GCRL, and the Sea Shepherds on an aerial tour of the Northern Gulf of Mexico, primarily in search of Whale Sharks for status reports and to hopefully tag . “The whale-shark spotting and tagging mission of Saturday September 04 was led by Dr. Eric Hoffmayer of USM/GCRL and funded by a grant from NOAA/NRDA.” As Bonny Schumaker states, “the search grid was about 75 nm wide (roughly west to east) and 25 nm tall, with the western sector overlapping the Macondo rig. No whale sharks were seen in the western sector, and the eastern one started out to be disappointing. We also did run across a lot of white foamy substance never seen before and that none of us could identify from the air. In the eastern sector, we had more success finding marine life.” I was very excited to go on this trip, hopefully to be able to find some signs of life, unlike my boat trip 90 miles out of South Pass with Captain Al Walker in early August. Unfortunately, the first 3/4′s of the day on which we flew back and forth over the grid, roughly centered at Lat. 29.16228 Long -88.05911, we saw very little life which unfortunately was not unexpected, as this is the area severely impacted by the BP Oil Spill. The second half further east was an entirely different story, sperm whales, Whale Sharks, huge schools of Tuna and Bonita, and Sea Turtles. It was truly an uplifting experience seeing life in the gulf after what we have been confronted with the past few months, but the almost lifeless waters from Mississippi to Louisiana continue to concern me greatly.
See the rest of my coverage from mid may up to date at http://nativeorleanian.com/category/bp-oil-spill/
Article on Sea Shepherd’s Site
Sea Shepherds find healthy whale sharks in the Gulf!
Report from Bonny Schumaker 2010 September 05
This Labor Day weekend, Sea Shepherd crew joined their fellow crew memberr and pilot in the Gulf since last May, Bonny Schumaker (of OnWingsOfCare.org), to help scientists from the University of Southern Mississippi and Gulf Coast Research Laboratory to find and tag whale sharks. Bonny has been flying over the Gulf on a near-daily basis since May, tracking oil and wildlife for a broad base of scientists, and has logged over 250 hours ‘flying low and slow’ from the coastal waters to 150 nm off shore, from waters of western Louisiana to Florida. Here is Bonny’s report from this fruitful weekend with some very industrious Sea Shepherd volunteers and supporters.
This past Labor Day weekend, Sea Shepherd volunteers and supporters supplied a second boat and crew for both Saturday and Sunday. The new search grid was about 75 nm wide (roughly west to east) and 25 nm tall, with the western sector overlapping the Macondo rig. No whale sharks were seen in the western sector, and the eastern one started out to be disappointing. In the eastern sector, we had more success finding marine life. We spotted well over 15 beautiful large leatherback turtles, a large manta (or devil?) ray, many schools of cobia, Bonita, tuna and dolphin (both bottlenose and spinner), and even a lone sperm whale traveling westward. But by 4pm we still had not found whale sharks. The scientists’ boat called and said they were starting back to port (Venice), and the other spotting plane was also turning back. But the Sea Shepherds refused to be defeated! After refueling in Gulf Shores, AL, our plane (affectionately known to all as “Bessie”) headed back out, and the Sea Shepherds’ boat promised to remain out with us.
I had two very special passengers in Bessie: Jim Franks, a longtime marine biologist at GCRL, who by end of day had acquired the nickname “Professor,” and Jerry Moran, photographer extraordinaire, who occupied the entire back seat ‘office with 360-deg windows’ and who earned the nickname “General.” I admit we were getting a little bit punchy from ten hours of flying at 200 feet above the water with windows wide open staring down. We had done the shark dance several times — a ritual taught me back in August by Samantha Whitcraft And we found an AM radio station on my ADF instrument that came in for about a half-hour — just in time to play for us the old song “Baby baby don’t get hooked on me…..” which we decided just had to be our new theme song.
Once I realized that this late in the day the boats might not be able to reach us to tag the whale shark anyway, I decided to abandon the grid search and spend the rest of the daylight hours following our own hunches. After spending this much time flying so low over the ocean, it is easy to feel like a shark yourself! Your eyes and brain identify bait balls, schools of jumping tuna, the flash of a fin or strange shape in the water, all quite readily. We decided to head for the deep shelf and an area known on the fishing charts as “The Steps”, following fronts and convergence lines. And then things started to happen. We saw dark patches in the water, which were areas of large concentrations of fish that appear dark because the surface properties of the water are changed by them. We started to fly from patch to patch, wherever the tuna and other fish were jumping the most. And in the middle of most of them, we found what we had been looking for! If it wasn’t a whale shark, it was a tiger shark or two. By 6:30pm, in just two hours, we had found, followed, and photographed nine distinct whale sharks. After each one, I would say “Okay Professor, find us the next bait ball.” And the General would issue his commend “Whale Sharks! Reveal yourselves!” And then a round of our new theme song and maybe a shark dance or two…. and eyes riveted out the windows.
With this success, we were disappointed to find out that the scientists did not have the funds to schedule another charter boat for Sunday! Undaunted, after docking their boat, the Sea Shepherds found another boat and captain, explained what we were trying to do, made a few phone calls to some wonderful Sea Shepherd supporters in the Gulf who offered to cover fuel costs, and we were on for Sunday! One of the scientists, Jennifer McKinney, who had permits to tag the whale sharks, eagerly accepted the invitation to join us for Sunday. I typed up my notes and sent out all the coordinates and other information to the crew, and we prepared to get about five hours’ sleep and start back out on Sunday.
There was just the one boat and my plane on Sunday. One of the Sea Shepherd boat crew volunteered to ride with me in Bessie as photographer and fellow spotter, and off we went. We spotted 12 whale sharks on Sunday. Again, they were always near or in the middle of a school of jumping tuna and lots of baitfish. Some of those bait balls had tiger sharks with them; we never did see both tiger and whale sharks together. And of course we also were delighted to find more leatherback turtles and dolphins. Sea Shepherd volunteer Brock Cahill and Jennifer were in the water several times near whale sharks, and came very close to tagging one very large one, but just as they neared her, she dove. (I’m sure it was a her — her mouth was rose-colored! Perhaps from bruising by the jumping tuna?) Despite not getting many whale sharks tagged, we counted it a very successful weekend. We are all relieved to know that there is still a variety of healthy marine life out there, at least in the area 100 miles or so east of the April oil spill. But this is offset by the realization that the absence of life noted around the area of the spill is probably a consequence of the spill.
Many lessons were learned, some the hard way, which will make future trips more efficient and successful. To name a few:
- Look for the whale sharks near the bait balls and jumping tuna.
- There is not much feeding frenzy activity before midday, but it continues as long as the warm sun is shining.
- Have a powerful aviation transceiver on the boat and a good marine antenna and handheld on the spotter plane, for assured communication.
- Save costs by tailoring the search grid size and number of spotter planes to the number and speed of the boats, to be sure that the divers can reach the spotted sharks in a timely way.
- Use a plane like Bessie that can fly low and slow for six hours or more, with windows wide open
- Have an air crew like us who have the developed flight skills and spotting eyes of pelagic birds
- Use volunteers like the Sea Shepherds who will not give up early!
Photos from Jerry Moran will be made available on a server, and we’ve picked some of the most special ones to include here. Enjoy! Jerry has definitely earned himself a place as an esteemed Sea Shepherd volunteer on any mission we undertake.