Back in February (of 2013), I found myself back on my way back Aldabra – an unique and pristine atoll nestled in the western Indian Ocean. This was to be my third visit to this spectacular world heritage site, my others being in 2008 and 2009. On this expedition our team came across quite a spectacular little natural occurrence that I have not really heard of, or seen any footage of before.
What is extra exciting about this, is that it wasn’t just a one-off occurrence – it was documented on two separate occasions. I think it would be fairly predictable thing (as predictable as the natural world can be) to go and film again. Finding new animal behaviour to film is always terribly difficult, so coming across something like this is quite special. This particular event occurred when juvenile fusiliers that were forming dense blankets over the reefs in certain areas were pushed up into the water column and formed dense little bait-balls that were being predated upon by an array of reef dwellers, including red snappers, barracuda, GTs, job fish, grouper and many others.
It was really quite incredible to see all of the usual reef characters – characters that I’m used to seeing in their normal ‘chilling out, just being a reef dweller’ mode suddenly turn into voracious predators – just how voracious, I was later to discover…
The telltale sign of this feeding event, as if often the case with feeding events in the ocean was the presence of sea birds joining in on the action. In this instance it was Frigate birds and a few boobies (oh grow up). So upon spotting the mass of birds hanging over the water like a tumultuous black cloud, we headed over to investigate.
Aldabra is home to colonies of both the Great Frigate bird and the Lesser Frigate bird – I’m not sure which species it was that was feeding on the fusiliers – it could well have been both. Frigates are magnificent birds, every time I see one, I think of Pterodactyls, and there’s something about the sight of them that always gives me the excited feeling of being in a remote and pristine part of the world.
Frigates are known for the impressive red throat (or gular) pouches that the males inflate during mating displays. They are also known for their tendency for kleptoparasitism – the act of haranguing other sea birds such as boobies or terns as they return to shore from hunting and aggressing them to the point where they regurgitate their catch – allowing the frigates to snap up an easy meal. This reputation is a little bit undeserved however, as kleptoparasitism accounts for quite a small portion of the frigates diet. Much of the rest of their diet is composed of flying fish that they snatch from the surface.
Now, I have dived on bait-balls on the sardine run that are loaded with hundreds, possibly even thousands of sharks. I’ve turned around to look behind me whilst filming a bait-ball before, to see what I can only describe as a wallpaper of sharks. What I’m trying to say is that sharks don’t normally make me nervous – I was however, fairly unnerved by the presence of the four respectably sized bull sharks circling around on the reef below me whilst I was snorkeling and filming these fusilier bait-balls. I became especially nervous at the times when the fish would swarm around me for cover. Similarly to this;
Imagine then, the fright I got when I was about to finish up filming one of the bait-balls, when very suddenly I felt a strong impact on the inside of my leg, just above my knee. Immediately looking down, I felt fortunate to NOT see a bull shark hanging off of my leg, but instead – a job fish.
The jobbie had presumably crashed into the bait-ball hoping for a mouthful of fusilier and instead got a mouthful of wetsuit kneepad. I think (making excuses for the dumb fish) that it mistook the striped pattern of the kneepad of my suit for the baitfish. It wasn’t just a bump that the fish gave me, it properly latched on and gave a vigorous shake, tearing a gash in my suit – and I was later to see, my leg. Initially I thought it had just bruised me, but once I got out of the water and pulled down my wetsuit, I found it had opened up a decent tear on the inside of my leg.
Overall this was quite an impressive little spectacle, an extra upshot of which is that now a traditional creole curry made with jobfish somehow tastes that much more delicious since the incident between myself and the jobbie that got a mouthful of wetsuit.