sailfish and sardine run mexico

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