Why hasn’t all the oil gone?

2011 August 19 Friday
Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana and Mississippi

Today we flew about 500 miles over the Gulf to check out yet more reports of oil. We didn’t even get to some of the places reported, because in just a few hours we had already found plenty in at least four distinct locations — all within 75 miles of the shores of Louisiana!

Our plan for today was to check out three areas:

1. Breton Island, where last May we documented many subsurface dark reddish brown plumes surrounding the island rookery and spanning many miles north and south (see stories here).

2 The site of the defunct Ocean Saratoga platform owned by Taylor Energy, whose leak and extensive surface oil slick we documented this past July (see story here).

3. The site of the Deepwater Horizon (DH) explosion in April 2010, where fresh oil has been reported to be present still.

We’ve included a few photos in the descriptions of each significant sighting below; see the galleries below the article for many more photos and videos taken today by our friends from Gulf Restoration Network (Jonathan Henderson and Tarik Zawia).

[Note: To see exactly where this flight took us and look at the waypoints we marked, download the free program called "Base Camp" from Garmin (here). We'll provide a link very soon for you to download our GPS track file for today. (In the meantime just email us at info@OnWingsOfCare.orgThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and we'll send you the file!). You'll instantly see our entire flight tracksuperposed on a detailed map, and all waypoints we entered for points of interest will be marked. When you select them, you'll be given information such as date and time and any photos we might post with each waypoint. ]

As we headed toward Breton Island, just about at the point where the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (“MR-GO”) meets the Gulf (waypoint “9113″ in the BaseCamp file — lat/longs 29°44.35′N, -089°28.9′ W), we began to see vast sheets of those dark reddish brown subsurface plumes and streamers again. They extended to and beyond Breton Island (roughly lat/long 29°30′N, -088°10′W), and they reached right up to the coastlines. We would love to hear from experts out there who could improve on our naive speculations about whether this was algae, part of a dead zone, a mix of Mississippi river sediment, or whether it could be related to subsurface oil leaks. We saw little or no sheen with it, nor did the coastal vegetation look burned. (If you have ideas, please email us at info@OnWingsOfCare.orgThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ! We always welcome comments, questions, and edification!) Here are a few photos; see the galleries below for more.

Next we headed toward the Taylor Energy (Ocean Saratoga)site (roughly 29°’N, -089°W, waypoint 9110). Not far from there we saw four buoys and a large vessel with platform for a submersible, and trailing for about a half-mile behind that vessel but not obviously coming from it was a line of strange-looking oily spherical globules. Later we would see much more of this strange-looking oily stuff near the DH site.

Heading toward the DH site (9111), we came across an interesting vessel knows as “Helix”, and noted that their submerged equipment must have been about as deep as they could put it, for their cable was run out to the max. If you look at our gps map, the waypoint position for the “Helix” was number 9114 in the screen shot of our gps map below. (The gps file will tell you that the photo was taken from about 600′ above the water at lat/longs 28° 42.160′ N, -088° 35.994′W.)

We decided to explore farther east, in part because there were more platforms in that directions with smaller vessels (presumably supply boats) around them. We wanted to see if those “40 shrimp boats” rumored to have been out there earlier this week might still be there!

We saw no shrimp boats, but we did begin to see bait balls jumping with tuna. I told my passengers that last year around this time, we used to find whale sharks at the center of those bait balls…. so of course we had to check some of them out. BINGO! Within ten minutes we had found four whale sharks, one in each active bait ball we explored! These sightings correspond to waypoints 9118 (two whale sharks in close proximity — but still in distinct bait balls), 9119, and 9120. If you don’t have our BaseCamp file with these points yet, the lat/longs for the whale sharks were all very close to 28°45′N, -088°10′W.

Continuing northwestward, roughly back toward New Orleans, we spied a lone sperm whale (waypoint 9121 — 28°53′N, -088°22.5′W), and nearby a leatherback turtle! Soon after we came across a pair of sperm whales — looked like a mom and teenager (waypoint 9122 — 28°54′N, -088°22.7′W)!

Oh this was getting to be really fun (way more fun that seeing oil where there should be blue water).

Farther north, as blue water faded to green, we began to see dense arrays of oil platforms. And soon after that we saw a barge pulling large pipes (for dredging? or perhaps oil pipeline?) and another towboat nearby pulling what looked to be the top of an offshore drilling platform (9123 — 29°07′N, -088°38′W).
Then came the oil sheen… ugh (9124 — 29°13′N, -088°38.47′W). This sheen extended at least a mile north-to-south — but there were no rigs or platforms nearby. Was this a leaking pipeline? And then, within a mile to the north and northeast, there were one, two, ….. EIGHT shrimp boats in the near vicinity, all with their nets down! We wondered if they knew that all this oil was floating so close to them.
We continued homeward toward New Orleans, observed another surface sheen, about 2 miles long (northeast to southwest; waypoint 9125 — 29°32.6′N, -089°07.8′W). Nearby there was a platform with a jack-up barge next to it. And just to the northeast of that (waypoint 9126 — 29°34.4′N, -089°07.05′W) we saw some very serious surface rainbow sheen, at least two miles long and joining the previous one. The platform was labeled “BSBLK21″. Not only was the facility leaking badly, they must have known they were having some problem with gases, because a short distance away they were burning their flare. We later reported this and the two other leaking sites to the NRC.
We also saw many schools of redfish scattered to the southwest of this area, and a large school of cownose rays northwest of here, sitting along a very distinct convergence line

To summarize: We found significant amounts of oil in globule form still at the Deepwater Horizon (DH) site and at the Taylor Energy site, and we saw miles-long surface rainbow sheens from two different leaking platforms between DH and the Chandeleur Islands. Eight shrimp boats with their nets in the water were within one mile of these two leaking platforms. In the ‘blue waters’ out toward the DH site we were puzzled by some long, wide, unnatural-looking dark-green colored stripes. Finally, dark brownish-red subsurface plumes like what we had previously documented around Breton Island (Mar 2011) spanned miles in width and length, right up to the coastlines, beginning where the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (“MR-GO”) meets the Gulf south to Breton Sound. With all of that, we were ecstatic also to see three sperm whales, one leatherback turtle, four whale sharks, tuna, redfish, bottlenose dolphin, and cownose rays.

Some things puzzle us: We have seen substantial oil almost every time we’ve flown in the Gulf since March of this year, and yet we hear about very little of it in the media. Is that because no one else has been flying over the Gulf to see what’s really going on? Is it just coincidence that all of these other offshore platforms have suddenly been leaking since the Deepwater Horizon (DH) explosion in April 2010? Or has the Gulf been suffering chronically from this kind of leakage? How much of the oil we’ve been seeing this year has anything to do with the DH explosion? A large fraction of the samples taken from these observed phenomena have contained oil whose ‘fingerprint’ matches that from the DH site. That doesn’t mean that everything we’re seeing comes from the DH incident; but it does seem safe to conclude that 1) oil from the DH explosion has made it quite a ways from the original site; and 2) there are many other oil leaks present in the Gulf!

We intend also to fly over a large semi-submersible oil platform located about 150 miles southeast of New Orleans. The “Thunder Horse PDQ” (Production Drilling facility with crew Quarters) is a joint venture between BP and ExxonMobil — the largest offshore installation of its kind in the world. BP has admitted that “a silvery oil sheen measuring 2 feet by 30 feet has been reported on the surface” there, and they have supposedly sent vessels to check it out. Stay tuned for our check on it soon!

Here are some videos of the two oil slicks we found on the way back from the DH site, and a few of the sperm whales. Following these are galleries of more of our favorite photos from those Jonathan Henderson of GRN took yesterday. If you want high-resolution (~8MB) versions of any of these, contact us and tell us the filenames and we’ll oblige asap.

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