Isla Mujeres Sailfish – 2012

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

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5 Responses to “Isla Mujeres Sailfish – 2012”

  1. Tony Wu March 4, 2012 at 7:43 pm // Reply

    Awesome, awesome, awesome!!!

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  2. Sherrie Murphy March 4, 2012 at 8:27 pm // Reply

    The sailfish images are breathtaking. . .

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  3. srinivas December 13, 2012 at 10:35 am // Reply

    Awesome work Shawn..Breathtaking and awesome shots..Keep up your good work..

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  4. Memo November 10, 2013 at 9:05 am // Reply

    Nov 2013

    Im an avid underwater photog and want to photo/snorkel with sailfish daily between Feb 17, 2014 and Feb 23, 2014.

    Do you have any trips that I can sign on to?

    Bill neptune1751@aol.com

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  5. Micah D. Vargas November 19, 2013 at 8:44 am // Reply

    The whole setting, wildlife, friendly staff, the other guests that you meet, all make it a fantastic experience for couples. On the water we saw the whale sharks, hundreds of dolphins surrounding the boat, pilot whales and scores of birds.

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