Sardine Run

Diving with the “The Greatest Shoal on Earth”

Sardine RunThe phrase was dubbed by Peter Lamberti, a wildlife film producer; and it all began on a cool day, as the waters dropped to below 21 degrees and the clouds amassed in an ominous bulk. Then as nature intended, thousands of sardines simultaneously followed the cold current in their migratory movement north-east from the Agulhan Bank (where they had recently been spawning), up towards the Mozambican coast. From the shores, it’s a spectacle but from below the surface of the water, it’s an experience.

Being such small creatures, the sardine’s core temperature is highly sensitive, so if the water does not drop (this only happening thrice in the past two decades) the fish will not move from their breeding ground. Failure to do so though affects a collective of both human and animal: the local fisherman, hungry predator (waiting patiently for his annual feast) and finally, the avid scuba diver.

And by ‘predator’ we mean: Great Whites, Copper Sharks, Common Dolphins and Cape Gannets, all of which have eyes and thoughts fixed only on the sardine, which leaves you (the diver) free to objectively admire both the bait balls as well as the predators, some of which take their time to glide patiently through the water before actually striking.

How many days should you allocate for the Dive?

The recommendation is that you allow at least a week for diving, especially if you’re an overseas visitor, as this will almost guarantee that you clock in a few days worth of good viewing. Bear in mind that because the weather along this stretch of Wild Coast (in the Eastern Cape) can be highly unpredictable, visibility is sometimes compromised and on occasion, the condition of the sea may even prevent the boat from being able to launch.

Managing expectations

Because nature cannot be controlled, some years produce more action than others. If you’re a local though, here are some twitter links you can follow, monitoring the progress and location of the shoal.

Animal Ocean
Mark Addison

You can also call the Natal Sharks Board on +27 82 2849495

So whilst the run may have just finished for 2011, it may be worth ‘planning’ for next season, bearing in mind that flexibility is key.
To snorkel or dive?

At sea, you have the option of either snorkeling or diving, however for more than one reason(s); the vote would probably lean towards diving. Part of the reason for this is that besides the marine activity, there is also a species of bird-life that tends to get involved, the Cape gannet (mentioned above). If you snorkel however, or if you still have the launch-boat ‘hovering above you’, the birds will be prevented from performing a dive, as diving into you could be fatal for it, and most certainly painful for your back.
So whether you decide to snorkel or dive: at the captain’s command you will fall backwards into the sea, and then watch the show…as you drift dive alongside the silvery dart-like shreds of protein.

Dolphins: sheep-dogs of the Ocean

The way it works is that the predators (shark, dolphin and whale) all have a different plan of attack. The common dolphin will surround the shoal like a sheep-dog would, and herd them into a circular ‘ball’; hence the phrase: bait ball. Then from the outside of the ball, they will dive straight into it, their mouths open.

Sharks; just let the dolphins do the work, as they congregate below the ball, waiting in the shadows. Like lazy lions, they will then saunter swimmingly through the neat ball, creating a disturbance and a reconfiguration of the shape, as the fish create a tunnel through which the shark will continue to swim.

As for the gannets, this is what happens from above:

Gannet action in the Sardine Run off the coast of South Africa

They dive kamikaze like into the water, streamlining their bodies as they prey on the shoal.

Together though, the shoal and predators make for a circus of events, a spectacle which divers are willing to give up both finances, as well as a certain level of comfort.
How safe is this form of diving?

Simply: It’s a lot safer than cave diving. The truth is that so many people fear that which actually never happens. True, you are surrounded by sharks, but they are there for the fish, not for you. That said however, there are certain ‘rules’ which should be applied and obeyed. According to photographer and experienced sardine run veteran, Jean Tresfon, they are as follows:

  1. Don’t flap your hands around.
  2. Wear gloves.
  3. Keep your hands and arms occupied (on a camera grip or if you dint have a camera, keep them folded).
  4. Move quietly through the water.
  5. No thrashing around and splashing on the surface of the water.
  6. Stay out of the bait ball, and don’t snorkel above the ball if the water is dirty. Another reason for this though is to prevent dispersing the ball, which may ruin the experience for others on the dive.
  7. Constantly keep a lookout for what is going on around you (spatial awareness is critical).

A quick note here: the temptation is to capture the shot at all costs (it’s what every photographer is cursed with: the need to get that one classic shot). But don’t forget to pause, and just take in what’s happening around you, especially if this is a once off opportunity. Sometimes, while memory is fragile, it is still price-less.

Dive Type

The sardine run is a drift-dive, as both you and the shoal move with the current as it pulls you along. With drifting though come a few technicalities, in that you obviously won’t surface from the water in the same place you dropped into it, which is where the need for experienced divers comes in.

The advantages of drift diving is as follows: that you get to exert less energy moving with the current than you would furiously kicking your flippers against it. And the second (although this is more of a feeling than advantage) is that you get the sensation of flying through the water. It makes for a new phrase: ‘like a bird in water’.

What do you need to be a drifter/participate in the Run?

Sardine RunAccording to PADI regulations you’ll need an ‘open water diving certificate’, and can only participate if you are 15 years and older.
Physically-fit?

Is what you need to be, so while it is beneficial to be an experienced diver, it’s also recommended that you be in good shape, just because of the nature of the activity. You’re on the boat almost all day long, with numerous jumps in and out of it. The temptation therefore (also because of the water temperature) is to ‘sit out’ a few jumps in order to recover. But according to Jean Tresfon: don’t compromise, because the jump you miss out on could provide more under-water visuals than any other. It’s gambling.

With that said though, the ‘scene’ will also change depending on the activity of the boat and the divers. The aim therefore is not to frighten the wildlife away as you move into and through the water. These are wild animals and whilst they’re going about their own business, instinct will determine that they move away, rather than towards you.