Isla Mujeres, a happening little island off Cancun, Mexico, is fast becoming one of the “go-to” places in North America for underwater image makers. Noted primarily for whale sharks and mantas during the spring and summer months, in 1996 it was also discovered as a venue for photographing sailfish and bait balls. I finally had an opportunity to travel there with a small group of photographers this past January. This is deemed to be the best time to go, but with climate change occurring throughout most of the world’s oceans, the timing seemed off….until we arrived.
Our first day was blighted by some bad fish tacos the night before which resulted in a miserable day on the water. Even so, we were rewarded with whale sharks and sailfish. From then on it was smooth sailing with some very special encounters.
Sailfish are only one third of the story. The other two thirds belong to the frigate birds and sardines. To find sailfish, look to the sky, because without help from the frigate birds finding them would be next to impossible, as they they patrol the skies high above looking for the bait balls. In addition, it takes the trained eye of a good boat captain to be able to read the behavior of the birds.
Large bait balls move fast and can often be gone in the blink of an eye. It takes the fastest fish in the ocean working in teams of sometimes fifty or more to separate out smaller groups of sardines from the main shoal. In concert they drive the sardines toward the surface, trapping them with nowhere to go. And then the feast begins. Frigate birds, sometimes accompanied by annoying brown pelicans, pick off sardines close to the surface and fork their tails as a communication to other birds that the feed is on, while sailfish relentlessly attack from beneath. At times it seemed sad to watch the inevitable fate of the sardines. Most of the time our focus was so intent on the sailfish and sardines that we neglected to realize the frigate birds hovering inches above our heads waiting to get in on the action. I was reminded about how important it was to keep an eye on the birds when a brown pelican landed directly in front of my dome port with a huge splash!
Striking with pinpoint accuracy, the sailfish use their bills to stun and disorient the sardines which then allows them to pick them off one by one, the ultimate cat and mouse game. This million year old evolutionary process continues until the last sardine becomes the lone Civil War veteran. The sailfish then move on to find another bait ball and the the movable feast begins anew.
For underwater photographers it can be an exhausting and sometimes frustrating exercise as bait balls, sailfish, and birds move at speeds well beyond the capability of the most athletic swimmer. But when it all comes together the resulting reward can yield some rather spectacular results.
All images were taken with the Canon 5D MK III with the Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens in an Aquatica Housing using the 9 inch glass megadome. There was little need to use artificial lighting. Chasing fish with a housing was difficult enough without the additional aggravation.