It’s been two weeks since we left Umkomaas to set up camp in Port St Johns for the Sardine Run. In that time, we’ve been fortunate enough to meet fantastic people from all over the world – all drawn to our magnificent coastline by the phenomenon known as the Greatest Shoal on Earth. Before we left, we were thrilled to hear reports of record action filtering through the diving grapevine – and yet, as high as our expectations were, they were soon to be spectacularly exceeded. It’s been one of the best Runs of recent years, with great bait ball action and a wealth of amazing predator sightings.
For those that don’t know, the Sardine Run is one of the planet’s most epic natural events. Theoretically, it occurs every year between the months of June and July – although some years (like this one) see significantly higher levels of activity than others. The Run begins in the cool waters of the Cape, where billions of Southern African pilchards migrate north after spawning simultaneously off the Agulhas Bank. These pilchards, or sardines, can only tolerate water temperatures of 21 C or below, and as such are confined to a narrow corridor of cool coastal water by the warm offshore Agulhas current. In terms of sheer biomass, the Sardine Run rivals East Africa’s wildebeest migration – and consequently is often referred to as the Serengeti of the Sea. Like the wildebeest, the concentrated numbers of sardines attract a plethora of predators in their wake – all of which are looking to gorge themselves on the sudden bounty of food.
As the sardines are harried and harassed along the coastline by these predators, they often form great bait balls in an attempt to find safety in numbers. These bait balls form the focal point of the Sardine Run action, and to see the chaos of thousands of desperate fish being attacked from all sides by hungry predators is the Holy Grail for all Sardine Run divers. Finding the bait balls can be difficult – like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack – except harder, because the bait balls could be anywhere along the infinite expanse of the South African east coast. The bays and bluffs of Port St Johns’ dramatic coastline form natural corrals for the sardines, however, making it slightly easier to pinpoint where the action may be. This year, we were exceptionally lucky, with fantastic bait ball sightings the like of which we have not experienced in several years.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the past two weeks was the sighting of a gargantuan bait ball measuring a staggering 10 kilometres in length. We were able to spend quite some time in the water, surrounded by the frenzy of diving Cape gannets, clicking and squealing common dolphins – and of course, the ultimate predators of the Sardine Run, dusky and copper sharks. All of the bait balls that we encountered were accompanied by gannets and common dolphins, the most iconic of all Sardine Run species. We saw several dolphin super pods, numbering thousands of individuals all surging through the water in perfect synchrony. As well as the common dolphins, we had numerous sightings of bottlenose dolphin, minke whales, Bryde’s whales – and of course, the humpback whales whose northerly migration also coincides with that of the sardines. We were also lucky enough to see some unexpected species – including some magnificent sailfish.
All of these amazing sightings mean that for us, 2015 has been one of the best Sardine Runs yet. To find out more about the Run, or to book your place on next year’s adventure, get in touch via Facebook or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org