Tovi Sonnenberg, who shot the video, said he first noticed that there were large schools of fish swimming close to the shore last week when he was out on the beach.
“We saw splashing in the water,” he said. “The lifeguard came by and said there was a feeding frenzy with dolphins and sharks. It couldn’t have been 10 feet from the shore.”
That put Sonnenberg on the alert to keep an eye out for other schools of fish near the shore for an opportunity to film with his drone.
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On Aug. 16, Sonnenberg captured the aerial footage showing a herd of sharks feeding on a large school of bunker fish around 50 feet from the shore.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Sonnenberg, whose summer home is in the Hamptons. “The only wildlife I’ve seen in this area before was a dolphin a few years ago.”
Sonnenberg said he spotted around 20 other large schools of fish as he was filming, a little farther from shore.
“There was a storm a few days before that could have pushed the fish inward, attracting the predators,” he said. “Then there was another storm a few days later that may have pushed them back out. It was really, really bizarre,” he said.
But according to ocean experts, the phenomenon may be rare to capture on camera but a common occurrence.
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Jason McNamee, scientific advisor for the Conservation for the Oceans Foundation based in Vancouver, B.C., said storm systems commonly push bait fish into shore on North America’s east coast.
“The interesting thing about it is that with drones and YouTube, it’s a great tool for biologists. It’s a rare glimpse into an ecosystem that we know very little about,” said McNamee.
Ocean consultant Joe Spears agrees.
“What you’re seeing [in the video] is a natural ocean phenomenon, but drones have revolutionized natural observation. The only other way you’d ever see that is with a helicopter, and the downdraft would probably just disperse the fish!” he said.
Spears also speculated that perhaps low rainfall increased the saline content in the water, pushing the bunker fish closer to shore to feed.
As for the mesmerizing movement of the fish away from the sharks, McNamee describes it as flocking behaviour, which can also be observed in birds.
“It makes it hard for a predator to pick out just one. The predator lunges in a general direction but doesn’t focus on one fish, so it usually misses,” he said.
But McNamee is certain the sharks got away with their bellies full.
“I think they got fed right up.”