Anyone for Sardines?

The cliff faced wild coast

Jean Marx took himself off to experience the sardine run this year. This is what he learned.  In a world of countless stories of been there done that, people often go to extremes to find that something special or new. I have been diving for a long time and have been all around the globe in search of that new, special place – from the Galapagos to the Coral Sea, and most places in between. Yet I had often heard about the sardine run, but never got round to experiencing it. As with most things in life – this X file syndrome that it’s out there – we often overlook what is right on our doorstep

Text and images by Jean Marx

Earlier this year, I went on a Tiger Shark weekend to Umkomaas, organized by Prestige Dive School. The operator that we used was Blue Rush. They specialize in shark encounters and the sardine run. The owners, Dietmar and Raffaella, are a very interesting couple. Dietmar is Austrian and able to speak 7 languages while Raffaella (Raffa) is an Italian lady that knows her way around sharks. We had an awesome experience gaining good footage of Tiger and Blacktip sharks. On one dive we saw dolphin and humpback whales and suddenly the conversation started veering towards the sardine run. Raffa said that she would bring some photos to dinner that evening. That night, we were in high spirits after a very exciting day when the photo album came out -images of breaching whales, dolphin surfing waves and frantic bird action. I decided that this year I was going, come hell or high water.

Humpback whale breaching

Unfortunately high water came. Massive torrential floods hit the South Coast. Visibility was down to zero and with 4 meter swells there was no chance of getting out to sea. I was very disappointed but kept on watching the forecasts.

I saw a forecast that showed a potential break in the weather and phoned Dietmar in Port St Johns, where Blue Rush was based for the 2008 run. The Sea was calming down and most importantly the visibility was improving. I was on the plane the next day on my way to the Wild Coast where Dietmar and Raffa were hosting a group of Italians for the week.

Ideally I should have taken 2 cameras. I prepped a Nikon D200 with 10.5mm fisheye for underwater. On the trip I met a famous photographer Carlo Mari who was testing the D3 for Nikon. He kindly lent me his D300 for boat-based shooting. The best lens for this being something in the 70mm-200mm range.

Gannets diving for sardines

Black tip shark

The sardine run happens every year between May and July. There are many theories why the sardines “migrate”, but no scientific proof. One of the accepted theories is that changes in the frontal system, move cold water from the Agulhas Bank northwards and the sardines see this occurrence as an extension of their habitat. The run begins in deep water off the East Coast, or Wild Coast, of South Africa and then moves on to the Kwazulu Natal coastline. The continental shelf defines the sardine run experience to be had. Along the East Coast the continental shelf is very close to shore and it gets deep very quickly. This is where you will find the classic “bait ball” where predators surround a group of sardines. On the Kwazulu Natal coast, where it is very shallow, you will find a lot of shark activity resulting in the “doughnut” formation. This is where a shark is surrounded by sardines and it looks like a doughnut from the air. This is also where the sardines will get pushed up to shore on occasion. This activity is not really dived but promises some opportunity with big schools of game fish also joining the hunt.

Ideal sardine conditions comes with good visibility and calm seas. But the chances to see the sardines improves with colder water and a SW wind that helps blow the sardines closer to shore. Expect a long day at sea, a lot of swimming and getting in and out of the boat numerous times in order to keep up with the ever-moving sardines.

The best indication of sardine action is Cape Gannets circling in the air and then and diving into the water. Just before they reach the water they pull their wings back like a fighter jet. It is quite strange to hear a loud crack and then be suddenly looking at a bird with a sardine in its mouth 10 meters under the water. The truth is, once you get into the water, you don’t know what to expect. There can be absolutely nothing or only sardines that are being targeted by the Gannets. Hopefully there are big predators too, like dolphin or shark. We saw only common dolphin but bottlenose are seen. The sharks that you can encounter are mostly dusky ,copper and blacktip with the occasional Zambezi thrown in for good measure. The dolphin hunt by blowing bubbles and using their sonar to keep the sardines together. They then hit the ball at great speed. Sharks are normally present but will patrol the fringes and bottom of the ball for a snack. The real jackpot is when Bryde’s or Minke Whales start feeding. Penguins and cape fur seals can also make an appearance. There were sightings of sailfish and even false killer whales joining the hunt this year, but these sightings are rare.

So basically your day is spent looking for sardine action. But the activity that you can see from the boat is an action movie in its own right. Humpback Whales breaching, super pods of between 500-1000 dolphin, birds such as cape gannets, cormorants and gulls are abundant with the odd albatross patrolling the skies. If all this activity fails, the scenery of the Wild Coast is wild to say the least. Massive cliffs mark the ragged shoreline where the continuous pounding of the waves has created caves and eerie shapes in the rock. Waterfall Bluff is one of only 4 waterfalls in the world that fall directly into the sea.

I think all divers will agree that diving is like a lucky dip and we gladly take what gift Neptune will show us. The only difference is with the Sardine run, Santa joins the party with a big sleigh of goodies.

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