By Pat Ford
Photos Pat ford and Michael Patrick O’neil
Some years it starts around Labor Day and at times it lasts till Halloween, but every year huge schools of mullet gather along the beaches along Florida’s east coast and with them come the predators- tarpon, sharks, jacks and bluefish. The mullet schools move down and sometimes up the coast and some seem like they are a mile long. They can be right in the surf or a bit offshore. The water can be clear or murky and they don’t move in or out with the tides, but it’s a phenomenon of nature that is magical.
Michael Patrick O’Neil is an exceptional marine photographer that has documented the mullet run for years. I finally had the opportunity to join him this year at Ocean Reef Park on Singer Island. The migration was in full swing and the preceding few days had provided clear water and lots of activity from sharks and tarpon, so Fellow photographers Hunter Ledbetter and Rhona Chabot joined me for the day’s outing. We left Miami in the early morning and met Michael at Singer Island at 8 am.
Michael has perfected a system. Before we lug all our photography equipment down to the beach, we have to find the right conditions and the fish. Michael used a drone to find just the right spot. I had a drone for a while but it seemed to have a mind of its own. I never did figure out how to operate it safely enough to fly it over water – one misstep and it would be history – but Michael had it figured out. We’d locate a school and Michael would launch the drone. Its camera would track the shoreline telling us exactly where the schools began and ended, the clarity of the water and whether there were any predators. Our first stop was no good – dirty water so we drove a few miles up the coast and tried again. The drone car fly almost a mile both up and down the beach allowing us to cover a much wider area than we could on foot. We eventually found a school in moderately acceptable conditions but there weren’t any tarpon and the water was way too dirty for decent photos, so we didn’t stay too long.
In the afternoon we were set to ride along on the WETTER THE BETTER – a dive boat operating out of West Palm Beach. This was a special trip Michael had arranged for us so we could run up along the cast and look for clear water. As it worked out, we had to run quite a bit, but around 4 pm we found everything we needed – clear water, lots of mullet, and plenty of tarpon attacking them. What a fantastic sight to see. The tarpon would swim on their sides to corral the mullet before busting into them. Mullet were showering everywhere, but the light was fading and the actual explosions were tough to predict if you were looking thru a camera lens. Nevertheless, we did get some neat shots of nature at its best, before it simply got to dark for the cameras.
This is a snorkeling operation and the water can range from 4 to 15 feet deep…lots of time you can simple stand up and let the mullet come to you. However there is a reason to find clear water and it’s not just for the photos. The mullet schools are preyed upon by sharks. Most are blacktips but occasionally some bull sharks will show up. If the water is clear, the sharks can see the mullet well and can see you. They have no interest in biting each other or a crazy human swimming around with them, but they have to be able to see the difference. As they swim though the school, the mullet move aside, creating an open space for the shark. No mullet wants to get close to a shark! The shark finds itself surrounded on all sides by a wall of mullet and all it has to do is lunge into the wall, mouth snapping to get a meal. Sometimes the sharks will push the mullet right into the surf to attack. If the water is clear, the sharks can easily pick out their prey…it the water is murky and visibility limited, the shark winds up snapping at anything that moves. Every year swimmers and surfers get bit by sharks during the mullet run and it’s always in dirty water. There is no reason to swim with a massive school of mullet in dirty water! It’s just asking for trouble. Even in clear water it’s bestto wear a black wetsuit and black gloves….the last thing you want to look like is a mullet!