The skipper of Impi is out on the water most days but every time he leaves the the marina he never knows quite what to expect. Every outing is different. The sea is full of surprises.

When I headed out pretty much everything was new to me and I was keen to see and learn as much as I could about the the ocean here and the various animals that made a living for themselves in the waters around the island.

August is a good time for the blue marlin and the marlin in general (white, blue and spearfish) seem to favour the warmer months of the year. Around La Gomera it seems that the blue marlin like a water temperature of around 24 degrees celsius. The bluefin tuna are not so keen on such high temperatures and they are not around during the peak marlin months of June, July and August.

Finding the fish is always the challenge out on the water because, as predators, the various billfish, tuna, albacore, wahoo and amberjack are relatively few in number or, if not rare, concentrated in shoals that move rapidly and are widely dispersed. The real giants are the blue marlin and bluefin tuna and a lot of water may need to be covered to have any chance of coming across them.

Anything that can narrow down the search is helpful to the skipper. The various boats remain in contact and if one boat hooks up the others will eventually hear about it. But most of the time it is the birds that are a signal that there may be game fish active in the vicinity.

The most common birds here are Cory´s Shearwaters which breed on the Canaries. They are gregarious birds and will follow fishing boats. When I first saw them it seemed that their undersides were of a very pale blue colour but I was tricked by the blue light reflected up from the water. Their wings and backs are brown. From a distance the birds can appear or disappear depending on whether they are showing you their white underside or their dark backs which are little contrasted against the blue of the ocean waves. As they tilt towards or away from you they can come in and out of existence in a fraction of a second for it is the waves that are behind them and not the sky.

When things are quiet the birds may be sitting on the water. They fly low over the surface of the ocean to avail of the increased aerodynamic efficiency that this confers. It is the flying birds the skipper wants to see. And the more the better. If groups of birds converge from different areas it may be a sign that bait fish are being pushed upwards and may be coming with reach of the shearwaters that can only feed in the top few metres.

Whales are commonly seen here, as are dolphins. If your trolling lures come within a short distance of a whale there is an improved chance of a take as often the tuna will accompany whales and feed on small fish which are concentrated by the movement of the whales, often sandwiched between the whale and the sea surface. Sei whales and fin whales are present in good numbers. We saw several. They are massive, with the fin whale being the second largest of all whale species and the sei whale, in third position, securing the bronze. Even at a distance they can be distinguished from sperm whales by the angle of the spout. I had the good fortune to spot a sperm whale spout in the Mediterranean some years ago and the angle is about 45 degrees which is quite distinctive. The big baleen whales spout vertically and, massive as they are, if they are not very close to the boat you will not see them at all unless they blow at the surface.

Dolphins are abundant here. There are Risso´s, bottlenose, common and Atlantic spotted. I asked Mark if there were also striped and he said that there were some but that they tended to keep their distance. The bottlenose is the apex predator around here and, while it is exciting to see them in large numbers, the fishing seems to be better when there are not too many present.

We had an interesting moment on the boat when we came up to a bait ball which was an aggregation of bait fish concentrated close to the surface. Johan figured that some tuna might be feeding on the baitfish and he whipped out a little lure to see if he could get one. What he caught, or more properly foul-hooked, was a little trumpet fish only a few inches long. This was deposited into a bucket of fresh water and I took the opportunity to take a photo when we returned to the marina. This modest fish has a bunch of names in both Spanish and English. It is commonly called a snipe or trumpet fish. Locally it is a “trompetero”. These are found in tropical waters worldwide and are important food fish for the larger whales and many predatory fish. They feed on zooplankton and copepods and are among the key players here in channeling energy from the inconspicuous phytoplankton that sustain the marine food chains and the larger predatory fish and the whales and the shearwaters that acted as our guides as we searched out the ocean for billfish and tuna. Trumpet fish have relatively huge eyes and have a tiny mouth at the end of a protuberance which makes their name seem particularly apt. It is easy to imagine the fish as part of a large shoal delicately plucking tiny copepods from the ocean much as a diner might selectively pick out little tidbits using chopsticks. And while fine dining might be for the preference of trumpet fish, for others it is the trumpet fish itself on the menu and they are gulped down with much less finesse. Unimaginable numbers will end up in the cavernous mouths of fin whales or sei whales. Like crustaceans and squid and copepods, the shoaling trumpet fish are fuel to maintain the vast bodies of these whales and they are funnelled into the throats of these giant whales as coal is shovelled into furnaces.

Mark was very patient with me when I tried to pick his brains about all the things going on in the ocean. He told me about the tuna which are common off La Gomera throughout the year. Bluefins, of course, are the main draw during the cooler months. If they are caught on a sport fishing boat like Impi they must be released by law and failure to do this or being found with a killed fish can result in a 30,000 euro fine and a ban on fishing for three years. The smaller tuna species can be taken however, and they include the bigeye which can grow in excess of 100kg. Several of these fish were caught during my short stay and Impi landed a good specimen the day after I had left. These tuna are aptly named and their large eyes with spherical lenses do help them to find food at depth.

It is a personal thing but I do not like to kill fish of any kind. The last fish I killed was a trout on Rutland reservoir that was destined for the table and was stocked for this purpose. I think that if I caught it today it would go back again, dinner or no dinner. On the last day I fished on Impi bigeye tuna were the most likely fish that we might catch and these fish are invariably killed and eaten. I did not discuss this with Johan or Mark but it would have been my preference to return any bigeye that I happened to catch if I had any say in the matter. Often the fish caught is considered the property of the boat, or of the crew and the angler does not get much of a say. I discussed this with Mark subsequently and he told me that the decision should be put in the hands of the angler in his view. He also said that no angler in his experience had ever decided to release the tuna if it was not a legal requirement to do so. In the event no bigeye came to the boat on my last day and so the matter did not arise.

Skipjack tuna or “skippies” are big fish in relation to what fishermen like me normally catch but compared to their heavyweight relatives they are pretty small fry. The world record is 21 kg and was taken by a boat just a few boats down from our berth in the marina. And then there are the yellowfin that are abundant but avoid the months in the middle of both the summer and the winter.

All tuna rely on a system of breathing called ram ventilation which means that they need to swim constantly with open mouths. They don´t seem to be able to propel water over the gills by opening and closing the mouths as many fish do. The result is that they need to keep swimming at a constant speed of around 10 knots, day and night. By contrast the blue marlin are not anatomically driven to sustain constant swimming speeds and can on very rare occasions be spotted “sunbathing” at the surface.

Atlantic Bluefin tuna are very fast growing and in surveyed fish up to 247 kilos none were thought to be older than 15 years. Really big ones are thought to be be up to 50 years old. I wonder what proportion can make it to that age with commercial fishing pressure? If we consider a fish of “just” 15 years of age it is interesting to think of how far it must have swum during its lifetime. If we take our 10 knot speed as an average, the distance it will have swum, according to my calculation, is a tad more than 1.3 million miles!

When we returned to our berth in San Sebastian on the last day I fished from Impi we had no tuna to show for our efforts. A couple, who were aboard a yacht moored beside us, asked us how we had fared during our day of fishing. Johan dipped into the bucket of water into which he had put his trompetero and said that this was all we had to show for our efforts. The guy on the yacht offered his commiserations and pointed out that he figured they had a couple of tins of tuna in the galley. He asked if we wanted to have one!

Trompetero. This little fish, modest as it is, is fully grown. They are very important food fish here for large numbers of predators including fish, seabirds, dolphins and whales.