Giant Schools of Swarming Squid Surround Fishing Photographer
Text and Photos Copyright Jon Schwartz © 2011

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           Today I came face to face with a giant shoal of squid and got some amazing underwater pictures! I had hoped to get fishing photos of white seabass, thresher sharks, and yellowtail, but I never dreamed I would encounter a massive, frothing mass of squid. I really lucked out! This was a local Southern California excursion where I accompanied my kayak fishing friend Josh Pruitt. He has an uncanny knack for catching big fish from kayaks. When I'm not teaching school I enjoy taking big fish photos of marlin, sailfish, tuna, and sharks in tropical locations (which you can see on my site but ironically, I don’t have many images depicting fish that inhabit the waters within walking distance of my house. Josh would be my guide to getting more San Diego fishing photos.

We met at 3:00, launched our kayaks under cover of darkness, and paddled out to a spot over a mile offshore. Pruitt was able to locate shoals (or schools) of squid on his kayak’s fish finder and jig them up with a special lure. Josh kept 20 or so of these live squid in his bait well on the back of his kayak, and pinned one on his rod. Every so often he’d meter a fish (probably a white seabass) and drop a bait down, but he never got bit, and grey light passed without us hooking up.

We did see one boat that landed a big 30 pound yellowtail at 4:30 am, and I wanted to take pictures in the night time with my special low light camera. I refrained because I was too scared to take it out, make noise, and scare away the white seabass that might be lurking just below our kayaks. These “grey ghosts” are easily spooked and one tiny noise can scare them away for good. At 7:30am, Josh's rod bent over his kayak, and it was obviously a big fish. The plan was that if he hooked up, I’d tether my kayak to his, jump off my kayak with my underwater camera, and take photos of the fish as it swam below him.

            I used to do a lot of kayak fishing, but over the last several years my passion for fishing photography and travel had taken over, and over time I had put down the rods and paddles and replaced them with cameras. Years ago I had every kayak gadget I needed, including a variety of leashes that I used to secure my rods and equipment in case I capsized. This time I couldn’t locate half of these leashes in my garage, and I did the best I could with what I could find. Honestly I was so focused on my camera gear that I wasn't thinking about the two rods that I brought along.

            Murphy’s Law caught up with me when I slid off my kayak into the water with my camera. As soon as I got off, my kayak flipped upside down! I was holding on to a $4000 dollar underwater camera setup and through my mask, I could see some of my unleashed fishing equipment fall in slow motion from my capsized kayak, down into the murky depths. Josh said, "Grab your rod!” but I was more concerned with the other non-waterproof camera that was on (or under!) my kayak, and I made a half-hearted attempt to swim down and grab the sinking rod. I wish I had a video of all the shenanigans because it was all pretty hilarious; I must have looked like a total kook!

            In any case, we righted my kayak and Josh resumed fighting his big fish. When it came close to the surface I got a lot of great underwater photos of the fish, a big white seabass that must have weighed at least 40 pounds. After I took all the photos I needed, I climbed back in my kayak and started shivering uncontrollably. Brrr!! I had forgotten how cold it can get on the water in the summer. When the sun came up, I was grateful for some warmth.

            Josh is an interesting kayak angler because he is able to stand up on his kayak and sight fish for big fish in the middle of the ocean. Many anglers do this on kayaks in ponds and lakes for small fish, but we were on the open ocean, and Josh frequently hooks huge fish while standing up! As we continued to paddle around (or I should say peddle), Josh noticed many schools of yellowtail feeding on the surface, but he wasn’t able to hook up.

At about noon, Pruitt stood up for a bit and saw a red swirling mass of life close to the surface. All seasoned kayakers have seen schools of sardines, mackerel, smelt, and a number of other types of bait on the surface, but this wasn’t finned fish, it was squid…LOTS of squid!!!!

The first thing that came to mind for me was, can I ditch my kayak, get back in the water, and take pictures of them? Would they still be there when I got in? I had stashed my underwater camera in the hatch of my kayak and I would need to get that out, take off my booties, don my fins and snorkel, rub some defog on my snorkel lens, prep my camera, and most importantly, NOT capsize this time if I got in the water.

While I was trying to figure out if this was a good idea, Josh kept an eye on the huge mass of squid. Fortunately, it was hanging right next to his kayak. When I finally got in, I realized why: big fish were below the shoal, forcing them to flee to the surface, and at the same time, mackerel were attacking from the side, and birds were dive bombing them from above!

            These squid were under siege and were using any protection they could get, and Josh’s kayak was the best they could find. Again I wondered, would they continue to stay when I swam close enough to take their picture? I swam down to take a shot from underneath, and my heart began racing because I knew that there was the potential for some rare underwater squid pictures.


            Incredibly, when I surfaced for air and swam towards them, they swam right to me!! They looked otherworldly, and I could see and feel hundreds of eyes trained on me. I felt as if I was being approached by a group of intelligent beings rather than fish; something about the way they moved and pulsed rhythmically made me feel connected to them.


            I kept closing the distance and soon I was in literally in the middle of the shoal, completely surrounded by thousands of squid. My camera was on full burst mode, clicking at 8 frames per second. I hoped and prayed that my camera settings were correct, because if what I saw with my own eyes was being captured on film, I’d have some incredible photos!! The huge mass of squid kept going past me towards the kelp forest, but several stragglers stayed with me and hovered inches from my mask.

They were using me as a source of protection! Was this a good thing? Had I been in Hawaii, where I do a lot of underwater photography with marlin, sailfish, and tuna, I would have been terrified, because being surrounded by prey would have made me a target, but I figured that with there being no huge predators feeding on the squid (other than sea lions and maybe the occasional smaller shark), I felt relatively safe.

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The squid were so close that I thought, “I could probably just reach out and grab one!” and so I did.

                  The one squid I grabbed didn’t seem to mind and I wasn’t holding it too tightly; I cradled it like a pet mouse. My next thought was, “No one is going to believe this!” so I turned the camera around, gently placed the live squid in my mouth, and took a self portrait.

            The squid seemed pretty calm. Could it sense I meant it no harm? When I took it out of my mouth it was still uninjured. I then released it and surfaced to tell Josh about all that I had experienced. I was beside myself with excitement and gasping for air!

           Knowing that I might have just captured some of my best underwater photographs to date, I gently placed my underwater gear back in the hatch, and by 3:00pm, twelve hours after we had peddled out into the surf in the pitch black night, we were landing our kayaks amidst hundreds of beach going tourists enjoying a hot summer day. When I got home an hour later and viewed the photos of the squid on my laptop, my jaw dropped in disbelief; the pictures came out even better than I had hoped!!

About the author: Jon Schwartz ( contributes to fishing and travel magazines worldwide, and has been featured on Nat Geo TV and blogs at, He lives in San Diego his wife and daughters, teaches elementary school, and enjoys teaching technology to his students with

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