Filming tuna

I've always dreamt of seeing tuna in the wild. When we found Atlantic bluefin tuna were returning to our shores, we knew we had to try and film them. We never would have imagined how overwhelming the experience would be.

Words and photographs by Matthew Stockreiter and Pierre Ehmann
Additional photograph by Anthony Ford-Marsland

Throughout 2022 a team of us embarked on a journey to create a short documentary about marine life around the Channel Islands. We have an abundance of marine life big and small, many conservation groups and very limited protection for the species out there, so we were keen to highlight what remarkable species live throughout our waters and what work is going on to protect and preserve it.

Having spent many months filming bottlenose dolphins in the waters between Guernsey, Sark and Herm we were very excited to go further out to sea in the hopes of finding and filming the Atlantic bluefin tuna we had been told were returning in greater numbers year on year. But nothing could have prepared us for what we were going to witness.

Atlantic bluefin tuna had all but disappeared from the Channel Islands many decades ago. The notion of them returning to the waters is somewhat a mystery and of great interest to conservation groups who want to ensure their protection.

On a perfect September day with clear skies and calm waters, we set out from Guernsey early. We spent several hours heading out to sea, with our skipper Greg scanning the horizon to try and see any sign of the tuna. Greg had been following and trying to monitor the tuna for the last few years, he knew what signs to look out for.

We were armed with binoculars, constantly keeping an eye on the horizon, watching gannets and various seabirds hunt and cluster further and further out to sea. After a couple of hours seeing splashes and signs of action far into the distance, a lone tuna popped above the surface just by the boat. We knew we were on the right track.

We headed further out to sea. It was very much a game of cat and mouse. We would see a large amount of activity on the horizon, only to get there each time for the tuna to be gone. We decided to try another tactic and kept the boat still.

The waiting paid off, we began to see tuna chasing the bait fish to the surface. We saw one tuna, then another, then dozens all around the boat launch themselves above the water in different directions. At this point Greg bluntly suggested: “Time to get in the water lads.” There wasn’t an ounce of panic, after hours of keeping a sharp lookout on the water we were pumped with adrenaline and ready to get in.

We slid off the boat and my heart raced in a mix of nervousness and sheer excitement. As I got closer, I saw thousands of tiny fish scales surrounding me, a sign of what was to come. The reflective scales gave off an otherworldly glow, turning the blue depths into a celestial world. With a few more kicks of my fins, I braced myself for the sight of the tuna propelling past me. And then, it happened – I came face to face with these truly majestic creatures.

One emerged from the action and in a swift and graceful movement grabbed a mouthful of the baitfish it was pursuing. I was transfixed on the events unfolding, watching in marvel at the exceptional display of speed and calculation as they dived and darted, avoiding any collisions with one another, and creating a flurry of the bubbles that I would at times find myself in, temporarily restricting my vision.

The water was bubbling and boiling in a perfect circle. Underneath us we saw dozens of tuna torpedoing. I surfaced my head being completely overwhelmed by the experience seeing hundreds of these gigantic fish speed past, some looking you in the eye, some seemingly larger than us.

Tunas hunt as one. While they are down in the water column, they circle large schools of baitfish and moving as one, they force them to the surface. This creates this illusion of a perfect circle on the water surface. When the baitfish are on the surface, one tuna at a time then breaks away from the pack to launch across the surface and catch as many fish as it can.

I suddenly was met by a frantic sound from the boat. Greg was telling us to stop swimming as we were drifting right into the centre of the bait ball. The water was glowing, filled with millions of tiny scales from the baitfish. We made our way back to the boat, elated and filled with a rush of energy from what we had just witnessed.

There was an ecstatic feeling on the boat as we headed for shore, knowing we had the footage we were so desperately trying to get. It was one of those remarkable moments where the significance of the situation almost didn’t sink in. The excitement and emotion of this encounter stuck with us, a testament to the sheer beauty and splendour of the bluefin tuna.

The fact that single encounters like the one we were lucky to have can have everlasting effects on people is such an extraordinary thing. For those reasons, this particular encounter really was unlike another wildlife experience I have had previously, and I hope the recollection of that day stays with me for a long time.

This world is home to countless species, each extraordinary, and my hope is that such encounters serve as an essential reminder of the vast wonder that exists around us. With continued efforts towards conservation and preserving such species, I am hopeful that these sightings will become increasingly commonplace.

The footage of the tuna is part of a larger story about marine life in the Channel Islands. The short film The Blue looks at conservation work at sea and exploring the Channel Island’s shoreline habitats and marine predators. To find out more about the project and screenings of the short film, click here


Additional photograph by Anthony Ford-Marsland

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