|Plunge Diving Large Fishing Seabird Gannets
on Delaware Bay and on Cape St. Mary
1. Delaware Bay and Spring Migration of Gannets
Cape May in southern tip of New Jersey is an internationally renowned birding hot spot. Cape May and
Delaware Bay are on the Atlantic Flyway, one of the planet's busiest migratory corridors, navigated by
hundreds of species of birds in spring and fall.
In the spring season, millions of birds are migrating northward from southern warm areas along eastern US
seaboard toward their summer breeding areas in northern Canada. Northern gannets are such migratory large
seabirds with wingspan of 5 to 6 feet. April is a good month to see many gannets crossing the Delaware Bay
on their northward migration.
One of the most dramatic bird watching experiences along US east coast is the great assemblage of gannets
that follows plankton-eating herring into the Delaware Bay between New Jersey and Delaware. If the
mackerel appears offshore of southern New Jersey, some birding enthusiasts get on a party fishing boat to
get out to watch the pelagic birds including Northern Gannet, gulls, loons, along with the rarer species
(Black-legged Kittiwake and Razorbill) diving and feeding on mackerel. Such pelagic bird watching on fishing
boats can make for a spectacular experience.
On Sunday, April 2, 2006, a sunny day with blue sky, we drove our car to the parking lot of Cape May-Lewes
Ferry Terminal in Southern New Jersey. We parked our car on the parking lot and bought the round trip
on-foot passenger tickets for three hours of round-trip enjoyment to watch many large gannets in action while
they are crossing the Delaware Bay as shown on this web page of sample pictures that we took.
A migratory gannet crossing Delaware Bay on April 2, 2006
A gannet over Delaware Bay
A gannet over Delaware Bay
A gannet with expanded tail looking down for fish in Delaware Bay
The Cape May-Lewes Ferry is a ferry system that traverses a 17-mile (27 km) crossing of the Delaware Bay
to connect Cape May, New Jersey with Lewes, Delaware. The ferry vessels are very big and powerful ferry
that carries not only the passengers but also their cars, motorcycles, buses, trucks and recreational vehicles.
Some fish in the wake of the ferry probably are stunned by the powerful turbulence created by the propeller of
the big ferry. The stunned or injured fish are flushed to the surface by the turbulence and become easy targets
for the gannets to catch.
Many gannets are following the ferry flying above the long wake looking for fish.
It all starts with the sun in the early spring. The sun warms the water in the bay, and the sun thaws out the mud
and soil in wetlands. Additionally, spring rains discharge nutrients and food into the water in the bay. All this
activity helps to create vast populations of plankton in the water in the bay, which in turn helps to feed many
small fish, such s herring. Plankton rich food in the bay, along with warmer water temperatures, attract large
schools of fish, such as Alewife, Blueback Herring and Shad in Atlantic ocean, to enter into Delaware Bay and
Sandy Hook Bay. For the several weeks in early spring, these fish have been waiting patiently off the coast of
New Jersey for just the right conditions to enter the bay, feed, and then head upstream to freshwater portions
of the Delaware River, Raritan River, and Navesink rivers to spawn.
These large schools of fish attract many migrating gannets to enter the bay in pursuit of herring, mackerel,
menhaden, squid, and other prey.
Therefore, the ferry crossing the Delaware Bay provides excellent opportunities for bird watchers to get
close-up views of many gannets in action without the need for powerful telescopes.
A gannet just plunge dived into water with a column splash near other gannets and gulls
This photo was taken by May Lee. When the dived gannet re-emerged to water surface, it had a big fish
sideway in its beak. Compared to the size of the gannet with 6-foot wingspan, this fish must be at least one
foot long. The beak of the gannet must also be very strong to be able to keep such big fish from escaping
from its grip.
(Note: In February 2003 in Everglade National Park in Florida, I saw a water bird, anhinga, emerged to water
surface with a fish sideway in its beak. Then the anhinga threw the fish up in the air very skillfully so that the
fish came down head-first very accurately into the throat with open beak/mouth of the anhinga.)
Two gannets are running on water surface chasing a gannet in front and trying to steal the fish that the front
gannet just caught.
Some more photos and movie clips in the following show that gannets often plunge-dive at very high speed (90
miles per hour) so that they dive very deep into the water. Then some gannets catch and eat the fish under the
water before they re-emerge to water surface to avoid a lot of hassle and competitions on the water surface
from other gannets as shown in this photo.
Two gannets found the fish in the wake and started to dive for the fish
The two gannets continued to dive down toward the water to catch fish. On their way down, their two wings
were still extended. Furthermore, they seemed to flap their two wings quickly to accelerate their bomb diving
speed in order to dive as deep as 30 feet below the water surface to chase and to catch fish that tried to
evade the gannets by going deeper.
The two gannets continue their plunge dive with extended wings
The first diving gannet reached the water surface with two wings swung back behind its tail and the second
gannet was immediately behind
The two gannets dived into the water and made two big adjacent splashes
Note: I took these pictures of diving gannets by using the movie-mode of my Canon PowerShot S2 IS compact
digital camera with 12X optical zoom. In movie-mode, this camera takes 30 frames (pictures) per second with
standard VGA 640X480 pixels of resolution.
I took several movie clips of these gannets in action. Then I used Microsoft Windows Movie Maker to select
the interesting portions, pieced them together into a 2-minute movie, added movie title and subtitles. Then, I
uploaded this 2-minute movie of gannets in action onto YouTube website at:
When the two gannets re-emerged to the water surface, each was swallowing a big fish.
Battling each other and black-backed gulls, gannets plunge like javelins into the ferry wake and quickly
resurface, holding in their bill prey that looks impossibly large to swallow.
They keep their two wings extended during most of their diving paths straight down except at the last moment
just before they plunge into the water at very high speed. At that moment, they do not pull in their two wings to
their normal folded position, instead, they swing the two wings way behind their bodies to form the optimal
streamlined shape, like javelins, for high speed plunging as shown in the special photos at the following
In Maine, people compare a person with a big appetite to the gannet, and it is astonishing to watch these
splendid birds in action off the stern, gulping down foot-long fishes while being mobbed by other birds. There
never seems to be only one bird diving for food, a whole flock gathers in an instant as soon as the first fish is
If there is a big school of fish (i.e., ball of bait fish) in the water, there is often a bewildering maze of soaring,
circling gannets, pouring down out of the sky in rapid succession, plunging into the water like so many
projectiles and sending columns of water that spray many feet into the air like the spouting of a school of
whales. A picture and movie clips of such feeding frenzy of gannets dive bombing into ball of bait fish can be
seen at the following websites:
Gannets often dive from as high as 100 feet in the air, and they can dive as deep as 30 feet into the water to
chase their prey. After plunge diving into a big ball of bait fish in the water, the underwater photos and movies
of feeding frenzy of gannets can be seen at the following websites:
2. Large Colony of Gannets in Newfoundland
In the summer season, there is a large colony of gannets nesting on the 300-foot shear cliff and sea stack at
Cape St. Mary in Newfoundland in northeastern maritime Canada to lay eggs and to raise their baby gannets.
In July 2005, we toured Newfoundland to see several points of great interest to us. One of such points of
great interest was this large colony of gannets at Cape St. Mary. However, Cape St. Mary is known to be
very foggy for about 200 days per year. It was indeed very foggy when we visited Cape St. Mary's Ecological
Reserve in July 2005 and took the pictures of the nesting gannets as shown in the following foggy samples:
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3. The Largest Colony of Gannet in North America on Bonaventure Island
I toured the largest colony of gannet in North America on the Bonaventure Island at the eastern end of Gaspe
Peninsula in the Province of Quebec in eastern Canada in July 2011 as described on my Travelogue web page
On March 22 and 24, 2012 during the spring migration season, I also enjoyed watching some gannets flying
and bomb diving on Sandy Hook Bay in New Jersey as shown on my web page at: