Tarpon Sardine Run in Bonaire in the Southern Caribbean Sea

A Unique Underwater Show for Photographers

Tarpon sardines run in Bonaire in the southern Caribbean Sea
Tarpon sardines run in Bonaire in the southern Caribbean Sea.

During our last trip to the island of Bonaire off the coast of Venezuela, we had the opportunity and the privilege to attend a unique and extraordinary event: a tarpon sardine run. We stayed for an hour, the time it took to empty our scuba tanks, as we watched the hunt organized by these marine predators.

A soft and sandy beach welcomes us

We were staying in Bonaire for a week for an underwater photo safari with a group of other photographers. Near the end of our stay, when we were diving to sites located north of the island, we decided to take the group to a site which is largely inaccessible and not very well known to most scuba divers. Earlier in the trip, we had already had the opportunity to dive to the site. We had found the drop off very interesting for wide angle photography, so everyone was equipped with a wide angle lens.

As we got ready to dive, a beautiful, soft beach welcomed us. As always in Bonaire, the atmosphere was calm and serene. Life there moves to the rhythm of the waves of the Caribbean Sea. But, before we go any farther in our story, it is good to understand the location of Bonaire.

A paradise for underwater photographers

Bonaire is an island in the group of the Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles. It is located east of Curacao off the coast of Venezuela. The capital is the town of Kralendijk. Bonaire has a Dutch special status since October 10, 2010 (BES Islands) following the dissolution of the former autonomous state “The Federation of the Netherlands Antilles,” to which it originally belonged.

Its highest point is Brandaris, which rises to 241 yards above sea level. The island’s origin is volcanic, but all the traces of volcanic activity are gone now, because the island was flooded 70 million years ago. The soil today is made from the remnants of ancient coral reefs. The island is divided into the Windward area (the east coast), and the Leeward area (the west coast). It has 12,000 residents living in an area of approximately 111 square miles.

A coral reef surrounds the island and is renowned around the world as an exceptional site for scuba diving (many sites in Bonaire carry the English logo “Diver's Paradise”). The waters surrounding the island are considered a marine sanctuary, so fishing is strictly prohibited.

Almost everyone who dives in Bonaire goes to an underwater canyon along the leeward side. The average depth of the canyon is 40 yards. It is bordered by two cliffs, and is anywhere from 10 to 20 yards wide. The island has over 80 dive sites listed. It is not uncommon to find two sites just 100 yards apart. Yet, despite this close proximity, the topography and the topology, the fish species and the species of sponges, are often completely different from one site to another. Each one is unique.

The absence of pollution, caused by the island’s low population, along with the prohibition of fishing, make Bonaire a place where fish species can grow easily.

We had already explored many of the best dive sites south of the island. It was time to go north, even if it the northern dive sites are harder to get to.

We had heard of the legend of tarpon sardine runs

During our stay on the island, we had heard that a legendary tarpon sardine run was possible in some places in the north, but we had not had the opportunity to see or photograph one. We also knew that the site was suitable for such an event because a school of sardines could easily come and hide along the cliff wall. The currents along the northern side are not too strong for them.

When we arrive on the beach, we have already gotten the hang of diving from the shore. We park our cars in the parking lot and gear up on the pavement. All dives in Bonaire are done from the beach. Nobody talks — everyone is already thinking about the pictures they are planning to take. We think about wide angle photography, and the appropriate framing and composition for our pictures. Our minds are already wandering through the maze of the drop off between the large, tubular sponges.

As it often happens when we make plans, nothing goes as planned.

The school of sardines is huge, but my scuba tank is closed

We are entering the water while walking from the sandy beach. We swim along the surface until we reach the drop off, 50 yards from the shore. I look down to the bottom below, and I see a huge school of sardines 10 yards under the water. I feel the adrenaline rush start — this is a wonderful opportunity. I alert everyone at the surface. All the divers quickly descend towards the bottom.

At this point, we do not know that it is a tarpon sardine run, but the school of fish on its own is a great opportunity to take beautiful photos.

I deflate my BCD vest to go down. I take two breaths, then I no longer feel the air get into my regulator: I forgot to open my scuba tank. Everyone else has already gone down to the school of sardines. I am alone on the surface with my big housing in both hands, and my scuba tank is still closed. I am very upset. I think that the school will swim away as soon as the first underwater strobe fires. Unable to open the cylinder valve with the housing in my hands, I only have one solution: remove the BCD at the surface. I swim back to the surface to open my tank. After three minutes that seem like an eternity, I'm finally ready to go back down. I have no hope: the school must have gone already. It’s really frustrating, when I think that this is my third trip and I finally had the school of sardines so close.

20 yards down, I meet all my teammates who did not care about me. I could go to the beach, no one noticed my absence. I think I would have done the same thing in their place. They are forgiven!

The good news is that the school of sardines is not gone. And because it is framed by a school of huge tarpons that make a royal feast. We're living the legend.

A simple but very effective strategy

We have already had the opportunity to attend a dolphin sardine run and a sailfish sardine run, but tarpons use a totally different hunting strategy. The tarpon’s mouth slants upwards. He has to attack his prey from below. This is why we did not see them from the surface. The tarpons are underneath the school of sardines.

To keep the school of sardines contained, a number of tarpons swim around the school while others feed. The tarpon, even if it is a lively and powerful fish does not have the speed of a dolphin or a sailfish. They wait for the food to come close to them before attacking. We are witnessing a wonderful show.

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The school of sardines is so compact and so huge that we are in near-complete darkness underneath them. The strobes are needed. The flashing light frightens the sardines even more. We have the impression that the tarpons stay close to us to take advantage of the sardine’s terror.

The whole group of photographers is in a trance. We do not know what to photograph. Everyone tries to find the best angle and the best framing to make the most beautiful picture of this wonderful event.

As we use up the air in our scuba tanks, we have to bring the dive to a close. Even though we are not far underwater, we still have to breathe. After an hour of photography, the group goes to the beach. The show is over.

During the return to the beach, everyone is buried in their thoughts. Did this really happen? Nobody talks. It was amazing and incredible.

We all look at each other to make sure it was not a dream. Our relaxed smiles and joy prove that it was real.

Tarpon sardines run in Bonaire in the southern Caribbean Sea.

Tarpon sardines run in Bonaire in the southern Caribbean Sea

Tarpon sardines run in Bonaire in the southern Caribbean Sea.

Tarpon sardines run in Bonaire in the southern Caribbean Sea

Tarpon sardines run in Bonaire in the southern Caribbean Sea.

Tarpon sardines run in Bonaire in the southern Caribbean Sea

Tarpon sardines run in Bonaire in the southern Caribbean Sea.

Tarpon sardines run in Bonaire in the southern Caribbean Sea

Tarpon sardines run in Bonaire in the southern Caribbean Sea.

Tarpon sardines run in Bonaire in the southern Caribbean Sea


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