Bait ball…the mere term conjures up notions of voracious sharks, lighting fast tuna, diving birds and an organized chaos that one comes to expect from the vast depths of the Pacific Ocean.
The day started with an invigorating six-thirty yoga session as the sun peaked from behind the lush, verdant hilltops of Cocos Island. After a light breakfast and dive briefing, we load up the skiff and Pepe takes us west around the leeward side of the island. We soon realize this is going to be a special day at Cocos, as the action is already alive and swarms of blue-footed boobies anxiously circle the expansive pod of Bottlenose dolphins that work eagerly to school bait fish towards a concentrated ball where they could subsequently enjoy a lavish meal.
The divemaster, Leo, checks the conditions to ensure it is safe for the divers to enter the water. He gives the thumbs up and we quickly don our gear; our adrenaline pumping as we nervously chat about our first-ever experience diving amidst a feeding frenzy. We’re all grinning, our trepidation masked by this incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The bait fish work feverishly to maintain a ball and often find refuge under the penga, waiting momentarily before a predator swoops in with its mouth wide open, forcing them to dart across the surface and regroup in another location.
The coast is clear and we back roll into the warm, rich waters off Dos Amigos. I grab my camera from the penga and turned to see what I got myself into. As if thrown into a washing machine, I immediately find myself amidst the frenzy. Silky sharks circle below by the dozens, tuna dart at blurring speeds, nabbing bait fish at will and then the true gem of the bait ball, Bottlenose dolphins, begin closing in from their ever-decreasing circles to trap the jacks in the middle.
My heart is pounding as I scramble to position myself away from the ball and ready my camera. With a happy trigger finger, I shoot photographs by the dozen. The action is overwhelming, top-tier predators circle like ravenous dogs. For every silky I see dart into the frenzy for a tasty morsel of green jacks, two lurk behind, their sly and cunning demeanor a testament to their venerable longevity.
The divers hover with caution from a distance. The ball moves with alacrity and a momentary lapse of awareness brings one dangerously close to the carnage; with one fell swoop they can turn direction and race towards something they perceive as safety in the water. This time, it’s me. I had drifted with the current within twenty feet of the ball and without warning the jacks turn direction and swim at me. There isn’t enough time. The jacks zoom past me at blurring speeds, immediately engulfing me in their fear. Feeding silkies and tuna dart towards the center of the ball, their mouths wide open ready for a meal.
Time stops but my mind races on. Trying not to panic, I fin backwards, moving quickly out of reach from the jacks, but this is not my world and with surreal realism I struggle to move fast enough to get out of harm’s way. A 200 pound tuna wisps by in a blink of an eye and nabs a green jack right beside my head. The action intensifies and I have to quickly move away from the swirling buffet.
I deflate my BCD and quickly drop twenty feet below the jacks, briefly moving to safety. My heart is thumping out my ribcage, bubbles pour out my regulator from the incessant panting. I swim another few feet and regain my composure. The experience lasts a few seconds, but the indelible memory will remain forever. I mentally check my camera, my gear, my sanity and then turn towards the bait ball and move in again for a second pass.