The Sardine Run Expedition is a marine safari and a unique opportunity to explore a stunning, marine wildlife extravaganza. Sardine fever hits the Wild Coast during June and July each year when the annual migration of sardines northward from the southern Cape occurs - the famed ‘Sardine Run’. Stretching for 15 km with 1000 tons of fish, it has understandably been called ‘the greatest shoal on earth’. Feeding on the sardines are thousands of common and bottlenose dolphins, sharks, cape fur seals, multitudes of sea birds, game fish and even whales (humpback, Bryde’s, pilot and minke) follow the Wild Coast’s rocky shoreline having their easiest meal of the year.
On occasion, the common dolphins work together to herd a pocket of sardines into a small, tightly packed shoal called a bait ball. This concentrates the activity into a very small area and produces one of the most amazing spectacles of nature in the world.
The Sardine Run expedition team for 2007 arrived at our camp in Port St Johns at 6pm on the 1st July as the African winter night turned dusk to pitch black. Rob, Libby, Pete and Dave had travelled down from Durban via the heights of the Transkei while Shera and Lisa met us there after a sojourn in Coffee Bay. Around a roaring log fire in the centre of the camp, flanked by tall avocado trees, we were greeted with a cold beer by Rod Haestier, our host and skipper, and Mike Sellick, our expedition support co-ordinator. Also using the camp were a team of scientists led by Dr Vic Peddemores hoping to capture video footage of sardine bait balls to support their research. And so, under a full moon with a brightly shining panoply of stars puncturing the velvet black African sky, we supped our cold Windhoeks, as talk obviously concentrated on the exciting possibilities for the week ahead. Then with boat and dive gear all readied we got an early night in anticipation of the following day.
Day 1 – 2 July 2007
We arose at 6am to be ready for the call from the skippers to load up the boats and head down the Umzimvubu river from our mooring 2 km from the river mouth. As the sun rose, we could see that the sea was … um … ‘big’. Strong winds influenced by the passing of the previous day’s cold front raised huge breakers and even Rod, one of the most experienced skippers on the Wild Coast, was hard pressed to find a way through. But with supreme patience, watching set after set of waves roll through, he finally committed to the launch and with the RIB’s twin Yamaha engines at full pelt he found a way through the seemingly impenetrable walls of water.
On the back line of the surf we stopped to draw breath and then Rod got out his binoculars to scan the horizon for the tell-tale signs of sardine activity – the most obvious sign being hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of cape gannets on the move, flying to where dolphins have corralled fish close to the surface allowing them to feast. The main sardine shoal had not yet reached Port St Johns but smaller pockets of fish had been seen coming through for a few weeks. However, on this first morning, all was very quiet.
We headed North for a few kilometres until simultaneously Rod and I shouted ‘fin’ pointing to a distant and dark triangle moving across the surface of the water. As we got closer, it was obviously not a shark but actually a large sunfish, or mola mola – the first one Rod had seen there for 3 years! It appeared to be going nowhere very fast and so we donned mask, fins and snorkel and slipped into the sea beside this amazing and idiosyncratic creature – all fleshy disk and unlikely fin! It stayed with us for a short photo call before heading back into the depths.
By lunchtime there were plenty of birds around but no real concentration of activity.
Common and bottlenose dolphins milled about without any direction as if they too were waiting for the fishy feast to arrive. From time to time a flurry of feathers and fins would occur with a few gannets diving into the sea only just avoiding the dolphins competing for the meagre morsels. Lisa and I had a short snorkel until I saw a bronze whaler shark emerging from the deep, mouth open and aiming at her very pink fins. A quick wave of my camera turned it away but she lost interest in being in the water shortly after that for some reason!
In the afternoon, we spotted the tell-tale spouts of humpback whales blowing on the horizon, and as these three approached, two more were seen coming from a different direction. The two groups converged and stayed together for a while in what Rod was convinced was mating behaviour, but although we were close, we were not THAT close so I can neither confirm nor deny this! All I can report is that the ‘convergence’ was over in about 10 minutes, finishing with a single breach and then the group split up again - one part heading north along the coastline towards Mozambique and the other directly out to sea.
That completed our first day on the Run, no sardines but plenty of marine action to keep us interested and provide fuel for our fireside chats that evening.
Day 2 – 3 July 2007
We planned an earlier launch on the second day to try to avoid the drama of the first. However, when we got to the river mouth just as the first rays of deep orange sunlight were tinting the horizon, the surf appeared to have far less ferocity than the day before. And so, with consummate ease, Rod sliced through the waves and we breakfasted on a sea resembling a mill pond. How different can two days during a Wild Coast winter be?
No sooner had we settled into our routine of ‘search and spot’ than hundreds of cape gannets started taking to the air and flying south in long strings. Training his binos on the horizon, Rod could see the white specks forming a large flock, and within minutes this was visible to our naked eyes too. As we watched more and more birds joined the fray, lining up to plummet into the sea which, as we got closer, began to boil with the backs of silvery fish and the occasional dolphin and shark fin breaking the surface.
This was our first bait ball and while Rod and I waited to make sure that it wasn’t a small one that would be consumed quickly, the others kitted up with their snorkelling gear, ready to get in the water. Then, when we were sure that it was going to hang around for a while, we slipped into the water beside the bait ball and immediately saw we were in the largest predatory activity one could ever hope to witness in nature. Pods of dolphin were circling the large and shimmering globe of fish, some beneath blowing air to keep them close to the surface, others on the outside keeping them tightly bound. Every minute or so a burst of clicks and whistles signalled the start of a concerted bout of predation with dolphins lancing through the bait ball from all directions grabbing the fish as they attempted in vain to evade. Joining in the party were a dozen or more sharks – we identified bronze whalers, blacktips and a huge dusky on this occasion – which appeared to opportunistically wait for a gap between dolphin assaults and then dive in for their own feast.
We were watching this with stunned awe from the (relative) safety of a few metres away when the fish started to use the floating raft of snorkellers as ‘protection’ and came right up under us! This wasn’t a particularly good strategy either for them or us, because although the aerial pelting of gannets abated, the dolphins and sharks had no qualms about us being in the midst of the fish and as we moved away from the bait ball, they came between and about us to get to their prey. Luckily there was no more than a little dolphin jostling and the odd shark tail strike – Pete even came away proudly with a bruised hand from that close encounter!
With everyone keeping calm and the cameras flashing, we were on the sardine bait ball for more than 45 minutes before there was nothing left of the ball than a million twinkling scales suspended in the water! It was difficult for our brains to actually process so much activity in such close proximity and the team tried to explain their experiences to each other on the boat afterwards, but it would take days to actually be able to put all that we had experienced in context. And that wasn’t the end of it, the sardines had clearly arrived because time after time bait balls formed although the experiences weren’t as intense as the first. At one point we were joined on a bait ball by a cape fur seal having journeyed all the way from Cape Town for his meal, which is always a real treat.
All the action died down in the afternoon so we decided to get in on scuba to see what was about. We did a 20min dive at 10m where there were lots of sharks, mostly bronzes, who darted in to check us out before moving away to the limit of visibility again. I love the way sharks ‘creep’ up behind you and when you turn to face them they quickly veer away as if pretending that they are perfectly innocent! It keeps you very alert and helps to have a buddy at your back. It’s also interesting how the group of divers subconsciously closes together on such a dive – it’s no wonder that sardines form bait balls!
After travelling north with a slow-moving humpback for a while, we headed back at 3pm to tell our stories, review out photography and prepare ourselves for another big braai (barbeque) at Rod’s.
Day 3 – 4 July 2007
It has been my experience from many years on the Sardine Run that every day is different and the unexpected must always be expected. Even on quiet days it never disappoints.
This was a quietish day with calm seas, lots of sunshine and little surf to battle with. We decided to take the opportunity to go up to Waterfall Bluff about 30km to the north from which a waterfall torrents directly into the sea - one of only 9 in the world apparently. It wasn’t so much a torrent as a dribble at this time of year, but the Bluff is a stunning and ruggedly beautiful part of the Wild Coast and the perfect place to stop for our breakfast.
Although there was no bait ball action today, we snorkelled with sharks; followed humpback whales; and, incredibly, saw an albinistic (partially-albino) bottlenose dolphin that Vic Peddemores had first observed 10 years ago near Durban (blowing the received wisdom that these animals didn’t travel far beyond their usual territory – I feel a whole new research project coming on!) I wanted to try to get a full length photo of the albino (unimaginatively referred to as ‘White Fin’) for identification purposes but he was in the middle of a pod which appeared always to keep him away from our boat. I got into the water in front of them a number of occasions only to have them change direction and give me a very wide berth or dive below me through the murky water so I couldn’t get a shot. I wasn’t going to be beaten, though, and eventually I had to anticipate their direction and freedive down to 10m in order to converge with them finally getting just the shot I needed – and yes I used Photoshop to adjust the white balance and add some contrast – not to turn a normal bottlenose into an albino!
The day was completed with a sundowner on top of Mount Thesiger - the location of the old military air strip high above the Umzimvubu river – a perfect end to a gorgeous day.
Day 4 – 5 July 2007
Another great action day. We got onto a bait ball on scuba for the first time which changed the experience entirely, being able to view the action from that perspective and somehow feeling far less vulnerable than when on snorkel! Shera and Lisa bravely stayed with the sharks below the bait ball while the rest of us enjoyed the dolphin action. The photography opportunities were endless – well, at least until one’s compact flash card was full!
This was the day that the main sardine shoal arrived. Using the fish-finder on the RIB we tracked the shoal from Sugarloaf to north of the Umzimvubu river mouth – approximately 10km, and about 1 km wide in a layer 20m thick (at 20-30m deep), and that’s a lot of fish! But for once, there were too many sardines! All the predators had to do was feed on this enormous fish platter whenever they wanted and so the activity was scattered everywhere.
At the end of the day, Dave decided to have a quick snorkel to cool down and attracted a bit of unwanted attention from a couple of inquisitive bronze whaler sharks. It’s one thing being in a group in the open ocean with predators around, but an entirely different experience on one’s own, and soon we heard Dave’s cultured tones echoing through his snorkel – “I think I’d like to be picked up now”!
Day 5 – 6 July 2007
The final day, and expectations to go out with a bang were high, but as ever, nature had the last say in the matter. We enjoyed a scorching hot day, and virtually glass-like seas but the visibility had deteriorated to the point that it wouldn’t have been safe to get in the water. Even when the cape gannets congregated in thousands and gave us the largest ‘bird storm’ that we had seen all week, with squadron after squadron of dive-bombing birds plummeting like arrows into the green water, all we could do was sit and watch the awe-inspiring natural phenomenon.
Once that was over, everything went quiet. Hardly a bird or dolphin could be seen anywhere and so at one point Rod took us out to ride the bow wave of a passing container ship! It certainly gave us a new appreciation for the bravery of Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd activists who take on the might of the whalers in their tiny boats.
With the day (and week) gently sliding to a sleepy conclusion we saw a couple of humpbacks and decided to follow them on their slow and meandering route up the coast. Rod passed on his many years of experience photographing these amazing creatures, while we waited, cameras in hand, for the ‘perfect’ tail shot until finally they deigned to wave their flukes at us. Libby sat smiling on the RIB’s pontoon watching the display and contentedly contemplating all that had gone before in the week. So, with the sun low in the sky we made our way back to our camp for the last night in Port St Johns, a meal at ‘The View with a room’ restaurant and a few drinks under the stars in the Jungle Monkey with music accompaniment from a stoned-looking local guy with a guitar!
The following morning, with fond farewells and email addresses exchanged, we transferred back to get our flights home. It had been an unforgettable week with experiences that only the Sardine Run and a lot of luck can deliver – bait balls are a rare thing and film makers spend months and even years to get the best footage possible, so for us to experience this amazing phenomenon so many times during our expedition was fortunate indeed. That coupled with rare encounters such as the albino bottlenose and sunfish, the expert guidance of Rod Haestier, superb whale-watching, wave-surfing dolphins, and great weather made this one of our best Sardine Run expeditions ever.
Many thanks to Rod, Mike, Vic and the expedition team. Roll on next year!