Francis Meyrick

Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual Ch.1-C “Foamers and Breezers “

Posted on July 11, 2009

On a low approach to the Hsieh Feng 707; TOO low

Chapter 1-C Foamers and Breezers

1) Foamers

There are some sights in Nature, which are universally recognized as truly magnificent.
Most members of the public are familiar with documentaries showing large salmon migrating up seemingly impossible mountain streams.
Their determination to return to their native spawning grounds, despite everything, hurdling rocks and battling everything the dangerous journey throws at them. We’ve seen the big grizzly bears delightedly fishing ’em out.
An amazing ritual, that has gone on for millennia, that Man must take great care not to destroy. If, in his foolishness, he was to do so, the loss would be not only the spectacle of the migrating salmon. But the whole eco system, including the happy bears, filling their tummies, would be damaged and altered in a way that would be tragic beyond words.
If you’re like me, you have watched squadrons of geese migrating across the sky, obeying a time old instinct. Homing on their winter grounds, with ancient senses that we yet barely understand.
Maybe you have seen coral reefs at the moment of their annual orgy. An amazing event, only recently captured on film. The first time I saw the coral reefs spawn, the stunning footage was set to a strange, dreamy, far away music. It was peaceful, and even soothing. It spoke of an ancient ritual, aeons old, that we small, fragile little humans should honor and respect.
Maybe you have seen entertaining documentaries of walruses mating. And like me, laughed at the frenetic cacophony of their love making, the smack of blubber against blubber as a male suitor gets his wicked way with the lady of his dreams. It is neat to watch. But it is with a pang you come awake, as that same camera takes you on a low level flight along hundreds and hundreds, even thousands of miles of starkly deserted South American beaches. Beaches that for thousands and thousands of years… reverberated with the happy, busy sound of seal and walrus love play, territorial claims, and warning barks.
Yes, Man again. In his greed, his shortsightedness, his foolishness… managed to wipe out -forever- entire populations.
In a few short decades, a century at best, a whole tradition of Nature, a ceremony, a ritual, a wonderful feast of life and reproduction…
was destroyed. For-ever…

And such a terrific wonder, such a spectacle of Nature at its richest, at its best, is the ‘foamer‘.
I spent hours and hours trying to describe it to the best of my limited abilities for a chapter in my second novel. It is called “The Tuna Hunter “, and is largely finished. I quote here an excerpt from Chapter One.

* * * * * *

It was a strange love affair, that had started on almost his first reconnaissance flight, three years earlier. He had been flying with a Taiwanese observer, Yang, who had spent almost the entire flight peering through binoculars, and barking out compass headings.
“You fly two-seven-zero, quick-quick! “
Bob had obediently swung the helicopter around, and then had peered into the distance, puzzled at the little Taiwanese’s obvious urgency. He had noticed nothing.
“You see? White water. Foamer! You see? “
Bob had not seen. He had looked hard, but seen only white topped waves, and spray blowing back.
Then, amazingly, they had arrived overhead, and he had seen. The foamer. White water. The purpose of his new employment…

The sea had erupted into life. Quick bursts of white foam were appearing all over. He had the immediate impression of a garment tearing, of a beautiful translucent emerald green dress being ripped full of holes. When he looked down again, he could clearly see hundreds and hundreds of small, agile shapes darting about, some leaping high up out of the water, before satisfyingly crashing back down in a shower of spray. They were like a bunch of out of control schoolboys making mischief. The surface of the sea was being torn open, and brilliant white gashes criss crossed the green surface. The white scars seemed to bunch together in five or six groups, each group maybe twenty or thirty meters across. Then two of the foaming, vibrant, living groups were joined together as yet more tuna surfaced to join the wild party. Impossible as it seemed, even more vivid white gashes were opening up, as yet more raving party goers made a grand entrance. Within a minute, the five or six groups had merged into one huge white foaming frenzy, some two hundred meters or more in diameter. Spellbound, Bob could only stare down from the circling helicopter, his eyes opened wide in awed amazement. There had to have been hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands of fish down there…
“You see, Yellow Fin. All together. Foamer. White water. Is good. Many fish. You understand? “
The calm voice of Yang, unperturbed, matter-of-fact, had snapped Bob back to reality. He had stared at his observer for a whole second, amazed that this man did not share his own awed breathlessness…

Bob had understood all right. On that day, he had fallen in love with one of Nature’s more spectacular displays. Foamer. White water. To him, it was life itself in such abundance, with such a gay abandon that it was hard not to regard the Tuna as having fun. Having a ball, in fact. The more rational explanation that they were surface feeding, and chasing small anchovy, seemed wholly inadequate to convey the sheer dynamism of the event. It seemed much more appropriate to think in terms of the Tuna frolicking, playing, erupting out of the deep with such force that they sailed clean out of the water, sometimes several feet into the air, landing back with a bursting white splash. He could never shake off an impression of the boys showing off, playing for devilment at who could jump the highest. Who could make the biggest splash. Who could jump the highest wave. Who could make the most white water…

After that, he had become an avid Tuna watcher. He had learned to recognize the foamer from afar. From fifteen and twenty miles away he had been known to spot the ‘white water’, when the erupting Tuna turned the ocean into a boiling cauldron. He had learned to recognize the ‘breezer’, or ‘black water’, a phenomenon much harder to capture at first. It occurred when the Tuna stayed below the surface, but packed together in such dense schools, that they affected the wave action. The result was an area that looked as if the waves had suddenly died down. A relative calm would exist where waves should have held sway. When the helicopter flew over the top, and the pilot looked down, he could see the shadows of the submerged fish.
Black water…

And finally, one evening after sunset, when he had stood alone on the very bow of the ship…
When the engines had been stopped, and only the generators disturbed the peace, just before nightfall, a foamer had welled up beside the silently rolling ship, only yards from where he alone stood witness.
One moment he was alone on deck, peering through the twilight to the far horizons, with not another ship to be seen. Feeling alone, mournful, missing he knew not what…
The next moment, he was witnessing the first ‘jumpers’ erupting, vanguards of the main formation, only yards from where he stood in silent introspection. That was the night when he realized that a foamer also has its own sound. Its own music. The cry of the circling, diving, hungry birds intermingled with a soft splashing of thousands of busy fins. The surprisingly loud ‘smack’ as the erupting Tuna re-entered the water. The struggling, desperate sounds of small fish shooting across the surface, eagerly pursued by the hungry Tuna. It was like no sound he had ever heard before. With the sound of wind and waves forming the accompaniment, here was Nature in its purest, unspoiled as yet by Man, and he had wished only for all extraneous noise on the intruding killer ship to cease…

* * * * * *

What more can I say about the foamer!??
It really is mesmerizing. Spectacular. Any pilot or fisherman who says a foamer is ‘just a bunch of stupid fish splashing about’ has the soul of a mildewed, shriveled up prune! He is obviously totally devoid of feeling, and will never be any good in bed. Sex to him will always be ‘just a quick scratch of the itch before you go to sleep’!
So says I!

In terms of size, foamers will vary from really small (only a few meters across) to absolutely stunning. I have seen ‘stationary’ foamers hundreds and hundreds of meters across, and I have seen a ‘river’ of foamers, stretching literally for mile after mile, as all the time even more fish appeared over the horizon. That lot were ‘traveling tunies’, and they were traveling at speed! You could almost call them ‘racing tunies’… They seemed to be following an invisible ‘tuna freeway‘, a ‘Skipjack Motorway’, and we ran low on fuel before we had even surveyed a fraction of what was passing below. We are talking about millions of fish. That was in March 1996, about four hundred miles North of Papua New Guinea. That was the time we filled up 700 tons in three days. We were back in the port of Wewak after one week. Precisely seven days after departure, we were entering the harbor, and calling the shipping agent on the radio. I was on the bridge, when I heard the agent, most concerned, inquiring if we had a ‘problem’. We were back so soon!
“Yes “, said Captain Alan, with a straight voice.
“We have BIG problem. We have no more room to store fish! “
Everybody got a good chuckle out of that one.
The three fishing days were pretty bizarre, actually. With 300 tons in the set together at one time, and the captain absolutely petrified that his one million dollar net was going to tear.
Sights such as that give one hope that the tuna stocks are still healthy. However, more on this -debatable- issue later, under the section ‘Conservation’!

Finally, I will mention again the inevitable day when you will have this experience: you will have the best seat in the house -in your helicopter- watching frustrated and desperate purse seiners, (after weeks and weeks of not even sighting any tuna), trying so hard to make a successful set on a ‘traveling foamer’. The fish dive under the net, and come up a minute later on the outside! There is often a breathless few minutes, after the ship has set, before the nets are closed, that everybody is waiting and wondering:
“Will the fish stay inside? ”
You can’t see anything. Inside or out. The captain will ask the pilot many times over the radio. Do you see fish??
But no, first one, then another, then a whole gang, will start surfacing just outside the net. The crew will heave a loud collective groan. Now they are faced with the long and tedious labor intensive task of recovering the nets. All for nothing.
You will watch as another purse seiner rushes in, smoke belching from the funnel. There is the loud ‘clack!’ as their skiff boat is cut loose, and goes sliding down the ramp with a mighty splash, their crew hanging on for grim life. They make a set, and everybody on that ship is holding their breath. You watch again as the fish dive deep under the net, and a minute or two later… there they are, appearing outside of the second purse seiner’s net, re-grouping and still traveling in the same compass direction!
Your captain rushes in, makes a set, the fish dive under the net, and a minute later they appear outside, still traveling in the same direction! I have often seen so many sets in a row, all empty, and a huge traveling foamer with mature Yellowfin hopping and skipping merrily away on their journey across the Ocean Deep! With a gaggle of weary, tired, frustrated purse seiner crews following the escaping prize with baleful stares. It’s hard not to laugh! It’s uncanny at times. It’s almost as if the little darlings are ‘cocking a snoot’! I think a lot depends on the leaders. If they are ‘old hands’, I think their mental processes react along the lines of:
“What? Net? Oh, boring, booooring!! FORMATION-DIVE-DIVE-DIVE! “
Followed a minute later by:
“Bloody purse seiners! UP YOURS! (finger) (or fin) “

Conditioning is probably a major factor here. The more the tuna get used to nets coming down, the more likely they are to dive down. And learn how to escape.Until the set is closed can take anywhere from twenty-five to forty minutes. It depends on equipment, skill, and sea state. A diving tuna can easily escape until that time. It is interesting that purse seiners are using (having to use) bigger nets, that sink more quickly. Even so, I suspect the smart tuna will get used to those….
Sometimes it’s hard to know whose side you are on. Fishing is an honorable tradition, centuries old, and the loudest environmental activists who complain about ALL fishing (often with very little knowledge), will be the first to complain bitterly when the price of fish and tuna in the supermarket goes up. They reserve the right to eat and enjoy the product of the fisherman’s labor, whilst decrying and criticizing the fishing! Having said all that,I must admit to more than a sneaking sympathy for the worthy tuna quarry, and a snicker of amusement when I see them escape.

You will hopefully absolutely enjoy your first few foamers. When the sun is sparkling down, and the water is massively criss-crossed with white scars in the distance… it’s good being a tuna pilot!

2) Breezers

The ‘Breezer’ is also a ‘large gathering of fish’, but one that is taking place just beneath the surface of the sea. A foamer can become a breezer, and vice versa. At the ‘foamer’ stage, the fish are much more easily to spot. Sometimes however, a breezer will stay a breezer for a very long time, with very few fish breaking the surface.
Then they can be the very dickens to see.

It takes a while before you can recognize them. Rain falling on the surface of the sea also often looks misleadingly like a Breezer. The best way to think of it is as a ‘disturbance of the normal pattern of the waves’. The waves are flatter, sometimes almost calm. Remember, you might be flying over 50,000 fish… together, that’s a lot of mass, seriously affecting the wave pattern. A breezer can also look a bit like a slick. As you circle overhead, you will see the dark shapes flitting about underneath.
Sometimes you will peer into the far distance on a calm, hot day, and be puzzled by what appears to be a small circle suddenly forming on the water. This circle will grow rapidly in diameter, from a few meters to maybe twenty or thirty. Occasionally, it will grow up to one hundred meters or more. This circle expands and also shrinks rapidly. It can at some stage become characterized by the appearance of ‘jumpers’. These are a few fish jumping clear of the surface, often chasing food, causing white splashes. The jumpers can be the heralds of a foamer, but not necessarily. Sometimes the jumpers disappear, and you are left with your breezer again. Just a ‘calm’ on the surface.
Sometimes the growing circle splits off into two or three circles. Or you will see other circles spontaneously forming some distance away. Forming. And disappearing. Forming… and disappearing.

I have listened to all sorts of theories, and some pretty wild statements. I record my observations not in any way as the ultimate truth, but as ‘impressions’ only. I don’t think there is any validity in the story that ‘foamers are always bigger than breezers’. I have seen some massive, massive breezers, with hardly a ripple on the surface.
I suspect the factors that decide whether the tuna splash about on the surface, or stay underneath, have a lot to do with environmental conditions such as:
time of the day
presence of ‘baitfish’ (dinner!)
the behavior of said baitfish
the temperature of the water
the temperature gradient of the water
(i.e. how much the temperature changes as you go down)
mating behavior
clarity of the water
cloud cover
etc, etc.

The breezer is very important to a good helicopter crew. It is harder to identify than a full blooded ‘foamer’, but after a while you get the hang of it. Your worst distractions are the already mentioned rain falling on the surface, and cloud shadows. You will find breezers much, much easier to spot on a calm sea.

If you are a new tuna helicopter pilot, you might be wondering why I am going into so much detail about the actual behavior of the tuna. You may be impatient to get to the ‘meat’, as you see it. The important stuff. Flying…
Relax, amigo, we will talk at great length about the actual techniques of flying, landing and taking off, and dealing with herding and radio buoys later on.
But you will miss out on much if you don’t understand the basics.

Let me give you two examples to illustrate the point…
The first example was on a red hot equatorial day, with unlimited visibility, and almost zero wind. That -dangerous!- flat calm brilliant blue surface, that lulls everybody into a false sense of security…. (more on that later!)
We had been looking for tuna for a week.
We hadn’t seen a thing. My relationship with my observer, Akaya, had improved, but he could still be rude and uncouth.
I for my part wisely bit my tongue, but I was not above engaging in good old-fashioned ‘pay-back’ when the opportunity presented itself…
Well…. all of a sudden, off on my left, way, way in the distance, seven miles away, I saw the typical circles form in the water. Akaya was looking through his gyro stabilized fancy-dancy binoculars somewhere else, and had noticed nothing.
I watched the circles grow. Then the first jumpers. Then a huge foamer. Then back to some circles. Then nothing. Not a trace. And a mischievous idea formed in my mind. Akaya was wholly unaware. I watched the whole diving and surfacing cycle a few more times. There would be four or five minutes of activity, followed by three minutes of ‘nothing’. Not a ripple.
I waited until it had just gotten flat calm out there.
“Akaya! ” I said, excitedly, “Fish! “
My observer followed my outstretched finger, and searched intensely.
“Nothing! “, he said, annoyed, and went back to looking on his side.
I watched the fish come up, do their thing, and dive again…
“Akaya! “, I said excitedly, a few minutes later, “Fish! “
He searched again, and found nothing. There was nothing to be seen.
I was now hugely enjoying myself. In a space of ten minutes, I managed to wind him up like a clockwork mouse.
I would be pointing at nothing, saying: “Can’t you see!?? I can see!! “
He would search the indicated spot in the far distance for thirty seconds, and give up. He was getting really annoyed with me.
Stage Two: I called the captain.
“Captain! I see fish! But Akaya not let me go there! “
Back came the captain’s voice, telling Akaya in no uncertain circumstances that we should go see. The captain took great pride in the learning efforts of his disciple-me- and wanted me to find fish. So he could have the glory of having taught the pilot!
We swung on an intercept course, and Akaya, with his binoculars down, was berating me for wasting everybody’s time. He used the word ‘crazy’ in every sentence, several times. I kept my face perfectly straight.
As if by magic, a two hundred ton foamer burst to the surface. His face went from anger, through disbelief, to shock.
Now HE had to call the captain… and explain….
Back on the ship, I was the captain’s golden boy, and Akaya got a good scolding, and told next time to “listen to Moggy! “

Poor old Akaya. He had no clue he was being ‘set up’. I managed to pull the exact same gag a few more times, until, eventually, he got suspicious…

Knowing about fishing can also save you time and effort. And give you the opportunity to ‘get one over’ on the competition.
One day we were with half a dozen other boats in an area, and two of them also had helicopters. We had not seen or caught fish for a while. I was the third machine to take off that afternoon, following shortly behind the two “Brand X ” birds.
They BOTH flew over a large breezer and missed it! I was not really concentrating, and my observer was already asleep.
I assumed the area to have been ‘well helicopter searched’ already. I spotted it, nudged my observer, and we circled around. Next thing we found a big log! This breezer was a really nice ‘log breezer’!
We dropped a radio buoy, and decided to go home! It was a real short flight.
The next morning our ship caught a hundred tons off it, the only vessel to catch anything. And that was rather satisfying.
This happened only four or five miles from where all the ships were gathered together.

It was amusing, later that same day, quietly listening in to the conversations of the other two helicopter pilots. I had enjoyed an easy afternoon, nice and lazy, with a plentiful supply of beer and sausages supplied by our happy captain. The other two pilots were hot, tired, frustrated and empty-handed. They had flown a triangle, sixty miles out, across and back, and found nothing. Just about home, and then they spotted our radio buoy, bobbing about!
“What the f@!!!K!!… That’s Moggy’s buoy! Well I’ll be DARNED! That’s a good breezer! Shoot! I reckon we must have gone right over the top of that! ”

More than a little tipsy, I raised them a beer, from my comfortable chair in the captain’s cool, air conditioned cabin.

“Suckers….! ”

Francis Meyrick


Note 1: Aeroscuttle’s input

If I hadn’t read Moggy’s meanderings about all things tuna, before I set off to arrive at the tuna fishing grounds, I would have been doubly ignorant.
I wouldn’t even know about even knowing.
I would have seen my first foamer, and my first breezer without even realizing what they were.
But I was armed with a little knowledge.
And even though a little knowledge can be dangerous, I had enough more than the little to get me by.
I had my eye calibrated enough to be only of little use.
What my eye need to calibrate to was size of school first. And with a little practice, that skill became reliable.
But then the next more difficult skill, and the next.
What was the overall travel direction of the school, and what school displayed the tendencies that would make a successful set more likely.
Empty net sets are not very good for morale.
If you get an early start you can get 6 to 8 good empty net sets in a day, all during daylight.
That’s not to mention a pieyow, a nighttime set.
Then come the conundrums.
There’s a big school 20 miles away, and a smaller school 10 miles away.
Maybe an even smaller one 5 miles away.
Which one do you pursue?
Chances are you won’t get both.
All this would go through my mind after just a couple of months on the boat.
But all that and more would go through the Captain’s mind, and what a torment it must have been.
All the responsibility weighing on his shoulders.
All the hours spent in the tower commanding the first officer at the conn chasing the school, herding it, rounding it up, shepherding, working into a perfect position to hear the words on the ship’s PA…
Standby, standby, standby…let go.
On average 1 out of 10 daytime sets would bring in fish.
It was a stressful job, and I often heard his say how stressed he was, because he even knew how to say it in English.
When the fish are plentiful, everyone is happy.
When the fish are scarce, so are places to avoid the tension.


Last edited by Francis Meyrick on August 8, 2015, 9:26 am

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