Archive for sardine run

Isla Mujeres Sailfish – 2012

Posted in news, photography, production, travel, video with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2012 by shawnheinrichs

Sailfish lights up as it strikes baitball

We returned to Isla Mujeres for our 4th season of sailfish action aboard the Lilly M and Andrea M of Keen M International. Captains Anthony, Rogelio and David did an outstanding job as usual. Despite challenging weather conditions and fluctuations in the activity, each trip was huge success with epic sailfish baitball action. In addition, we encountered many other species of marine life, and scored some terrific interactions.

Richard and striking sailfish - close one

In our first trip, Richard Branson and his family joined us to give the sailfish a try. Having already experienced the whale shark aggregations in July, he was ready to turn up the heat several notches and experience one of the most exciting and intense marine spectacles found anywhere in the Ocean. Also with me was my good friend John Petry who was trying his hand at a “Shawn Epic” for the first time. Lawrence kindly invited us as guests to join him on the his vessel the Chachalaca for some incredible action!

Sailfish lines up on Richard Branson

Sailfish makes a very close pass by Richard!

Whale shark swoops through with ball of bait fish

Manta ray comes in close to investigate and turns right under Richard

The trip was a huge success with baitballs lasting for hours and sailfish ripping apart the sardines just inches from our masks.  We also swam with groups of giant mantas, a whale shark. One curious manta decided to give Richard a closer look, coming nose to nose before ducking right under him. For Richard’s son Sam, his interaction with a whale shark was a first in his lifetime. Everyone left with huge smiles, excited to return to Isla again from more marine mega-fauna activity.

Sailfish poses with Branson family

Richard Branson and family in the sailfish mix

Sam Branson swims up from the blue

Team Shot: Bransons, Anthony and Shawn

Great trip with Lawrence on the Chacalaca...thank you!

I also had a second group with me during that first week. Sean Havas, Sterling Zumbunn (Backscatter) and my older brother Brett Heinrichs. The group was incredibly proficient in the water and I even struggled to keep up with the furious pace that we chased down baitball after bait ball. Day one we landed a 3 hour baitball and another 2 hour baitball. Day 2 was much the same. Day 3 and 4 I was off the boat and the success continued without me. Day 5 we regrouped and found sails again, but this time conditions had turned and we called it an early day. Overall the trip was a huge success and everyone came back with epic imagery.

Sailfish bites down on sardine

Sean Havas gets up close on the action

Brett Heinrichs photographs sailfish

Sterling Zumbrunn working the baitball

Sailfish blocks retreating sardine ball

On our second trip, David Vic and Debbie, Phil Sokol and Greg Redfern joined me. Except for Greg, the entire team were sailfish veterans so I knew we are going to get it done right. With several very slow days from the outset, I was beginning to get nervous. The team however remained upbeat and positive, and on day four we landed the mother load.

Sailfish charges head on, inches from my dome

We spent 4 hours on a single baitball (5 hours is my record length baitball )with 75-100 sailfish tearing it apart. The action never let up and we documented the ball whittle down to the last few sardines. Two days later we scored another baitball that lasted another 2 hours, and with 6 hours or intense baitball action for the week, the group left with full CF cards and lifetime memories.

Sailfish uses sail to block sardines

Sailfish hits sardine

Sailfish in perfect harmony

Frigates pick up scraps from sailfish

Frigate birds hover right above baitball

Our third and final trip faced just as challenging sea conditions, with persistent winds and upwellings creating green/turbid waters. I was joined by Lupo Dion, and Michael and Nadine Umbscheiden. Unfortunately, Mary O’Malley was booked to come but fell sick the day before the trip and had to cancel. We missed here dearly, but there is always next year!

Chaos - Feeding frigates and pelicans

Day one we chased down a baitball and spent 2 hours with it. Unfortunately the waters were green but we still managed some great shots. On day 3 we landed a 2 hour baitball of epic intensity. In four years interacting with the sailfish, I have never experienced such ferocious activity. The sailfish boxed in a very tired ball of sardines and set about tearing it apart. The passes were fast, furious and often terrifying. Though the entire group were no strangers to intense bill animal action, I have never seen so many defensive postures and dodges. The sailfish would slice off a few sardines from the ball, who would race toward us for cover. The entire swarm of sailfish would set upon them, charging by us at light-speed as we winced behind our cameras. Way to many close calls for my liking!

Sailfish flares in front of Lupo

Very close call!

Sailfish strikes sardine

Full Sail

Sailfish shows it colors

Sailfish chase down baitball

Day 4 turned out to be especially memorable. While motoring across blue waters in search of sailfish action, we came across 100-150 whale sharks feeding on the surface. This looked to be exactly the same scene as we witness in July/August during the annual whale shark aggregation here. At this time of year, satellite tagging data indicates that these whale sharks are meant to be at the furthest extent of their migrations from Isla. But here they were? We dove in and discovered the water was full of tiny clear eggs that looked very much like the eggs we see the whale sharks feeding on in July. It was a mystery why the whale sharks have arrived 3 months early, but one thing was clear; we were going to snorkel with them! We spent 5 hours with these majestic animals, filming as groups of whale sharks, swimming up to 5 abreast and 4 deep came cruising by. It was an incredible prelude to the summer whale shark trips that lay ahead for us.

Whale sharks feeding on surface

Whale shark feeds on surface

Whale shark gulps down fish eggs

Whale shark with snorkeler

Split shot with whale sharks and Lilly M

Juan, Nadine, Shawn, Rogelio and Lupo

Overall this year was a huge success and offered even more diversity of interactions than prior seasons. In addition to sailfish, we encountered:

–       Whale Sharks

–       Giant Mantas

–       Caribbean Mantas

–       Mobula Rays

–       4 species of dolphins

–       Wahoo (hunting)

–       Barracuda (hunting)

–       Jacks  (massive school)

–       Bonito schools (hunting)

Gulping Whale Shark

Manta ray glides overhead

Caribbean Manta passes below

Dolphins hunt bonito

The diversity, quantity and quality of big animal interactions sets Isla Mujeres apart from other locations on the planet. Working in small groups, we achieve the best interactions possible. I can’t wait for next year!

Home away from home

SEAL Sardine Run

Posted in production, travel, video with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2009 by shawnheinrichs

This June we began work on a film about the Sardine Run. Incredible numbers of dolphins, sharks, cape gannets and whales converge on the Wild Coast during the Sardine Run. Ready to great them are a select group of people who have planned their lives around this extraordinary event. This is a story about the Sardine Run and how it has shaped the lives of both the marine creatures that depend upon it for their survival and the people who can’t escape its call.

The target audience for this film is wildlife enthusiasts, dive tourists, eco tourists, adventure travelers. For this audience we intend to offer a new perspective on the Sardine Run, where viewers become part of the chase and are drawn into the lives of the people who have committed themselves to the Run. Viewers will be captivated by heart pounding action and mesmerized by stunning footage of diving gannets, charging whales and dolphins, swirling baitballs and hunting sharks.  At the same time they will discover how the pioneering work of certain individuals have made the Sardine Run accessible to the common man, that the Sardine Run is so much more than baitballs, and that once it gets in your blood, you can never escape its pull!

Blue Sphere Media teamed up with Sea-Air-Land Expeditions (SEAL) in 2009 to film this documentary, with the goal to capture the essence of the Sardine Run  through the eyes of SEAL, their crew and guests. With more filming to do in 2010 to complete the documentary, we created a short musical piece of 2009’s adventures, a film that captured the motion, excitement and incredible energy of the Sardine Run!

San Diego Undersea Film Festival – Show Opener

Posted in conservation, news, production, video with tags , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2008 by shawnheinrichs

Sardine Run: Charging Dolphins – Breaching Whales earned the special honor of being the show opener for this years San Diego UnderSea Film Festival.

Charging Dolphins – Breaching Whales” 5 minute preview of the full film drops you into the sardine run with the dolphins and whales taking center stage. The day begins on the shores of the wild coast. Moving off shore, we join a group of humpbacks migrating north. The activity heats up as common dolphins trap a shoal of sardines. Joined by cape gannets, they launch an all-out assault on the baitball.  Further offshore, pods of bottlenose dolphins catch wind of the activity and charge in. Will they make it in time for the feast?

Video: Charging Dolphins – Breaching Whales

DiveFilm Podcast – Sardine Run and Whale Wisdom

Posted in conservation, news, production, video with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2008 by shawnheinrichs

With the International Whaling Commission meeting just around the corner, DiveFilm“` HD Video Podcast has released as its latest episode, Shawn Heinrichs’s “Whale Wisdom – A Mother Humpback’s View.” This short film evokes the world of a mother and calf as whaling resumes in much of the world’s ocean.

Other great episodes of DiveFilm Podcasts recently released include Irish filmmaker Vincent Hyland’s homage to the ocean life off the South West coast of Ireland, and more of the award-winning video entries from the 2008 Our-World Underwater / Wetpixel / DivePhotoGuide Competition, including Simon Spear’s “Porbeagles in Peril” and Shawn Heinrichs’ “The Sardine Run.”

Shawn Heinrichs is a conservation filmmaker based in Longmont, Colorado, USA.  To learn more about Shawn and his work, please visit his website,

-Mary Lynn

Video: Whale Wisdom – A Mother Humpback’s View

Video: Sardine Run: Charging Dolphins-Breaching Whales


Our World Underwater 2008 Bronze

Posted in news, production, video with tags , , , , , , , on February 10, 2008 by shawnheinrichs

Sardine Run: Charging Dolphins – Breaching Whales earned bronze in the video category of the Our World Underwater International Competition.

Charging Dolphins – Breaching Whales” 5 minute preview of the full film drops you into the sardine run with the dolphins and whales taking center stage. The day begins on the shores of the wild coast. Moving off shore, we join a group of humpbacks migrating north. The activity heats up as common dolphins trap a shoal of sardines. Joined by cape gannets, they launch an all-out assault on the baitball.  Further offshore, pods of bottlenose dolphins catch wind of the activity and charge in. Will they make it in time for the feast?

Video: Charging Dolphins – Breaching Whales


South Africa – Sardine Run

Posted in production, travel, video with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2007 by shawnheinrichs

For years I had dreamed about returning to South Africa to experience the Sardine Run. I was born in Durban, South Africa and spent the first six years of my life there before moving to the United States. I have only faint childhood memories of the Sardine Run. It was a time of year when the sky over the beach filled with birds, dolphins broke the surface in the hundreds, when we stayed out of the water for fear of sharks, and when fishermen on the shore hauled in huge nets bursting with glistening silver fish.

Now a seasoned diver and underwater film-maker, I returned to the Sardine Run to relive that excitement, but this time anxious to join the sharks underwater and experience the full energy of the Run. With me were my close buddies Justin Ebert, Mattias Fornander and Nick Jackson. Our leader Drew Wong and boat captain Pkee would do all they could to get us as close as “safely” possible to the action.

Having traveled to big animal destinations around the globe, I had learned enough to temper my expectations. Nature can be unpredictable and unfair. Sometimes for no apparent reason, the seas can be empty when they should be full. The Sardine Run has a particular propensity to promise much and deliver little…sometime nothing. The number of factors required to get in the water and nail the legendary baitball are many. For a baitball to form, at a minimum the following conditions are necessary:

– Cold northerly flowing current

– Counter current pushing cold current close to the shore

– Presence of sardines

– Dolphin pods (and or sharks) detect sardines

– Cape gannets find the dolphins

– Predators succeed in driving sardines to form baitball

If all these factors combine to form a baitball, there are a whole set of additional factors necessary for one to actually experience the baitball underwater. These include:

– Good fortune of actually finding the baitball

– Enough daylight to view the baitball (10am to 3pm)

– Safe sea conditions (the seas on this coast can be rough)

– Sufficient visibility (vis is frequently less than 2 meters)

– Baitball lasts long enough for you to suit up and get in

When all these factors are considered, the odds of a baitball encounter are very, very low. Many a diver who has come to the Sardine Run with dreams of the “Blue Planet” baitball on  daily basis, have left severely disappointed. On the Sardine Run you can count on many things, but a baitball is not one of them! That being said, with enough time, patience and tenacity, a well orchestrated effort to locate a baitball has a good chance of paying off over a two week period.

The real stars of the show are the dolphins and whales. Day after day, dozens of humpbacks pass by on their way north to their calving grounds off Mozambique. Along he way, the put on quite a show, charging, diving and performing spectacular breaches. If you are very fortunate, you may even have in-water snorkel encounter with one of these gentle giants. I had such good fortune and will cherish that memory for a long time.

The massive schools of common and bottlenose dolphins are not to be overlooked either. From kilometers away, they can be seen leaping and splashing as they charge in on sardines. In the water, one has many opportunities to snorkel and play with these curious and excitable creatures.

The cape gannets, in their thousands, put on an impressive show. When the action really heats up, they pile into the water by the dozens. Combined with the dolphins churning the surface, this creates quite a melee. Of course the action most sought after by divers is that of the elusive baitball below the surface.

We did find our baitball. The vis was ok. The baitball was not very big. There were few sharks. But even then, the charging dolphins, diving gannets and graceful motion of the sardines recoiling in unison made the encounter amazing! The entire experience lasted ten minutes but the memory will last a lifetime.