The Sailfish of Isla Mujeres

March 16, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

In March 2010, I traveled to Mexico where I had an opportunity to swim with and photograph the ocean’s fastest animal - the sailfish.  Once an exclusive encounter for only the most elite underwater photographers, more and more great photos are emerging from the spectacular bait balls that occur each year off Isla Mujeres, Mexico every January to March.  I was lucky to be invited along by Chris and Monique Fallows on this photographic expedition.  I have been planning to photograph sailfish for a few years.  Chris had been excited about the prospect since being shown footage by BBC photographers visiting Seal Island.

These spectacular fish gather off Isla Mujeres to hunt sardines.  Great schools of sardines move through the area at depth but group into tight balls when threatened by predators.  These balls are chased by the sailfish who dart into the ball of fish, slashing with their serrated bills, separating wounded fish from the group.  These wounded fish are then quickly picked off by the agile predators.  Occasionally these assaults separated small groups of sardines from the ball and then the action is explosive with multiple sailfish capturing the isolated fish.

While swimming calmly or chasing from a distance, the sailfish are sleek and silver with only a subtle hint of vertical stripes along their sides.  However, when excited, the sailfish raise their spectacular first dorsal fins (sails) and explode with color.  As they change color, flashes of purple and blue appear along the sail, with horizontal stripes of green along their flanks.  As the transformation completes, their bodies turn bronze, with vertical electric blue stripes along the sides.

Brightly colored Atlantic sailfish

In order to photograph these events, the crew of the boat will watch for groups of birds following a bait ball from above.  Upon finding and approaching a bait ball, the speed of the chase is considered.  Some pursuits are very fast and there is little sense in entering the water.  Generally, a bait ball with a slower pace is chosen.  The boat draws close to the bait ball and the photographers jump into the water with snorkels and fins.  It takes a moment for the bubbles to clear and to orient to the underwater surroundings.  In some cases the pursuit is coming past you as you enter.  In other cases, it is necessary to raise your head in order to locate the birds.  This gives you a direction to swim.  As you approach, the darting movements of the sailfish come into view.  Anywhere from a few to nearly one hundred sailfish can be found attacking a single bait ball.  Often, pursuing the bait ball means snapping a few photos before swimming with all you’ve got in an effort to keep up.  This may require returning to the boat and speeding forward for a new drop position for a few successive efforts.  Sometimes as the ball either splits or shrinks with more and more sardines falling prey, the pursuit will slow or even stop.  In these cases, the ball of sardines will swim back and forth or in circles, contained and surrounded by attacking sailfish.  These are the best opportunities for photos.

Once the bait ball stops, the action can become intense around the divers.  Sardines separated from the group often seek shelter under and against the divers.  It is tense as the sailfish swim at arms length pursuing the sardines under and between divers.  On one occasion I had to duck as the sailfish’s bill went over my shoulder.  While there are moments of concern for your own safety, it is hard to not feel some sympathy for the terrified sardines as well.  On more than one occasion, I had a sardine bumping against my limbs are hiding under my camera housing as I swam in pursuit of the bait ball.  In one instance I was able to bring a sardine right back into the relative safety of the bait ball after it swam with me for ten minutes or so.

Atlantic sailfish attacking sardines

Sea conditions and water clarity varied considerably from day to day and even from hour to hour.  Wind is a significant consideration during these months of the year and often the swells and wind waves filled our snorkels with unexpected gulps of sea water.  Backscatter provided another significant challenge.  This is the phenomenon where light from the camera strobes illuminates debris in the water producing the appearance of a snow storm.  The seemingly clear pelagic water was full of particles, including the scales of sardines killed by the gangs of sailfish.

It was an exhilarating experience and I hope that the photos communicate the beauty and drama of these events.  We were privileged to benefit from the expertise of the crew of Keen M International.  This company has played host to the world’s greatest underwater photographers and film crews.  Many dates are taken up by professional photographers, but inquires can be made at http://www.islamujeressportfishing.com/index.html.


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