EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: Aerial Search for Whale Sharks Both Troubling and Uplifting; Dispersant Foam Visible on Surface


Flying over the Gulf with photographer Jerry Moran of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN)…


Last Saturday (Sept. 4), 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 portion of the Gulf of Mexico. We were primarily in search of whale sharks to report on their current status and to possibly tag them for future monitoring.

The trip was both very troubling and incredibly uplifting in regard to the marine life we saw.

First of all, I was thrilled to be going on this trip, hoping to see some signs of life…some signs that the Gulf was starting down its long road to recovery. According to pilot Bonny Schumaker: “The search grid was about 75 NM wide (roughly west to east) and 25 NM tall, with the western sector overlapping the Macondo rig.”

Pilot Schumaker: “No whale sharks were seen in the western sector…. We also did run across a lot of white foamy substance never seen before and that none of us could identify from the air.”

Unfortunately, much of the day flying back and forth over the grid (roughly centered at Latitude 29.16228, Longitude -88.05911), we saw VERY little life. Sadly, that was not unexpected, as this is the area severely impacted by the spill. The “kill zone” may remain lifeless for quite some time.

The second half of the day, further east, was an entirely different story.

We sighted sperm whales, whale sharks, huge schools of tuna and bonita as well as sea turtles. It was a huge relief to see signs of life in the Gulf after the devastating conditions we’ve been confronted with during the past few months.

Again, this tour was extremely emotional. It was fantastic to see vibrant marine life toward the end of the day – but the nearly lifeless waters we observed from Mississippi to Louisiana continue to concern me greatly.

I’ll be back soon with more visual updates.

The whale-shark spotting and tagging mission of Sept. 4 was led by Dr. Eric Hoffmayer of USM/GCRL and funded by a grant from NOAA/NRDA.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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