When small fish are threatened by large fish or much larger marine mammals in the open ocean, instinct demands that the small fish group together to try to appear larger as a group.
But it’s not often that one of these swirling bait balls contains perhaps millions of anchovies and is large enough to dwarf, by many times, some of the largest predators to roam the ocean.
Nor is it often that a photographer and videographer just happen to be flying overhead when one of these remarkable spectacles plays out.
The accompanying image was captured this week off Ventura, California, by Liz Vernand, who was a passenger with Channel Islands Helicopters.
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The video footage, showing what the company says was one of the largest bait balls it has ever seen, was captured by one of the crew.
The anchovies were corralled by dolphins before the two humpback whales showed up. (This has been a boom year for anchovies off much of California, and a boon for large predators.)
“We actually watched the two whales traveling toward the bait ball,” said Vernand, who decided to take the flight with a friend because the weather was so nice.
The photograph lends a unique perspective. Viewers can see the two whales just to the right (the white streak is the underside of one of the whale’s pectoral fins).
A surfacing dolphin is visible next to the whale at the lower right. Another dolphin is swimming alongside the bait ball, above the second whale.
Vernand said the whales were lunge-feeding horizontally and that the bait ball would sink down during the lunges, making it hard to capture the feeding a photograph from straight overhead.
The video shows the feeding, but not from close range because the pilot did not wish to interfere with the feeding, which would have been a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Humpback whales can measure to nearly 50 feet and the bait ball looks to span at least 100 feet across.
“It was just amazing,” Vernand said. “We were supposed to be on a 30-minute trip, but we ended up staying out there for an hour because of what was happening.”
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