Sea Shepherds Find Healthy Whale Sharks in the Gulf!
Report from Bonny Schumaker
This Labor Day weekend, Sea Shepherd crew joined their fellow crewmember and pilot in the Gulf since last May, Bonny Schumaker Board Director of Sea Shepherd and founder 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.
One of the high points for Sea Shepherds working in the Gulf the past weeks occurred again this past weekend, when we were able to find whale sharks on 21 occasions (comprising at least 12 distinct individuals) between Saturday and Sunday. On previous missions with scientists from USM and GCRL, there has been one boat plus one or two airplanes spotting. On our August 09 trip to the Ewing Bank area, about 70 nm southwest of Port Fourchon, LA, we found only two whale sharks, an adult and a sub-adult, and the scientists were able to get two tags on one of them. We witnessed five dolphins apparently playing with the sub-adult whale shark -- they seemed to be taking turns chasing each other. The dolphins, if not the young whale shark, appeared to be having quite some fun with it all; the scientists were quite excited about this, as it is yet another feature of whale shark behavior about which we know very little. On that trip and some subsequent ones, we were joined by Sea Shepherd supporters and fellow environmentalists Samantha Whitcraft and Deb Castellana of OceanicDefense.org. We also spotted a pod of seven Orcas, several large schools of bottlenose dolphin (two with 40-50 individuals), and some leatherback turtles. But all trips in that area since then have revealed a stark absence of life. This area is south west of the Deepwater Horizon Macondo well and, although it is far enough offshore to be in blue water, I had documented significant oil sheen there since last May.
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." Jerry has definitely earned himself a place as an esteemed Sea Shepherd volunteer on any mission we undertake. 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 they change the surface properties of the water. 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!
On Saturday, two boats went out. One carried the GCRL scientists and State of Louisiana Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) representatives on a chartered boat out of Venice, LA. Unlike other such trips, funded entirely by the scientists' own research grants, this time the costs for this boat and the aerial spotters for this day's mission were, for the first time ever, going to be taken care of by NRDA. The second boat was crewed by Sea Shepherd volunteers. The boat and its skipper ("Captain Steve") were donated by Mississippi fisherman Lenny Maiolatesi, and fuel costs were donated by an individual from Mississippi who is deeply interested in supporting the general well-being of the Gulf.
Aerial spotting was carried out by pilot Bonny Schumaker and a second pilot and his plane, Burt Lattimore, contracted out of New Orleans' Lakefront Airport.
GCRL supplied several expert spotters to ride in the spotting planes. Bonny also brought along the extraordinary photographer and dedicated native New Orleanian Jerry Moran. It is to Jerry that we owe these stupendous photos. Yes, he still modestly assert that he could never have gotten them without Bonny and "Bessie" (Bonny's plane) performing their hovering helicopter impersonation, where we slow to 55 kts with flaps and fly a circle tight enough that the only time we lose footage is when the sun angle is wrong. But the real genius is that Jerry spends most of his time (from the back seat of Bessie -- his private office fully surrounded by windows) hanging out the side windows hand-focusing his cameras and ready at every moment to get the shot.
On Sunday, there was no boat in the budget for GCRL. But Sea Shepherd crew were donated a second boat, this one a high-speed (60-kt) fishing boat, and we took GCRL scientists Jennifer McKinney along so that we could tag any whale sharks we found. Bonny flew aerial spotting on Sunday with Sea Shepherd volunteer Charles Harmison along to man the videocamera and handle communications with the boat via marine-frequency VHF handheld.
Here is what we found:
On Saturday, the search grid comprised a large roughly-rectangular area about 75 by 25 nm, that more or less followed the blue water line and deep shelf, from about 75 miles south of Gulfport, MS to about 60 nm south of Gulf Shores, AL.
The day started slowly. Nothing but a few dolphins, small rays, and leatherback turtles were found by Burt and his crew in the western part of the sector. This part of the sector overlapped the Deepwater Horizon Macondo well ("The Source"). They saw a large oil sheen southwest of the Macondo well.
The eastern part of the sector was richer in turtles, but still no whale sharks. Not to be discouraged, Bonny and her airplane team decided to refuel in Gulf Shores, AL mid-afternoon and returned to the Gulf to the east of the grid. Since Eric's boat was going to have to turn back shortly, they decided to quit searching the grid pattern and instead to follow their own hunches about what areas looked promising. Heading southeast from Gulf Shores, AL, they immediately found several leatherback turtles, often together with dolphins. As they went farther offshore, they noticed various dark patches, which turned out to be tuna jumping wildly after smaller 'bait' fish. They began to look for these 'bait balls' and to follow any birds they saw. And so we came to find the whale sharks.
Almost every single area of jumping tuna had at least one whale shark near its center! By the time we headed home, almost 7pm Saturday, we had logged coordinates for nine (9) whale sharks. In one place we spotted two whale sharks, one very large (~40 ft) and one much smaller (~25 ft).
On Saturday, we also sighted a single sperm whale longer than 30 feet, traveling westward at a good clip -- at least 25 kts. And on the order of ten or more large leatherback turtles, most of them floating serenely, but some of them on occasion working their fins hard, or diving from our view. Many of the turtles we saw Saturday were near schools of fish -- sometimes bonita but often cobia (lemon fish). One of the largest of the turtles -- ~6 ft across and at least 500 lbs -- was right next to a red subsurface patch. We were drawn to that thinking we were seeing oil again, but close up it looked more like a plankton bloom. We also saw several bottlenose dolphins, a fair amount of healthy-looking sargassum patches, and a large manta (devil?) ray.
On Sunday, we had the single boat head directly to the most recent of those sightings, and we headed out in the plane to look for more jumping tuna!
The morning was quiet on Sunday, as it had been on Saturday. Chalk up one lesson: those early morning launches may not be so necessary. Seems maybe the tuna and whale sharks like to sleep in a little, or at least are not that hungry until about midday. Another lesson was that when the sun starts to go down, and especially if clouds appear and things get shadier, not only does the lighting grow worse for photography, but the wildlife tend to stop eating, and dive.
But shortly after noon, the 'bait balls' started to appear, and we got so our eyes could pick out those jumping fish a mile or more away.
On Sunday we took mostly video. Jerry's is such a tough act to follow, that when he couldn't come along on Sunday, we just gave up on photography and relied on the high-quality video camera that Sea Shepherd provided us to try to make up for our lack of expertise. We'll upload those to the web in a day or two.
We found a total of 12 whale sharks on Sunday, somewhat to the east of where we had found them on Saturday. Some may have been the same individuals as those we saw on Saturday, but some were different. Many of the bait balls we found had not whale sharks -- but in those cases, there were usually one or two tiger sharks joining in. Unfortunately, by the time the boat got to where we were, we were only able to position them next to one whale shark. The divers were in the water and ready to tag her, when she suddenly dove.
We missed the tag by seconds. And by that time, it was growing dark, the lighting was much poorer, the tuna activity had diminished, and the sun was going down.
How promising tomorrow and the next day seem. With the lessons learned, we think we can do this better and in more cost-effective ways, so we look forward to many more whale-shark sightings and tagging.
1. 3053. 29.40150. 087.38461
2. (2 whales) 3056. 29.39450. 087.34805
3. 3058. 29.40200. 087.34350
4. 3060. 29.40296. 087.35119
5. 3062. 29.41315. 087.36313
6. 3064. 29.40516. 087.36524
7. 3065. 29.40256. 087.35696
8. 3066. 29.39832. 087.35600