Magdalena Bay Adventures
“Leave it to BBC One to capture over and over the most epic three-way struggle between a dorado, frigate bird and the flying fish, an event that I have only seen a couple of times in the wild.” said Capt. Scott Goodwin.
When I ran across the above video recently, I was reminded of a unique two week long trip I guided at Magdalena Bay years ago seeking striped marlin feeding on “bait balls,” not to catch them, no, the goal was to film them underwater.
Baja Aha Moments – Striped Marlin Fishing Technique July 7, 2011 describes the first week of my trip with “Dr. Guy Harvey.”
The following week, we hosted the film crew of the BBC Blue Planet series, a British nature documentary series narrated by David Attenborough which premiered on September 12, 2001 in the United Kingdom.
The series was an ambitious undertaking, requiring almost five years to create and involving nearly 200 filming locations. In actuality, the fact that most of the ocean environment remains a mystery presented the production team with many unusual challenges. Besides witnessing animal behavior for the first time, their crew also observed some that were new to science. The producers were assisted by marine scientists from all over the world with state-of-the-art equipment.
Blue whales – whose migration routes were previously unknown – were located by air after some of the animals had been given temporary radio tags.
The camera team spent three years on standby, using a micro-light to land on the water nearby when they finally caught up with the creatures in the Gulf of California.
The open ocean proved more difficult, and more than 400 days was invested in often unproductive filming trips. After six weeks, the crew chanced upon a school of spinner dolphins, which in turn led them to a school of tuna.
Off the coast of Baja near Magdalena Bay, the behavior of a flock of frigate birds led the cameramen to a group of sailfish and marlin: the fastest inhabitants of the sea.
Near the coast of Natal in South Africa, they spent two seasons attempting to film the annual sardine run, a huge congregation of predators such as sharks and porpoise that assemble to feast on the migrating fish by corralling them into “bait balls.”
Meanwhile, in Monterey Bay, Orca were documented attacking gray whales and killing a calf. Filming in the deep ocean required the use of special submersibles. One of them enabled the crew to dive over a mile into the San Diego Trench, where the carcass of a 40-ton gray whale had been placed to attract a large variety of scavengers.
First aired on BBC One, more than 12 million viewers watched the series and it regularly achieved an audience share exceeding 30%.
Andy Byatt, producer; Rick Rosenthal, open ocean specialist; David Reichert, photographer; and Doug Anderson, assistant composed the team that arrived after the Guy Harvey group departed. Their van was packed with gear and after introductions, everything was loaded aboard the “Garota” a 48-foot Knight Carver Sportfisher.
At dinner that evening, Byatt outlined the group’s goals for the trip which were very different from the “Guy Harvey” group. All the filming would be done in both film and digital using heavy cameras and housings … which also meant we wouldn’t have any outtakes for review each evening to confirm content and quality of what was shot. In addition, all striped marlin and baitballs would have to be located visually without the aid of the hookless teasers that we had used the preceding week.
The first evening we anchored at Belcher’s near the entrada, our customary bait spot to load up with live mackerel for teasing. The captain and crew couldn’t believe their ears when I stopped them from loading up the bait wells after dinner.
Next morning at daybreak we headed out to the 100-fathom curve before heading north along Magdalena Island with me, captain and crew in the bucket searching for any sign of life. Our previous week had already confirmed that it was definitely an “on” year for the area.
Even without our usual hookless spread trailing behind us, it didn’t take long for the crew to spot a frigate bird school circling high in the cloudless Baja sky on the horizon. As the “Garota” eased up to the now close-to-the-water bird school, the film crew quietly slid off the swim step into the warm Pacific.
There, a few feet beneath the surface, a bait ball could be seen being circled by billfish and dorado. The intruding divers were ignored as the feeding frenzy continued.
Depending on size and behavior of the bait school, the event could last mere minutes or stretch out for hours until the final baitfish was devoured. Regardless, the behavior dictated how long the divers remained in the water. If the event stretched out, divers could return to the boat a short distance away to replenish air or reload their cameras.
Sometimes the bait balls would sink out. If that happened, we simply resumed our search for the next flock of frigates or other seabirds. All this was a unique opportunity for the crew to observe the predators, bait and birds’ interaction without the distraction of attempting to catch anything.
It doesn’t take long before one begins to recognize what different behavior of the frigates can reveal. High flyers, singles or a group circling usually indicates they have spotted a bait ball in the making.
Groups hovering close to the surface in one place indicate a mature spot where the predators are well into the feeding process. If bird schools begin to break up and gain altitude, the event is probably about over and the final few baitfish have scattered.
If a group of frigates and terns are seen flying close to the surface in a straight line picking at the water as they fly, chances are you have found a bait school that the predators are chasing in an attempt to force the school to begin circling and form a ball to protect itself.
If it is close, you may be able to become part of the pack. Several times, our boat has been in pursuit of the bird school as one-third of the triangle, ending either up swell or down swell of the frantically fleeing bait while the billfish remain on the opposite side and behind the bait school forcing them to slow and begin circling. One time our divers dropped in, just as they were settling down and the bait school plunged into the depths with the marlin in hot pursuit, leaving our divers peering into the depths in disbelief for a few minutes; then suddenly the ball returned from the deep to hide beneath the shadow of the boat, followed by the school of marlin and the methodical feeding of the slowly-swimming bait fish began in earnest.
During our stay at Santa Maria Bay, the number of boats varied from day to day as anglers traveling up or down the coast decided to fish a day or two or more depending on their fuel capacity. There were never more than 15 boats at a time. That’s not many for the immense fishable area surrounding Magdalena Bay.
One morning, we awoke in the anchorage with all our batteries aboard the “Garota” low and without enough juice for the engines to turn over. What a sinking feeling, realizing there isn’t anything like AAA to help us out. Fortunately for us Captain Steve Lassley aboard “Mirage” was anchored close by. Even better, he had a set of very long jumper cables and we were soon on our way.
By the end of the week, the action had slowed and we were traveling farther from the anchorage each day. On the last day, by noon we had wandered 25 miles north of the anchorage in search of bird schools
When I spotted two frigates high in the sky several miles from us with my Zeiss binoculars, it seemed to take forever in the slow “Garota” to reach them.
When we finally caught up with them, the number of birds had grown and they were much closer to the surface. As the divers went into the water, they discovered a huge bait ball surrounded by dorado. After nearly an hour, the dorado disappeared as the striped marlin arrived. Three hours into the stop and now the striped marlin had left and yellowfin tuna had taken over. It was nearly three in the afternoon and we were scheduled to meet a mechanic back in the anchorage early in the evening.
One of the divers asked if he could try a split shot with the heavy camera. Returning to the boat, the deckhand provided him with a large cushion to float his camera.
As he maneuvered back out to the bait ball, standing in the tower I watched him as he set up for the shot while I tried to decide how I was going to convince everyone we were going to have to leave this still-huge bait ball to meet the mechanic.
Realizing that the boat had drifted closer to the divers, I glanced behind me to be sure there were not any divers behind me before pulling the levers back.
As I did the diver roared. As I turned back toward him there was a huge splash. He had been pushed back as a wave washed over him. “A huge whale just ate the bait ball,” he hollered over the engine noise. Without thinking, my response was, “Did you get the shot?” “I think so,” was his reply as he clutched his camera.
Anderson and Reichert were below the surface when the whale had struck. The Sei whale made several more passes and by the time it was finished, the bait ball had disappeared.
As I set the course for the Santa Maria Bay anchorage, as far as I could see out to the west were many more bird schools.
Sometime later Anderson wrote his account of what had happen beneath the surface and this is an edited version.
“Diving on a small bait ball that was being decimated by 10- to 20-pound yellowfin tuna, Reichert and Anderson worked closely together; suddenly the tuna left the bait ball and dived deep. Reichert moved quickly and Anderson spun round and rolled the camera just as a 45-foot, 15-ton Sei whale, wanting in on the action, passed within six-feet. The next 15 minutes were intense. The whale came in to feed eight times, seemingly trying for surface lunges – swimming shallow and fast at the bait ball and engulfing as much of it as she could.
The film counter on the old Arri HSR2 now read that there was only 10-feet left. These counters are fairly inaccurate, but there was only 15 to 20-seconds of film-time left. Anderson waited. Within 30-seconds, he spotted the whale, but this time she was deep, perhaps 150-feet below him, and swimming straight towards the surface – going so fast for a moment it looked like she was going to breach. Rolling the camera – click-whirrrrrrrrrr – he could hear the film running through. Coming straight up and fast, she passed him about 12-feet away.
Whirrrrrrrrrr, click, click, click, click … he heard the sound of the end of the film coming off the spool and loosely running through the gate of the camera. At the last second, the whale opened its mouth and engulfed all it could of the bait ball. Falling away, with a single kick, she left the frame.
The camera was out of film for sure, but when?
Question was: did Anderson record it on film? To make it worse, Reichert had filmed Anderson filming the last lunge by the whale! So everybody knew it had happened!
The exposed film was sent back to England for processing. All over the shipping can Anderson wrote “PLEASE PRESERVE THE END!”
Normally, when film is processed, lab technicians stick a plastic leader on the end of the exposed film losing the last foot or so of the film during this process.
By writing “preserve the end” on the film can, Anderson was asking them to stick the leader on as little of the exposed film as possible, believing every frame was going to count.
About three weeks after returning from the trip, the film was processed and ready. The whale roll, because it was the last roll exposed on the trip, was the final one processed. The first seven passing shots went though. Anderson watched nervously. Some of the frames were super close and really impressive and then the last lunge came up. The whale came up through frame, opened its pleats, engulfed the school, fell away, beat its tail, the tail left the frame . . . and then black.
Stunned for a moment, Anderson went absolutely nuts. It was like scoring a goal in the FA cup final. He hugged the Telecine operator, then leaping onto the sofa, knocking over the mints, he began punching the air. The lab technician had glued the leader onto the last few millimeters of the roll that had flopped loosely …about three inches of film!
Our chart of the trip, marked with so many event and way-points during our two-week stay is a testament to the reason many return year after year to Magdalena Bay. Of course, some years are better than others. However, if you are there for one of the extraordinary ones, the experience will remain etched in your memory bank for the rest of your life.