We are here in Mobile, Alabama to support the efforts of the Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC) in surveying the extent of the oil spill and its impacts on marine mammals and sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the second trip in the past month, and we have been here for four days. The weather has been extremely hot and humid, but we have been able to survey the past three days.
We fly at 600 ft to allow us to identify sea turtles to species. There are five observers who rotate through stations with a rest position. The right and left bubble window observers guard the trackline with a belly observer sweating profusely in the back. Kevin Barry is our chief scientist, and he is joined by Carrie Horton, both from the Pascagoula Lab. Lisa Belskis is also here from the Miami Lab, and on the last trip we were joined by April Goodman from the Beaufort Marine Lab. On day one our tracklines covered the nearshore Mississippi coastline. During the first day we saw bottlenose dolphins, Kemps ridley and loggerhead sea turtles, many species of sharks, cownosed rays, manta rays, and many schools of bonito fish.
Day two brought a heat index of over 100 and extra water bottles and fresh blueberries thoughtfully provided by our “southern” host, Carrie Horton. Our survey lines were 75 mile long north/south lines east of the source of the Deepwater Horizon, beginning at the coastline itself and moving offshore. Sightings included 8 Risso’s dolphins, one large pod of 50 bottlenose dolphins (and numerous smaller groups), many Kemps ridley and loggerhead sea turtles, manta rays, sharks, and highly active schools of bonito fish. There was quite a bit of boat and air traffic at the source, and it was very hazy as they were burning oil off the sea surface that day. The P3 NOAA43 R4, AKA “Miss Piggy,” was flying air quality tests over the source that day. Our pilots were in contact with Miss Piggy and all other traffic as it was very hectic.
Yesterday we flew along the Louisiana coastline surveying everything west of the source. This is the area that has been in the news recently as being the most heavily impacted. We flew over Grand Isle, saw the efforts underway to protect nesting islands, skimmers and shrimpers working with booms.
We landed in Houma, LA, to refuel just like the first trip did a few weeks ago. We were hoping there’d be another crawfish boil like last time, but alas…it was not to be. We enjoyed the comforts of the air conditioned FBO and all their free snacks with no further incident… except for a reported celebrity sighting of Anderson Cooper.
Today we are on a scheduled down day, and NOAA 46 is flying the Secretary of the Department of Commerce over the source to investigate the area and their research in high altitude (12,500 ft) multispectral digital imaging. From this altitude they are able to image a 2.4 kilometer strip width of the spill area. Oil Spill Response is being directed from these images. We would like to acknowledge the many pilots we’ve had throughout the project: Commanders Mark Neslon, Phil Eastman, Brad Fritzler, Ron Moyers, Ensign Tanner Sims, Ensign David Cowen, and Rob Mitchell. We would also like to thank our mighty NOAA 57.
Stay tuned for more updates from the Gulf…
~Submitted by Jen Gatzke and Pete Duley