A Big Fish Expeditions Trip Report
Animal behavior rules Magdalena Bay in Baja California Sur. We headed out for the sardine run to see schooling striped marlin feeding and found an adventure. The sardine run can be characterized as a big chase. Everything is chasing everything else in a wild hunt for sardines. Striped marlin, California sea lions, Bryde’s whales (we saw three encounters at the surface), frigates, us, and even orcas can show up.
The first day of a trip is filled with anticipation and anxiety for wildlife encounters. Everyone is hungry to see the big fish and worried they wouldn’t have the opportunities they’re hoping for because these indeed are wild animals that we have learned how to interact with through predicted behavioral patterns. The first two days helped us learn what the wildlife was doing for our trip and was spent with everyone perfecting their jumps from the pangas and learning what to look for in the water.
We saw more than we bargained for, including some up close encounters with California sea lions on the chase with us for sardines and striped marlin.
On the way out for our third day, we were met with a real surprise. A pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins seemed to be playful and in one place for a moment. We jumped in and were delighted that they buzzed us multiple times. We made a couple more jumps with them enjoying diving down with them and our rare encounter.
After the first two days of learning how to spot striped marlin and then how to find where they are headed underwater, we started to see a pattern. The marlin seemed to appear with the sardines around noon. On this third day, we were pumped for action having just enjoyed a great dolphin encounter.
To find where bait balls of sardines have been separated into bait balls by hunting marlins, we look for frigate bird activity above water. Once we find frigates diving for sardines, we rush to their location to determine the behavior. Frigates cannot get their feathers wet as they don’t have protective oils like other birds do. They must speedily and accurately grab sardines that jump out of the water when marlin have collected them at the surface into frenzied bait balls.
We then look for marlin fins poking from the water and then everyone gets excited because you can see the action unfolding. We even saw marlin jumping entirely from the water with eight as the number of most successive observed jumps.
Three varieties of sardines school in Magdalena Bay are really three types of small pelagic fishes, sardines, anchovies, and mackerels. The mackerels are largest of these and slower running than the smaller fish. We particularly seek out the mackerels because the smaller fish move so fast we can only catch a glimpse of them passing by. Sometimes, they move so fast, that they appear more like a collection of fish running across the ocean. If they could make noise, I imaging them also screaming because the marlin are adept predators.
We saw marlin every day, but it wasn’t until we were more practiced with where to look that we started to understand the directionality and action we wanted for longer encounters.
Static bait ball
We all have our individual opportunities with encounters on our trips. Sometimes, you get one special moment and everyone gets their turn at a moment. The magic words for a striped marlin trip are static bait ball, which leads to special moments for everyone. This is the golden ticket to seeing real action with interaction between hunting marlin and sardines spinning wildly in a tight configuration.
To be a static bait ball, the bait ball is in one place spinning itself around rather than moving in a coordinated direction. This allows us to float at a distance from the bait ball. The length of the encounter depends on three things: the size of the bait ball, the group keeping space away from the bait ball so the marlin feel comfortable enough to hunt, and the group keeping in a tight line with the sun to our back so the marlin don’t pay attention to us and so we can see everything more clearly.
That magic moment
When you come upon a static bait ball and the entire group stops and watches, you can feel yourself draw your breathe in as you anticipate a great encounter. Finally, you are hit with that dose of adrenaline that leaves you craving more. Marlin coordinate, coming from below and from the sides of the bait ball. They swim rapidly around the bait ball taking their time to be selective for when they use a burst of energy to eat an entire fish. You hold your hand on your trigger not wanting to look away with your eyes because you never know where the action will go. And then, you have your moment and you’re hooked. The reward of that moment makes the experience and effort a valuable investment.
Small bait balls
Although larger bait balls can attract a longer feeding, small bait balls can last a surprisingly long amount of time. Large bait balls may attract other predators such as sea lions and even orcas, but the small bait balls surrounded by hungry marlin are exciting for close encounters. The marlin are focused on grabbing those last fish and it seems to take them more coordination and effort to finish the last ones, so the encounter takes surprising longer amounts of time than you would expect.
Everyone saw action
Everyone on the trip had an opportunity to see striped marlin and record either video or photography if they wanted it. For those who observed with their eyes, I send them a selection of images from the trip in the weeks afterward. It is not only exciting to see the wildlife ourselves, but we each also enjoyed the camaraderie on the boat and in celebrating everyone’s success. We were all eager for everyone to have a chance. If someone swam slower, we made an effort to put them on a good jump to try to give them an opportunity to see the fish. We were all a little more fit and tired by the end, but it was a good tired.
Ending with a bang
On our final day, we found a huge bait ball that attracted a massive school of bonito. This was an adrenaline-packed way to end our week. We also really hated that it had to end because we wanted more. The sardine run is addicting and an experience I’m looking forward to next year.