Category Archives: Sailfish

Sailfish and Sardine Run Trip Report 2017

Sailfish and Sardines in Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Trip Report 2017

2017 Highlights: Sailfish along with bonus Whale Sharks, Dolphins, and Giant Manta Rays.

2 spaces left on our 2018 Sailfish Expedition

Private charter for sailfish and sardine run mexico
Sailfish maintain the baitball close to the surface and wait their turn

This year I lead 2 groups down to Isla Mujeres for the Sardine Run.  Each group was on our charter boat for 5 full days on the water.

This year’s experience demonstrated to all of us how the sardines and sailfish are just two pieces of a larger ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico.  We encountered Whale Sharks, Giant Mantas, Sailfish , and Dolphins all feeding in food rich waters.  The sardines are there to feed on the plankton  and krill and they attract all the species that want to eat sardines such as the sailfish and dolphins.  We were excited to see so many different species out in the open blue water.

Photograph sailfish in Mexico
A guest photographs among a group of sailfish in a coordinated attack on the baitball

On our first day when we found the dolphins we thought we had found a pod feeding on sardines and perhaps the same bait school that some sailfish were working,  but this was not the case.  In fact the encounter was more unusual:  this was a pod in the act of mating.  The frenzied males were chasing the females and competing with each other to dominate her. They paid no notice to us as we swam along and photographed them.

pod of dolphins
We were able to swim with a pod of dolphins
sailfish Mexico
Sailfish and sardines

Over the next few days we found some sailfish.  The captain and crew must look for frigate birds diving into the water.  This is a sign that sardines or other food is near the surface.  Spotting the surface disturbance of the sailfish or sardines would be impossible so the birds are the best method to find Sailfish.  We are very lucky to work with experienced and patient captains for have loads of experience in these waters.  They found us several chances to “drop” us  in the water  with sailfish.

Captain of Sailfish Charter boat
Our Captain searching for birds, sardines, and sailfish
Sailfish Charter Boat
Our boat has located a flock of frigate birds which means sailfish and sardines below
Frigate birds
Captains look for Frigate Birds which flock around sardines close to the surface
snorkel with sailfish
The water is warm enough for 3mm wetsuits or less

Once in the water it is some fast surface swimming to catch up to the moving baitball.  I have found that it is easier to keep up with a group of sailfish who are managing a smaller baitball. The large schools of sardines  move and break apart to rapidly.

sailfish and baitball
Bait Ball: the sailfish like to keep the ball tight and close to the surface
Swim with sailfish Mexico
Sailfish and baitball

The sailfish work together to trap the sardines near the surface. The birds are diving down to grab fish at the same time as sailfish take turns running into the baitball and swatting at the fish to stun them.  They then eat fish that are stunned and separated from the ball.  Then a another makes a run. The sailfish flash colors and their “sail” fins as a means of communication.  This action makes for great video.

Snorkel with Sailfish
Guests enjoying the search for sailfish

It can be a long day of searching for sailfish so on a less productive day we  tried a different area and were excited to find  feeding whale sharks and giant mantas.  These two species are known to aggregate in these waters in the summer months, so it is unusual to find them in the winter.  We had nice long encounters with the whale sharks.  The giant mantas swam in loops while they fed.  I was able to take many images of their individualized markings.  I submit all my manta photos to the local Manta Trust .  They confirmed that these are mantas that have been documented in the area during summer concluding that there is a resident population – very exciting!

Isla Mujeres Whale Shark
On one of the days we could not find the sailfish, we found whale sharks
Whale Shark
Whale shark feeding on the same food that the sardines enjoy
Giant Manta Ray
We found a group of mantas and whale sharks drawn to the food the sardines also eat. They were willing subjects for a long time.
Snorkel with manta rays
A guest free dives to photograph a manta

All of my guests had some great images and were pleased with the surprise species encounters and with the fact that we were able to find sailfish.  I wish to thank all of them for making this an enjoyable trip for everyone.  I hope to see them on a future trip.

Equipment

I was very conscious of baggage volume and weight when I made  my equipment choices.  My biggest decision was between my 16 – 35mm lens and the fish eye.  I have used both before for sailfish.  While the images with the fisheye were nice, one drawback was how close you need to be to get a good shot. Also if you get too close, your subject gets distorted at the edges of the image.  I did not want to bring both or switch my equipment halfway through, so I opted for the 16 – 35mm.

I have a Nauticam housing with my best glass dome port.  I also had  a 2nd 5DMKIII as a backup and set for land images.  No strobes as they would just slow down my swimming.

I have had my housing from my old Canon 5DII converted to fit my 2nd 5D III or a future RS.  I like things to be interchangeable and to carry less equipment.

My initial setup was thus:

Canon 5D MKIV  with a 16 – 35mm lens  ISO  400  1/320 and f5.6

When  conditions were cloudy or if the action was further below the surface,  I stayed in the ISO 400 – 640 range, Shutter priority.  For the sunny days and surface shots, I would dial things down.

The subjects are alway moving so a center weighted autofocus mode is important as is keeping the shutter fast enough to get crisp images.

 

Private Charter swim with Sailfish
Our boat as we swim back for another drop on the baitball

 

You can enjoy my sailfish images from past seasons in my online gallery

Online Gallery of Sailfish and Other Underwater Images

Dates for my Next Sailfish Trip

Sailfish Hunting Article

Staying on Isla Mujeres

As always, Isla Mujeres is a fun and comfortable home base for this adventure (and our whale shark trip in the summer).  Our hotel is close to the dock and restaurants, while being a quiet place to rest.

Pool at our hotel

Restaurant in Isla Mujeres
One of the colorful restaurants in town

There is a nice pool which leads down to the beach.  The rooms have AC and many have a balcony facing the water.

Sailfish Statue
Isla Mujeres is a destination for beach goers and sport fishermen practicing catch and release
Isla Mujeres Sailfish
One of the many colorful murals around town

Sailfish Group Trip

There are many good restaurants in town and food is very economical (average of $30 total for  dinner) .   We feasted on fresh fish, Mediterranean dishes, local tastes, and Cuban. I have been going so many years now that I have a list of the best places to please all my guests.

Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish
The first group out at one of the excellent and economical restaurants in Isla Mujeres

The shops are colorful and the people are friendly and we enjoyed just walking around town.   The guests and I  had happy hour around the pool with great conversations .

I hope to share another adventure with each of them and I am already looking forward to my next visit to Isla Mujeres.

Join my next Sailfish or other underwater adventure

 

Sailfish & Sardine Adventure for Feb 2019

A Special Opportunity to Join a Most Exciting Marine Wildlife Encounter

Sailfish Hunting Bait Balls in Isla Mujeres

Our next adventure will be  January 2019

5 boat days for sailfish

Limited to 5 guests

swim with sailfish and sardine run
A guest snorkels while photographing sailfish

Photograph and free dive with sailfish hunting sardines in the blue water off the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Our private charter leaves daily from the docks of Isla Mujeres for an 8 hour day of maximum time in the water photographing and enjoying this incredible encounter.

Only snorkeling gear is required and the action happens at or a meter or two below the surface. We charter the most experienced sport fishing guides who know the water and patterns of the sardines and predators.

Limited to 5 passengers on boat plus guide and crew. This is an excellent opportunity for photographers to capture dramatic images and video.  Freediving and excellent swimming skills are recommended in order to enjoy this athletic experience.

sailfish and sardine run Mexico
A sailfish has snagged a sardine from the bait ball and eats it, Gulf of Mexico

Read my article about Swimming with Sailfish  from Underwater Photographer Magazine Issue#71

 Images and Trip Reports:

Trip Report 2016

Trip Report 2017

Sailfish Image Gallery 

Trip Details on my Website

Comments from our Guests:

The trip was fantastic.  Excellent itinerary and well organized.  I saw way more sailfish than I ever expected and was much closer than I thought possible.  My friends are amazed by the photos I took.  I got a really good shot of you that I attached.  Many thanks to you and Karen.  Michael and I are spreading the word about a trip to Africa.  Great trip and hope to see you again” ——- Kurt Bitters

“Had a great time in the water and topside. And, I salute your restaurant selections! I’ll be back for more… you’re a topnotch guide and host.  I will be back for more.”

— Bob Pooley

 

sailfish-4

The hotel has a private beach with pool and deck. The rooms are ensuite with a balcony, AC, and wifi. Upgraded rooms are available at extra cost. The town of Isla Mujeres is safe and features many great restaurants, shops, beaches, bars, and a park. It is an easy ferry ride from Cancun.

I will need a minimum of 4 guests to make this trip happen and a max of 5 to allow for uncrowded boat and encounters.

 

Please contact me soon with your interest so I finalize bookings and make sure I get space on the fleet’s and hotel’s busy in season schedule. Contact Me

Get more details & images on our website

Contact us to reserve your spot 

Sailfish Trip Report 2016 – Hunting Action Underwater

Trip Report 2016

My 5 guests and myself had a very successful 5 days of photographing sailfish.  My sailfish and other underwater photo trips

The weather was overcast,  but we were able to find sailfish each day we headed out.  The first day we found dolphins and sailfish working the same large bait ball.  This was  fast and chaotic scene.   We did several drops from the boat to keep up with them.  It was a great trial by fire for my guests who are new to sailfish.

sailfish and sardines

Sailfish

Sailfish Hunting sardines

Our second day stayed with smaller groups of sardines and bait balls.  I found that the smaller the ball, the slower the sailfish moved making it easier for us slow humans to keep up and photograph the action.  We were privileged with several hours long sessions in the water with the sailfish and their prey .

Sailfish and Sardine Run

About the next Sailfish Trip

For processing the photos I used Adobe Lightroom with some scatter and spot removal via Photoshop.  I used Sharpening and Contrast tools to bring out the detail.  Some required a Curves adjustment to brighten them up.

swim with billfish in Mexico

During our stay on Isla Mujeres,  we took one of the days to try out the new cage for mako sharks.  We loaded the cage onto their largest boat and headed out.  We picked a likely spot off shore and chummed and trolled bait.

Overall I am very pleased with our results.  The crew was excellent and very skilled at getting us to the right places and finding the sailfish.  Once we were on them they could get us in the water and back into the boat for another drop.  I thank them for making it a special trip for our first time guests and those who have been before.

About the Mako Shark Cage

Equipment

I was very conscious of baggage volume and weight when I made  my equipment choices.  My biggest decision was between my 16 – 35mm lens and the fish eye.  I have used both before for sailfish.  While the images with the fisheye were nice, one drawback was how close you need to be to get a good shot. Also if you get too close, your subject gets distorted at the edges of the image.  I did not want to bring both or switch my equipment halfway through, so I opted for the 16 – 35mm.

I have a Nauticam housing with my best glass dome port.  I also had  a 2nd 5DMKIII as a backup and set for land images.  No strobes as they would just slow down my swimming.

I have had my housing from my old Canon 5DII converted to fit my 2nd 5D III or a future RS.  I like things to be interchangeable and to carry less equipment.

Sailfish and Bait Balls

My initial setup was thus:

Canon 5D MKIII  with a 16 – 35mm lens  ISO  500  1/250 and f5.6

The conditions were cloudy much of the time so I stayed in the ISO 400 – 640 range, Shutter priority

Sailfish Photography

Sailfish hunting bait balls in Mexico

snorkel and photograph sailfish in Mexico

Swim with Sailfish Mexico

You can enjoy my sailfish images from past season in my online gallery

Online Gallery of Sailfish and Other Underwater Images

Dates for my Next Sailfish Trip

Sailfish Hunting Sardines Article

2017 Sailfish Trip Report

Isla Mujeres

 

Sailfish in Mexico

As always, Isla Mujeres is a fun and comfortable home base for this adventure (and out whale shark trip).  We had nice rooms which were so new they paint was barely dry. We were right on the beach and the pool was very refreshing after  a day at sea.

Restaurant in Isla Mujeres
One of the colorful restaurants in town

There are more good restaurants than we could get to for our dinners.  We feasted on fresh fish, Mediterranean dishes, local tastes and Cuban.

fisherman in Isla Mujeres
a man brings home is barracuda catch

The shops are colorful and the people are friendly and we enjoyed just walking around town.   The guest and I  had happy hour around the pool with great conversations .  I hope to share another adventure with each of them.

boat for sailfish
a guest waiting in the water for a pickup

Pool at our hotel

Join our Next Trip

Sailfish Gallery – Sardine Run Isla Mujeres

 

Sailfish and Sardine Run in the Gulf of Mexico off Isla Mujeres, Mexico

 

Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres MexicoIn a few days I will be heading to Mexico to photograph the Sailfish.

This is a  challenging photographic situation: the fish are fast, the baitballs in chaos, birds diving at the surface, action all around.  It is well worth it to witness this spectacle.  The images can be exciting and beautiful capturing a dramatic natural spectacle.

Please enjoy this gallery of my sailfish images from the past years.  I look forward to sharing my images from my upcoming trip.

Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico

These images were taken with my Canon 5D MKII and MKIII in an underwater housing .

The lenses I used were a EF15mm F2.8 Fisheye  and an EF 16-35mm f2.8   .  While I found an equal number of good photos taken with both lenses, for this year’s trip I will just take the 16-35mm.  I base this decision on the fact that I have to get very close with the fisheye and given the speed of these animals and the choas, it is difficult and if I miss the sweet spot I get distortion of the fish’s body shape.

 

Interested in Joining Me next year?  Information on my 2017 Sailfish Trip 

 

Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico Sailfish and Sardine Run Isla Mujeres Mexico

 

Other blog posts you may like:

Using the Lightroom Dehaze filter to correct underwater images

Underwater Photography Image Gallery

Sailfish and Sardines Trip information

My Snorkel and Scuba Trips

Photo Safari in South Africa Dates

Cage Diving with Shortfin Mako Sharks in the Gulf of Mexico off Isla Mujeres, Mexico

This article appeared in Issue #87 of Underwater Photographer Magazine  UWPMag.com

Mako Shark from inside the cage
Using one of the two ports in the cage, I get a clear water shot as the mako circles around me

Northeast off the coast of Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico lies the small island of Isla Mujeres. The island is approximately five miles long and one half mile at is widest point. Just a short ferry ride from Cancun, the island offers beaches, scuba diving, and a relaxing place to shop and dine. In the summer months the island plays host to guests drawn in by the whale shark ecotourism trips. Guests travel out into the Gulf of Mexico and snorkel with the gentle giants. If they are lucky they also may encounter giant manta rays.

Captain Anthony
Captain Anthony Mendillo has many years of experience with both the mako sharks and sailfish in this area

 

Shark Cage
Side view of the cage. The floats keep the top of the cage above water for air breathing the top and sides are stainless steel bars.

Isla Mujeres is best known for wintertime fishing and game fishing of sailfish. The sailfish attract many fishermen, but also underwater photographers. Watching the great coordinated predation of the bait balls is a thrill and photographing it underwater is challenging but rewarding. The sailfish work together as a fast moving team to keep the baitfish tightly packed in the bait ball. Being in the water to witness during this action is as exciting as catching a sailfish on the rod.

breaching mako
A mako makes a dramatic strike on the trolling bait
A mako shark takes the bait.
A mako shark takes the bait.

Adding to the adventure of Isla Mujeres is the chance to see shortfin mako sharks up close. Captain Anthony Mendillo is now offering this opportunity to photographers and shark fans during the winter season.

GS_40177_150411

Captain Anthony was the pioneer of the sailfish freediving experience. Also he was involved in early efforts too preserve the sailfishing industry. The fishermen of Isla Mujeres all agreed to a Code of Conduct that only allows traditional fishing methods.

Make Shark
The mako charges toward me and I take cover behind the bullet proof acrylic panel while he devours the bait
deploying the shark cage
The cage is placed in the water and tethered a few meters away. The hooka lines for the air supply are also secured to the boat

 

The same spirit of sustainability and responsible tourism extends to the whale shark trip and to the mako cage dives.

 

The Keen M is a powerful and fast fishboat usually used for sailfish but it has been modified to carry the mako shark cage
The Keen M is a powerful and fast fishboat usually used for sailfish but it has been modified to carry the mako shark cage

 

Capt Anthony and crew have worked with Guy Harvey Research Institute to catch, tag, and release Makos, which are then tracked to add valuable and previously unknown details about the timing and long distance migratory movements of this vulnerable species. This experience has added greatly to the knowledge of the Mexico shortfin mako population and their overlap with other populations tracked by the Guy Harvey Research Institute. Close interaction with the makos has also taught the crew the secrets of location, behaviors, bait preference, and seasonality. This know-how leads to a 70% success rate for attracting makos to the boat.

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The makos in this area of the Caribbean are large compared to those in some other locations. Average sizes for shortfin makos are 3.2 m (10ft) in length and 60 – 135 kg (132 – 298lb). The Isla Mujeres population averages in the top of that range at 114 kg (250lb). Shortfin makos are a beautiful and photogenic fish in brilliant metallic blue and a white underside. They inhabit offshore temperate and tropical seas worldwide and this pelagic species can be found from the surface to depths of 150m (490ft) normally far from land, though occasionally around islands or inlets. Makos are seldom found in waters colder than 16’c (61’F)

Makos are curious and feel and taste everything with their mouth including the cages, floats, transom, and midwater bait or other targets. Their prey is cephalopods and bony fish including bonitos and swordfish. They hunt by lunging vertically up and tearing off chunks of flank or fins. Makos swim below their prey and have a high probability of reaching prey before it is alerted due to their high velocity. Makos are the fastest species of shark. This speed and hunting method makes Makos one of only a few shark species to accomplish a full breach out of the water as part of its predatory attack. Captain Anthony has observed makos of all sizes doing this full breach behavior and he has developed methods to allow guests to see and photograph the breaches.

Our boat is the very comfortable Keen M , a 41 ft custom Michael Fitz Sportfish with a 580 hp diesel. We leave the dock on Isla Mujeres in the early morning and head to the waters North of the island. The cage is mounted on the back. Once we reached the deep 400 ft water, the trolling lines are baited. No hooks are used so as not to hurt the shark. It did not take long to attract a shark. When it hit the bait its whole body launched out of the water like a rocket and with tail flapping did a nearly complete flip smacking back into the water on its side with it prize in mouth.

 

Mako Shark
Mako shark grabs the bait right in front of the cage

 

I have my camera set to burst mode with a fast shutter of 1/1250 sec. I will only get a few frames per leap and it happens with little warning. A shout comes from a crewmember and I press my shutter capturing the full breach.

With a confirmed shark in the area, bait crates are set around the boat and scum scent slick started behind the boat. Now it is time to deploy cage in the water.

 

 

 

The cage adds a safety factor for the guests and piece of mind for the captain. This area is subject to wind, current and the boat is constantly drifting. Using the cage eliminates the worry that guests will drift too far from the boat or let go of the line drifting quickly out of sight of the boat and crew. Without the worry of where the guests are, the crew can concentrate on keeping the makos close to the boat and interested; coaxing them into the best position for observation and photos.

 

Shark Cage
The cage fits 2 people with a hooka air supply located in the boat. It has Lexan polycarbinate panels on the sides and one large one in the front with 2 open ports facing front.

Engineered to be similar to the cages used in South Africa for great white shark encounters, this one has room enough for 2 people. It sports bars of stainless steel and aluminum with a solid floor and a top protected with bars. The cage floats a bit above the surface of the water to enable communication with the boat if needed. At eye level on the sides and front are clear panels made of Lexan polycarbonate sheet. The front has two open ports for cameras.

 

Captain Mendillo has experimented with different ways to rig the air supply to the cage: They tried bottles in the cage, but now opt to leave the bottles in the boat and run hookah lines to the people in the cage. This allows monitoring of the air supply and leaves more room in the cage for the guests.

 

Using a tether, the cage is floated 2m away from boat so the shark can do a complete 360’ around the cage.

 

In the cage I am able to see the makos up close and swimming very calm and curious right in front of me. They come to the bait floating nearby first to investigate then to strike.   They even investigate the cage on a few passes. As the large eye connects with me I feel secure in this strong cage.

 

 

The makos will stay with the boat and cage for extended periods. Some encounters have been 3 hours long with the same shark staying with the boat feeding and circling. Our mako stayed for almost an hour doing many passes by the cage and boat. I am able to get great shots of the full shark passing by either the side or the front of the cage. As the mako comes close to check out the cage I get some close up and front opportunities. Later back on the boat it is still circling and I get some topside shots of attacks on the bait to add to my breaching shot. Capt Anthony has seen guests achieve great images with everything from professional cameras and video rigs to GoPros on a stick.

 

Hunting for and photographing shortfin mako was a fun and productive day. I returned with great underwater images from the cage and spectacular breaching shots from the boat. The cage experience is exciting: the sharks come close and stay close making many passes and allowing time to get a variety of images and angles.  The encounters are very engaging and guests can get a great experience even if they stay in the boat and forego the cage. It is a good feeling to know that a sustainable tourism activity is being built around this vulnerable sport fish. Since the season overlaps with sailfish season it is possible to get both of these exciting large fish on the same holiday using the same crew. It is thrilling enough to appeal to both photographers and fishermen.

 

Join my next Sailfish Adventure

 

 

Sailfish & Sardines Article Appears in Underwater Photographer Magazine #71

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After this January’s successful and fun sailfish encounter in Isla Mujeres Mexico I wrote an article for Underwater Photographer Magazine. Please check out the link after the article which will take you to the full issue.

 

See the full Issue #71 here
Underwater Photographer is a an electronic magazine in Pdf form and the current issue is always free. The magazine is packed with equipment news and reviews, location reports, personality profiles, wonderful underwater photography, tips for better photography, classifieds, and more. It is a quality publications and essential reading for all underwater photographers everywhere.

Sailfish and Sardines in Mexico Full Article

 
Join my next Sailfish & Sardines Adventure

Sailfish Adventure 2013 – Trip Summary from Isla Mujeres Mexico

 

swimming with sailfish in Isla Mujeres Mexico
swimming with sailfish in Isla Mujeres Mexico

This sailfish season started out  a  challenging one for Takaji, myself, and the crew. The predominate winds were from the south causing warm water conditions driving the sardines and sailfish further north and away form our area.

After and few days though the winds blew in our favor bringing the sailfish back into our range.  The return of the frigid  birds was most welcome as their dive bombing is a  tell tail sign when we were approaching a submerged bait ball.  One of our best encounters was one in which we found a massive bait ball which was moving very quickly.  A large team of sailfish worked together orchestrating the bait ball into a tight school as  individual sailfish made runs into the  center of the ball  to stun a meal.

Guests were enthusiastic about each  chance to swim with the sailfish and watch their hunting skills.  Those with cameras had many great images .

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We stayed on land at a comfortable hotel right on the beach of the small island of Isla Mujeres.  Each night we dined as a group at one of the fabulous restaurants near our  hotel. The menus range from Italian to Cuban and classic Mexican: a welcome treat after a day on the boat and a late afternoon lounge at the pool. Our boat ride was sometimes enhanced by trolling and catching our own fish for home made cheviche, fish and chips, or sashimi.

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I look forward to returning next year for another great sailfish adventure – we have boats reserved all throughout January and I will announce exact dates soon.

 

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Dates available in January 2015 – Limited Spaces  See details on my website for my next Sailfish Adventure