It’s that time of year again – the air is getting colder, the mornings darker and the days shorter. While we may miss summer’s weather, there are plenty of reasons to get excited about the approach of winter. For divers on Aliwal Shoal, winter is synonymous with the arrival of ragged-tooth sharks; while a little further south, great sardine shoals are about to start their annual migration up South Africa’s east coast.

The Sardine Run

This natural phenomenon is known as the Sardine Run, and it involves millions of the small, silver fish more properly known as the South African pilchard (Sardinops sagax). Sardinops sagax is a cold water species, and spends most of its life on the west coast, where temperatures are kept frigid by the icy Benguela Current. Every year between May and July, however, the sardines travel southwards to spawn near the Agulhas Bank. At the same time, the Benguela Current pushes northwards along South Africa’s east coast, temporarily opening a narrow corridor of cold water between the shore and the warm Agulhas Current.

Great shoals of sardines follow this narrow corridor north. Unable to tolerate the warmer offshore water, they are forced to bunch together in great shoals – shoals that prove irresistible to South Africa’s marine predators. Dolphins, sharks, whales, seals, game fish and seabirds travel from far and wide to take advantage of the easy pickings. For divers, it’s a chance to witness one of the world’s greatest concentrations of marine biodiversity. It’s an opportunity to see bucket list species including Bryde’s whales, bronze whaler sharks, common dolphins and Cape gannets all in the space of a single day.

Our 2017 Expedition

Every year, Aliwal Shoal Scuba leads expeditions for those wishing to experience the excitement of the Run for themselves. We move our operations south from Umkomaas to Port St. Johns, a picturesque town guarded by towering sandstone cliffs and known as the gateway to the Wild Coast. From here, we head out to sea to look for the sardine shoals, spending long days on the water in search of the ultimate prize – a concentration of sardines known as a bait-ball. Bait-balls are created when sardines are harried by predators from above and below, causing them to group together in an attempt to find safety in numbers.

gannets on sardine run dive

When we find a bait-ball, divers have the option to watch the feeding frenzy from the surface, or to don snorkel or scuba gear and get into the water. Either way, the sight is impressive. Imagine hordes of Cape gannets plunging from great heights into a mass of panicked fish, while lightning-fast dolphins and sleek sharks attack from below. Occasionally, the activity attracts a mighty Bryde’s whale, capable of engulfing an entire bait-ball in a single gigantic swallow. Life on the Sardine Run is defined by hours of searching and sudden moments of high-octane activity – but even the time in between bait-balls is spent watching whales and dolphins from the surface.

Dive Packages

This year, we will be running Sardine Run trips from 19th June to 15th July. All dive packages include the boat trips and dives, cylinder and weight belt hire, a packed lunch to be eaten at sea and accommodation. You can choose to pay extra and include dinner as well, while accommodation options vary, allowing you to tailor the packages to suit your budget. We offer three options – lively backpacker hostel Jungle Monkey, rustic guesthouse Outspan Inn and 4-star Ntaba River Lodge. All three have been chosen for their friendly atmosphere and quality facilities. Port St. Johns is a wonderful place to visit in its own right, with stunning scenery, abundant wildlife and a rich tribal culture.

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