Clusters of birds dive bombing the water and breaching humpbacks are a good sign that bait balls of small fish are on the move. These could be herring, sardines, mackerel, or anchovies. We are deep into anchovy season, and so they are most likely causing the commotion taking place in the SF Bay right now. These are a critical forage fish of the ocean food web that move energy from the algae and plants they eat, to the fish, marine mammals and birds that eat them. They can form massive bait balls and travel the coastline and the bays, setting off feeding frenzies and turning the waterways into omega-3 and protein rich smorgasbords.
Fish school for many reasons, but primarily protection. In the sea, bait balls appear as a large creature to distant predators. And their numbers and uniformity might cause confusion when a predator approaches- so many mirrored images would make it hesitate. In order to move as one entity, they have highly calibrated communication my means of visuals, sounds, motions and scents. Some fish may use sight to orient themselves, and others produce sounds with their swim bladders, or by racking their joints. And they are motion sensitive, due to their lateral lines. The lateral line on a fish is under the scales, yet connected to the exterior, so it feels echoes bouncing from the movement of the other fish’ fins. So they’re able to pulse and swirl and tornado like a million synchronized swimmers. There is nary a space between where one fish ends and another begins. And yet they know if one of the multitude is injured by smell. A fish that has a cut or scratched scale emits a wounded scent, which makes the other fish panic. Their community becomes a body that enables them to move as a collective to experience fear and pain as one organism. Their choreography is stunning to behold. One night as I walked my dog, Flora Jayne, in downtown Sausalito, I saw flickering lights on the surface of the bay. I thought it might have been the moon rays on choppy water. But I got closer and saw a school of anchovies, covered in bioluminescence. The moonlight had seemed to draw them to the surface and they appeared to be shimmying and dancing in the moonbeams reflecting off the water. It was the sort of experience that seems to unfold on the San Francisco Bay. It beckons you with a glint, and as you observe, it becomes even more exquisite and astonishing. As I planned an upcoming Super Moon Dinner & Kayak Trip with Galen at Sea Trek in Sausalito, he told me that there were never bioluminescence on the San Francisco Bay.
But I saw what I saw. Sparkling anchovies dancing with moonlight. This moment made me wonder what we look like from outside our ecosystem. Despite our insistence on individualism, do we in fact operate like a school of fish? Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh taught, “it is probable that the next buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and loving-kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the earth.” I recently went to a screening of the film, A Tour of Sausalito's Marinship that shows how the Marinship in Sausalito, a zone of maritime industry, creates an ecosystem of innovation - and keeps boats afloat. They interact with one another to solve problems, build sonars, cut sails, haul out ships, and launch scientific explorations. Sylvia Earle, oceanographer and founder of Mission Blue spoke at the event and pointed out that the Sausalito waterfront had replaced wetlands and oyster beds and had done damage to the natural world. But we now have the potential to create a Blue Zone of innovation that offers solutions to problems happening to coastlines around the world. We as a community have an opportunity to be far greater than our parts. And our community overlaps with the biosphere in ways we don’t understand. We are part of the greater web. We used to refer to the ocean and seafood as a chain, and discussed our link in it. Anchovies show that it's a web. From phytoplankton to humpbacks, there are complex, interconnected feeding relationships. Whereas a food chain follows a clear, direct path, a web shows that all life on earth is connected, though the relationships may not be easily or immediately apparent.
This web interconnects with other ecosystems. Oceans absorb carbon produced by cars, and the interaction between land and sea drives our weather patterns. Half of the world’s oxygen is produced via phytoplankton photosynthesis, and the ocean provides protein that 1 billion people rely on for survival. These tiny fish schooling in the SF Bay link us to all life on earth and the motion of the moon.