The Annual Sardine Run
The Greatest Shoal on Earth

© Roger De la Harpe
Sardine Run on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast.
It's called sardine fever for a good reason. It's a highly contagious condition that afflicts both man and wildlife with startling voracity. The symptoms include a temporary loss of clear rationale and acute sensory overload. To witness this madness in the ocean off the South Africa's Wild Coast is to witness a spectacle like no other in the natural world calendar. The Big fish Television team committed the whole of June to capturing this feverish phenomenon on camera.

It's quite simple. Every year, billions upon billions of sardines come to within a few metres of the coastline as they head north, driven near to the surface by a cold current and their appetite for plankton. In their wake, just about everything with a mouth follows.

Thousands of dolphins, sharks galore, humpback whales, killer whales, gannets. The list goes on and on. Our mission was to get in the middle of the action without becoming a part of the food chain ourselves. We tried to cover every eventuality. Our guide for the trip was the hugely likeable and determined dive operator Neville Ayliffe from Reefteach, Sodwana Bay.

Together with his charming and super-efficient wife Wendy, they ensured that our weeks of chasing the action would be as hassle-free as humanly possible in the circumstances. We were, after all, in the back and beyond, miles from civilisation for the most part.

Wendy's cooking was to prove a gastronomic delight. So we were ready. Our boat for the duration was Neville's seven-metre rib; in which we would bounce through the breakers like a fairground ride every morning at the crack of dawn.

Up above, Warren piloted his microlight, constantly radioing the positions of any activity he could find in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean between Port St Johns and Msikaba, until eventually we would make our way to the final destination of the sardines, Durban.

At first light on Day One, we were excited yet apprehensive. Stories abounded of wild bait balls and shark frenzies. Already, a copper shark while snorkelling right on top of a bait ball had bitten one British photographer Tony White. Tony was simply unfortunate enough to get his arm in the way of a shark powering through a swirling mass of fish.

Yes, it was dangerous and yes, he was seriously injured. But the doctors stitched his wound superbly and he'll be back on the sardine run, with no less affection and appreciation for one of the sea's most misunderstood creatures, the shark.

Amazingly, we sighted diving birds within a matter of hours of heading out. In all the excitement, it was difficult fully to compose ourselves. We pitched over the side with just our snorkels and immediately, I enjoyed the buzz of my first bait ball.

The diving gannets had gone but the common dolphins squealed and clicked furiously as they burst through the remaining mass of sardines. It was only a matter of time before they would all vanish into the mouths of dolphins and sharks enjoying a feast that was to reach epic proportions in the coming days and weeks.

I quickly clambered back onto the rib, deciding there was just enough time to get on my scuba gear. This made it easier to film the bait ball from below. Little did I realise but a large copper shark was heading straight for me. I felt a thump against the back of my head.

At first I thought it was a fellow diver kicking me with his fins but then swiftly turned with my camera to see to two-and-a-half metre bronze whaler bolting past my right ear towards the surface.

Only when I was back on the boat did one of our team James Colman reveal that it was the shark that had actually bumped me. James, who works in the City as consultant, was thereafter appointed as my personal 'shark wrangler', complete with unloaded spear, to cover my back.

On at least one occasion he was called upon to ward off an over-zealous shark with reasonable force. This was not for the feint-hearted for the next three weeks, the routine was the pretty much the same. Every morning the microlight would take to the air and we would hold onto our seats as Neville skilfully negotiated the breakers.

Then it was a case of heading out to sea, looking, waiting and hoping. The big shoals were yet to come. We needed a cold front to come through, so the sea temperature would dip and bring the sardines to the surface.

For up to five or six hours at a time, we patrolled the coast often in heavy swells. Though the so-called sardine run is fairly predictable, there are no guarantees. More and more, we were seeing common dolphins. They went firstly in hundreds, then in thousands. Floating pontoons of gannets waited patiently for the main course. They'd flown from the Cape to fill their bellies with this free bounty of fish.

Then came the humpback whales, purely coincidentally. They were on their way, north to warmer waters to mate and to calve. But what a show they put on for us Breaching, spy-hopping, tail slapping. A few times, I was able to get close enough to fill the lens of the camera with their huge bulk.

On the shores, the fishermen were getting ready for their share of the feast. Trailers packed with fish boxes and nets raced up and down the coast.

Observers from the Natal Sharks Board regularly updated the 'sardine hotline'. It was only a matter of time. Nothing though could have prepared us for the sheer volume of marine activity that would follow. We screamed with whoops of joy on one day as we found ourselves in the midst of a super-pod of common dolphins.

Nigel Bateson, my colleague and fellow cameraman, remarked: 'No camera can do this justice.' We could only guess at the numbers; five, six, maybe even ten thousand dolphins. This was the marine equivalent of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Hour after hour, they soared through the waves at up to 25 kilometres per hour, in relentless pursuit of sardines. Vic Peddemors, formerly Chief Scientist of the Natal Sharks, told me: 'To me, it's the equivalent of the migration of the wildebeest.

I believe this is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles anywhere on earth.' We had yet to achieve our ultimate goal, however. We still sought the famous sardine shoals that hug the coastline in seething masses visible from the air and stretching up to ten kilometres in length.

Then came a howler of a cold front and expectations soared. We didn't care that we had to abandon diving for the day. All the locals said: 'They're coming. They're on the way.' Sure enough, two days later as we scoured the horizon we saw gannets blitzing the seas just a few hundred yards out to sea. We were desperate to launch, if a little nervous about diving in rolling seas just behind the breakers, or the back line.

Neville dropped us over the side within a few metres of a dark black cloud. At first, the visibility was virtually nil. I could barely see my buddy, Liz. But fining rapidly to where I thought I could hear dolphin squeals, the object of our expedition loomed into hazy view.

Then the shoal was lost again. Once again, Neville dropped us, closer this time. There they were. Sardines too numerous to count, herding like an underwater river of silvery fishing lures. It was impossible to resist the urge to get in the thick of the sardines. I was in just five or six metres of water.

The shoal parted either side, then closed in over the top of me. The lights went out. Briefly, I felt a weird sense of claustrophobia. Liz lost sight of me. Then, as I tried to film closer to the surface, the shoal burst apart.

It was my first sight of a Zambezi bull shark during the trip. It all but hit the lens of the camera, and then darted away in a flash. The Zambesis became a frequent and close sighting, to the point that we became unconcerned. There was plenty of food for all and they were simply not interested in us.

Over the coming days, we got used to the dynamics of the shoal and managed to capture on video the extraordinarily fluid and seemingly co-ordinated movement of the sardines. Bait balls were to be found carved off, just a short distance from the beach and occasionally we were treated to the chaos of sharks, dolphins, and tuna in a feeding frenzy.

While all of this went on around us in the sea, on land the fishermen suffered sardine fever in the extreme. They filled their nets just past the breakers and hauled them ashore, in a race to get them on the market before the prices dropped.

They were surrounded by hundreds of locals of all ages desperately grabbing at any quarry escaping the nets.

The beach scenes resembled a football pitch invasion as sardine fever gripped normally sane individuals, now even fighting among each other over a tiny fish worth little more than the price of a cigarette. Over the four weeks, we saw dolphins fill the ocean as far as the horizon, sharks in the sort of numbers that would fill a hospital with pure adrenalin, humpback whales in all their majestic glory, and to cap it all, killer whales taking a common dolphin.

Without doubt, the sardine run is a high-energy predator-prey battle, which must surely rank as one of the most exhilarating spectacles yet to be exploited by South Africa's burgeoning tourist industry.

Copyright © 2002 John McIntyre, journalist & underwater film-maker.


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