It happened quickly and lasted only about thirty minutes. But the sight was a spectacular nature scene downstream from the tall skyscrapers of lower Manhattan.
Yesterday, hundreds of gannets, dozens of loons and red-breasted mergansers, and several harbor seals all of sudden showed up together to feast on a large school of fish in the cold murky waters of New York Harbor.
It occurred along the western edge of Sandy Hook Bay, the southern shore of the harbor. It was a warm, cloudy day with unseasonable temperatures into the mid to upper 60s with areas of fog.
Out of the fog, numerous gannets, big white sea birds with black wing tips, began carpet-bombing shallow waters, diving into the water one after another, in a frenzied feeding orgy on fish. Other hungry animals, including seals, soon joined the gannets. Perhaps resident striped bass from the nearby Verrazano Bridge were also involved in the frantic feeding action down below. All were in getting into the action of grabbing a quick fishy meal.
While it’s not uncommon to witness a feeding frenzy in New York Harbor, they usually occur in the spring, sometime around April 1, with the arrival of herring into Sandy Hook Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. This one took place on March 1. The earliest feeding frenzy I have observed.
While it’s possible that the fish de jour were herring, it’s also possible schools of fish this time were bunker or menhaden, a small, brightly silver fish that swims in large schools like the herring. People have been observing large tightly packed schools of bunker near Atlantic Highlands for some time. As the fish moved offshore to spawn, it caught the attention of predators, and a conveyor belt of birds and seals, and maybe even larger fish, began picking off the bounty of oil-rich bunker from the air and sea. Picking off the fish as they packed tightly together into large bait balls.
After about 30 minutes, the action was over. There was nothing to see. Seals swam away and gannets began flying westward towards Raritan Bay, perhaps following the food. One never knows when these large feeding frenzies will take place, but when it happens, it’s an amazing sight.