One thing that gets my adrenaline glands and heart pumping is intimate close proximity to a melee when the food chain rattles loudly and thousands of lives end so that hundreds of lives can continue. It is savage, but it is the way of the world of critters.
I am thinking of one such intense but fleeting time on my charterboat WaveWalker. I had a group of guests from one of our hotels out on a critter-watching cruise when we got more than we bargained for about three miles out from Santa Barbara Harbor.
Always on the lookout, I spotted a small group of wheeling and diving birds about half a mile away. After issuing the command for everyone on board to sit down and hold on, I throttled up the fast boat and closed the distance lickity-split because these spots of action don’t always last very long.
This spot, however, grew rapidly as we approached, telling me that a school of fish like bonito or barracuda had driven a shoal of anchovies up to the surface to feed on it from below, while birds dove on the hapless anchovies from above. Bad day to be an anchovy. A good day to be an anchovy is any day it doesn’t get eaten.
It was an intense scene as I throttled down and hove-to about 50 yards away to watch the spectacle. The predator fish below and the hungry birds above drove the baitfish toward us, and suddenly that big baitball bolted for the boat and tried to ball up for protection right below us.
That big baitball of anchovies couldn’t all fit under the boat, so much of it was just outside of our gunnel’s. The birds saw that and began wheeling and diving within a foot of us. At times, sitting on the bridge of the boat, I could feel wings of big pelicans brushing my shoulder and they streaked down to engulf anchovies in their billowy beaks.
Seagulls wheeled and screamed, “Mine! Mine!” as they dove and plucked anchovies from the surface. The gulls are the ones you have to worry about pooping on you from above, and we took some direct hits. Thankfully, the pelicans sit on the water to take care of business, because their business is big.
The feeling of life and death so close by brings strange feelings. A couple of my passengers felt a bit overwhelmed and chose to sit in the cabin. Others reveled in the action and snapped pics as fast as their smartphones could fire.
After 10 minutes and screeching and squawking action with whooshing wings and skittering fins, that baitball was reduced to a volume that could hide right under the boat and the feeding frenzy chilled out.
When I got my passengers back to dock and was helping them disembark, they all said that was one of the most profound experiences of their lifetimes.
— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.