It’s been called the “greatest shoal on earth”. South Africa’s Sardine Run is undoubtedly one of the greatest oceanic migrations and a truly breathtaking spectacle. As the shoals begin to gather, so divers, scientists and thrill-seekers gather and prepare to jump in and experience the thrill and raw power of an African safari like no other. And, of course, if you’re travelling to South Africa to witness this spectacle, you’ll need to research not only the fish but your accommodation options.
Every year, between May and July, the Southern African pilchard Sardinops sagax – or the sardine – mass by the millions off the east coast of South Africa. The fish travel from their spawning grounds in the cool waters of the Agulhas Bank northward to the protected waters between Durban and Madagascar. Curiously, the fish can only tolerate waters of 21 degrees Celsius or lower. It’s why their spawning grounds are as far south as they are. But, during the early winter months, a narrow band of cold water opens up further north and allows the fish to travel. It’s the narrowness of this water that makes for such a spectacle. It’s much like the English Tube during rush hour. Millions of people (fish) crammed into a tiny space.
Shoals have been known to stretch over 10 kilometres in length and run up to 40 metres deep. It’s visible from space. That’s a lot of fish. Because the fish can’t stray outside of the band of cooler water, they make for easy pickings. And predators come from far and wide to feast on the bounty. They include other larger fish species, dolphins, whales, birds and sharks. It’s the presence of these predators that makes the Sardine Run so raw and exciting.
The expert knows to follow the dolphins and gannets. They lead straight to what are know as bait balls. A bait ball is formed when the panicky sardines go into a defensive formation, swimming closely to one another chasing each other’s tails. It’s a strength in numbers tactic. Once a bait ball is found, divers can enter the water either on SCUBA or snorkel and dive below the surface to watch as nature takes its course. Bait balls are repeatedly attacked by predators looking for an easy meal. For the more cautious, the feeding frenzy is equally as impressive from the safety of the surface.
Common shark species include the bronze whaler, the dusky and the oceanic blacktip. Occasionally divers will see hammerheads or great whites. But these are rare and with the abundance of food on offer, they tend not to pay the humans any mind. Orcas, bottlenose dolphins and Cape Fur Seals have also been known to plunder the fish. Best of all, the Run coincides with the annual migration of the humpback whale and onlookers might be spoiled by the sight of a breach or two.
While there has never been a casualty, one should remember that they’re diving among predators and climbing into the water effectively means you’re climbing down the food chain. Injuries and accidents do happen and tourists should be cautious, follow their guides’ instructions intently and be responsible about their actions. Just do that, and you should be reasonably safe (as reasonable as it is to assume when surrounded by millions of hungry predators) and get the opportunity to enjoy nature at its most powerful.