One fish, two fish ...

East Lyme, CT, USA

Nature morte

Dying Atlantic menhaden on the beach

East Lyme, CT, USA

“Get the fish!” urged M. I had been busy with my camera trying to take a picture of the two fighting gulls – a large black-backed gull, and a juvenile herring gull still plumed in mottled brown and white – and I had not noticed the reason for their fight, a handsome silver fish about eight or nine inches long. As I approached, they dropped their quarrel – and the fish – and flew off in opposite directions.

The fish was dead, although it did not yet know it. It flopped feebly on the sand, its flank marked by a deep stab wound from a gull’s beak. When I turned it over, I discovered that its other side had been extensively shredded. The sand it lay on was bloodstained.

It was not alone. A little further along the beach, other fish were flapping on the wet sand, struggling to try to regain the sea. As we watched, more came ashore, riding in in the shallow surf and then finding themselves on the sand as the water receded.

Things were clearly not going well in the small fish world. In the shallows, the silvery fish weaved and darted desperately, risking stranding as the waves rolled back. One that passed close to my feet bore a fresh wound, evidence of a narrow escape. From time to time the deeper water offshore would be punctuated by an explosion of splashes and the flicker of fins, or the silver dagger of a fish leaping desperately out of the water to evade something under the surface. To judge by the way that the patterns of splashes proceeded, something was moving fast and parallel to the beach, weaving back and forth just under the surface. At times, orgies of splashing would break out simultaneously in different places, suggesting that whatever it was wasn’t working alone.

We stood on the beach, watching the massacre and speculating on the identity of the unseen killers. Seals seemed unlikely, if only because I would have expected an air-breathing mammal to be a little more visible at the surface. All we could see of the attackers were momentary glimpses, a flicker of a dark back arcing through an upburst of small fish, the hint of a fin seen momentarily in the roil of a wave. It might have been a pair of small sharks working together, but the ferocity of the attacks made me think of descriptions that I’d read of bluefish runs. Blues have a reputation for killing more than they can eat, and proprietary rights on the use of the term “feeding frenzy”.

As I stood in the shallow water, watching the subsiding line of splashes that marked the last pass of the unseen hunters, a dark fish a good couple of feet in length passed close to my feet. It moved too fast for me to make out any detail, but it looked more like hunter than hunted. I saw it for only a moment, and then it veered sinuously out into deeper water and was gone, following its prey out to sea.