Fish: A large school of fish swam through the bay this week causing a feeding frenzy among the wildlife. Aerial shots by Aureo Franzoni Lugo and Paola Flores

Feeding Frenzy off Santa Monica Beach

There was a party going on by the Pier last week, but it wasn’t for people.

Hundreds of winged and finned friends gathered a few hundred yards off the coast from Lifeguard Tower 20 for a veritable feeding frenzy.

According to Harbor Services Supervisor Dan Buchanan, a bait ball of small fish drew dolphins, porpoises, pelicans and seagulls to the area on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Bait balls are formed when small fish swarm tightly together in a clump to defend themselves from predators.

From the coast this appeared as a dark swirling blur punctuated by ocean splashes. From above, as can be seen in aerial footage, this chaos reveals itself to be the dive bombing of birds accompanied by the breaching of porpoise and dolphin pods.

While such oceanic feasts are not an uncommon phenomenon in the Santa Monica Bay, they offer a unique opportunity for residents to witness the striking and diverse amount of marine life living in local waters.

According to fifty-year fisherman Captain Rick Oefinger of Marina del Rey Sportfishing, there is currently a high concentration of small fish in the Santa Monica Bay.

“There’s just tons of anchovies and sardines in the Bay right now, that’s primarily what all dolphins feed on,” said Oefinger. “And, if you look up west at night, you’ll see the lights up in front of Malibu from commercial squid fishing… there is a mega tonnage of squid up there, so there’s tons of food for the common dolphin.”

Director of the Bay Foundation Tom Ford said that several factors could be working together to bring concentrations of small fish close to local shores.

“We had that little bit of pulse of rain a couple of weeks back that’s going to bring some nutrients down into the near shore,” said Ford. “It’s been sunny, (it) hasn’t been too windy lately, that might allow for the phytoplankton to sort of rapidly start to grow.”

Rain can wash out nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus into the ocean. While large quantities of this from rainwater run-off pollute the ocean and can throw food webs out of balance, small amounts are less detrimental and can lead to the growth of very small plankton.

“That (phytoplankton) results in zooplankton feeding on them that… increases up the line to those filter feeding fishes, like anchovies, sardines, things like that, which may be what folks are witnessing out there off our coast,” said Ford.

While the Santa Monica Bay faces a variety of environmental challenges, it does continue to be a center of aquatic biodiversity.

According to Ford, there have been some positive changes for Bay wildlife in recent years, such as the restoration of kelp forests in Palos Verdes led by the Bay Foundation, and the natural cooling of water from an atypical El-Niño driven warm water pulse in late 2014 through mid 2016.

“We do have a bay that is, I think, often unappreciated for the amount of life that it does support,” said Ford. “Historically, if we looked at the Santa Monica Bay and truly what… the West Coast of North America used to have off of it, I think it would really blow people’s minds. It’s a rich, beautiful, amazing ocean full of life and I’m fortunate to continue to work to preserve it.”