I can’t think of a better way to explain what it’s like to be in a “bait ball,” the common term for a large aggregation of baitfish.
You jump in a small Mexican fishing boat, head out over 40 miles into roaring seas and look for the Magnificent Frigatebirds flying overhead. They are your guides in this pelagic labyrinth. When the Frigatebirds lock onto a large gathering of baitfish, they draw the attention of every other avian predator looking to score a hefty meal. When you pull up to the action, you immediately understand where the expression “a boiling sea” came from. Predatory fish like Marlin and Tuna exploding out of the ocean, Frigatebirds and Boobies feeding at the surface and millions of Sardines and Mackerels fighting for their lives; the ocean‘s buffet.
When I first witnessed this spectacle off the coast of Baja, Mexico the action didn’t wait for my mind to make sense of what I was experiencing. Even more impressive than what I saw when I jumped in, was the sound. With the Mackerel and Sardines forming ever tightening balls of fish, they were a vortex, and my ears were overwhelmed with the sound of multiple tornados, the rushing of water thundering. The unlucky fish on the outside of these swirling balls were picked off by predators as they were snatched by steely chops. Bodies sounding loud thumps and whacks boomed and echoed. The snapping of Marlin jaws sounded like a cross between the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun and a washing machine full of rocks. This deafening mosh pit, predators vs. prey, is nature’s eternal dance.
In a bait ball, everything is a game of wits and physical ability; the predators have to drive the bait fish to the surface where there is no escape. In this exhibition you see exactly why the Striped Marlin evolved to look the way they do. Most people only see them fighting for their life at the end of a fishing line but to see them hunting underwater is one of nature’s greatest shows. They circle underneath with elegance, sizing up the other predators in the area. When the moment is right and the bait fish are concentrated, BAM, they make their move. With bursting speeds of over 30mph they explode towards the bait ball looking to pierce a fish with the swords positioned on the front of their heads.
I had to be extremely careful while photographing this action and that’s an understatement. Every individual is hyper aware while in a bait ball, one wrong move and you could end up on the wrong side of that sword or inside of a Whale, no joke. As time went on and I gained a little more confidence in my observations and body language, I wanted to get right in the middle of a bait ball to capture the action up close. At first it kept the predators at bay and made me realize something: they respect personal space and allow each other a chance at feeding. Not wanting to disrupt the natural behaviors, I backed off a bit and continued shooting from a distance. It took hours upon hours, swimming in the open ocean with a camera and remaining hyper vigilant to my surroundings before I again felt comfortable and responsible enough to close in. But more importantly by waiting, I won over the trust of the Striped Marlins that I was not looking to hurt one of them while engaging in the bait ball dance.
Hours of patience finally paid off when one confident Striped Marlin dashed at the bait ball right in front of me, breaking up the concentration and forcing fish into the mouths of other predators. I had my shutter set to over 1/2000 of a second so I could freeze the action and capture this scene in a way few people on this planet had seen before. The results and the experience were once in a lifetime and this image will always resonate with me as controlled chaos, and the day I fell in love with Striped Marlin.