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Sardine Run – “The Greatest Shoal on Earth”

South Africa’s annual Sardine Run is a migration bigger than any other on earth.

Is there any greater natural spectacle than the annual migration of thousands of wild animals across the great plains of the Masai Mara in central East Africa? Could there be a bigger congregation of prey and predator anywhere on earth? As a matter of fact, there could…

Every year, from the middle of June through to late July, a spectacle larger than anything else on the planet, takes place off the South East coast of Africa, from the Transkei coast up to the shores of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa. The Natal Sardine Run is now legendary, not only because of the sheer volumes of the shiny little fish, but also due to the attendant escort of hungry predators.

Sardinops sagaxthrive all year round off the southern Cape coast of South Africa, mostly around the banks off Cape Agulhas. Once a year however, the warm Benguerra current that flows naturally South from the equator, moves slightly off-shore, allowing a cold counter current to be squeezed up into the void. With it flows an incredible food chain made up of microscopic plankton and millions of sardines, which follow their natural food source along this ever-narrowing band of water. In their wake come the predators, including many sharks and other game fish, shooting into these massive shoals, like torpedoes with teeth.

From above drop the birds, thousands of wheeling and squawking warriors diving into the sardines like feathered Kamikaze pilots.

From below come the dolphins – the fast and agile Common Dolphins (Delphinus delphis) supported by their slower and bigger cousins, the Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncates), squeaking and launching into the air as they communicate with each other, herding the sardine shoals into a double-thick Sardine Shake, known as bait balls..

Then come the Sharks – Copper Sharks (Carcharhinus brachyurus), Ragged Tooth Sharks (Carcharias Taurus), Tiger Sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) and of course the Great White (Carcharodon carcharius), shovelling down dozens of shiny 15 centimetre sardines with every gulp.

On the fringes of this incredible activity are the majestic whales, the Humpback, Minke, Bryde’s, Southern Right and, the most beautiful of them all, the Killer Whale.

The last component of this frenzied food chain is, of course, human beings: crazed fisherman punch their small ski-boats through the surf, letting their nets flow out around the sardines. Then they drive their boats back up the beach, scattering bystanders as eager helpers haul in the nets and scoop slippery loads of fish into any available (and any conceivable) container that comes to hand.

Other fisherman stand for hours on the beaches, and on protruding rocky outcrops, casting into the surf in the hope of catching something bigger than a sardine.

Then there are those of us who just want to watch, many from the safety of the deck of a boat, but ideally, from under the water, in the middle of the action, and our only and most prized catch is the best photograph or video footage of the day. Loading large twin-outboard zodiacs with photo and video equipment, snacks and drinks, snorkelers and scuba divers head out in the early light to spend the day searching the sea for sardines and predator activity. Arial spotters in small micro light aircraft buzz above the waves, keeping constant radio contact with the boat skipper. The action sought is not for the feint-hearted, and the days can be long, hard and hot. Seas can be smooth or rough, and the action is never to be guaranteed, but when we find it, our blood turns to pure 100% proof adrenalin.

The tell-tale signs are there, thin oil slicks on the surface reveal where the sardines have been. The search and the wait begin as hundreds of sea birds float on the water surface, waiting for the underwater action to begin. Then just as we’re about to give up and move to another spot, the birds lift off en masse as their own spotters call them into action. We sit and gaze in awe as hundreds of birds take off into the breeze. Cameras roll! Food is coming!

Dolphins have found the Sardines swimming in deep water, and have shepherded them towards the surface. The birds drop from the sky, dozens at a time, dive-bombing into the ocean to spear the small fish with their sharp beaks. The ocean surface erupts as hundreds of dolphins let rip into the sardines, gulping down the flashing morsels as the herd and then scythe through the shoal. How many dolphins? More than we can count.

Then out of the middle of the action comes a Bryde’s Whale, and as it breaches the surface, sardines cascade out of its gigantic mouth. To add to this feeding frenzy, a Copper Shark seems to use the back of the whale as a ski-ramp, as it leaps clear of the water and dives back into the shoal.

As the skipper guns his twin motors, divers and snorkelers prepare their dive gear and underwater cameras. At the skipper’s command, they fall overboard into the middle of the action. The Sardine Shoal is so thick, it blocks out the light. Millions of tiny fish swim for their lives, trying to escape from whichever predator is after them. As we are enveloped by the swarm, all we can here are the chattering of dolphins and the deep groans of whales as they co-ordinate the hunt. Bigger shapes move through the shoal – sharks – but they are totally focussed on the sardines and don’t even bother us.

This is a mind rush of note. No late night disco pill could ever offer the same effect. Then as the action passes, we are back onto the boat and heading off to the front of the action for another adrenalin rush.

As we drive, the skipper shouts and turns the boat at high speed. He has spotted a bait ball – a small pocket of sardines that has been moved off the main shoal. We dive into the water as the boat stops. Before us and only a few meters below the surface, a spherical mass of sardines is surrounded and herded by vigilant dolphins, as they take turns to hit the ball. Their efforts to contain the revolving ball are made more difficult as the less courteous predators, sharks and seals, jump the queue and help themselves. Within minutes, the bait ball has been eaten. We surface, climb aboard our waiting boat, and scream off to find more action, as we chatter excitedly about what we have just witnessed.

The suggested tour below is prepared to include all transfers as shown, but can also be tailored-made to include internal flights to a closer airport, and road transfers.

We have outlined a typical tour option for the dates of Mid-June to late-July, as these dates cover the most applicable times of the year for the movement of the Sardines and their Predators, up the coast of the Transkei.

 

Day 1: Meet & greet at Durban International Airport (King Shaka International) and transfer to a nearby hotel for overnight B&B

 

Day 2: After breakfast, transfer to Port St. Johns in the Transkei (6 – 7 hours) for a 7 night, 6 water day Sardine Run experience, with your base at the Port St. Johns River Lodge (or similar), dinner, bed & breakfast.

 

Day 2 – 9: 7 nights, 6 days of water action. Every day you get up for an early breakfast, pull on your wetsuit, grab your snorkelling/scuba gear and cameras/videos, with and without underwater housings, and take a gentle stroll down the grass lawn and step onto your zodiac/rubber duck and head out through the river mouth to the open ocean. Lunch boxes and refreshments are provided on the boat on the water days.

 

Day 9: After an early breakfast, transfer back to the Durban International Airport in time for your return or connecting flight.

We then suggest and will happily handle a number of fantastic add-on options, as follows:

-          Add-on Option # 1:

-          Day 9: After an early breakfast, transfer back up to Umkomaas, check in at the Blue Ocean Dive Resort (or similar), overnight

-          Day 9 – 12: 3 nights’ accommodation, Bed &Breakfast, 2 days of 2 dives a day, 1 of the dives a fantastic baited shark dive

-          Day 12: After breakfast, return transfer to the Durban International Airport

This is a great option to dive with the residing Sand Tiger (Raggie) sharks, and the Black Tips and passing Tiger sharks on a baited dive.

 

-          Add-on Option # 2:

-          Day 9: After an early breakfast, transfer back up to Umkomaas, check in at the Blue Ocean Dive Resort (or similar), overnight

-          Day 9 – 12: 3 nights’ accommodation, Bed &Breakfast, 2 days of 2 dives a day, 1 of the dives a fantastic baited shark dive

-          Day 12 -15: After breakfast, transfer to the Hluhluwe area and check in to your game reserve lodge for 3 nights, DB&B, including 2 x guided morning game drives to the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Big 5 Game Reserve

-          Day 15: After breakfast, return transfer to the Durban International Airport

-          This is a great option to dive with the residing Sand Tiger (Raggie) sharks, and the Black Tips and passing Tiger sharks on a baited dive, and then experience Big 5 game viewing at a time of the year that the bush is dry, and the animal viewing is concentrated around water holes.

 

-          Add-on Option # 3:

-          Day 9: After an early breakfast, transfer back to the Durban International Airport in time for your connecting flight to Cape Town.

-          Day 9 – 13: 4 nights’ accommodation, Bed &Breakfast, at the fantastic Quayside Hotel in Simonstown, overlooking the Naval Base and Yacht club.

-          Day 10: After an early breakfast, walk down the jetty and board the spacious Apex Predators boat, for an exciting day of surface viewing and cage diving with the Great White Sharks of Seal Island.

-          Day 11: After breakfast, a day at leisure to explore the Cape Town area, or book an additional Great White Shark tour

-          Day 12: After breakfast, transfer to the majestic Winelands to sample some of the World’s best wine and even place an order and arrange shipping.

-          Day 13: After breakfast, return transfer to the Durban International Airport

This is a great option to view one of the world’s apex predators in its natural environment, with breaching a distinct possibility, and of course explore Cape Town and surrounds, and everything that if famously on offer.

A typical tour package quote will include:

-       All transfers to suit the programme, accommodation on a per person sharing twin basis, meals as above, dives on normal air as above, cylinders and weights, and Big 5 game Safari tours as above.

-       The tour package will also include a driver/guide if requested.

A tour package will exclude:

-       International and internal flights, possible visas for entry into South Africa, additional tours, extra dives & tours, personal diving equipment, Nitrox fills, meals and drinks not mentioned, items of a personal nature.

 

Please note that for all tours and packages quoted and shown, individual flight schedules might lead to incurred extra costs for additional overnight stops and private transfers. Please note that should the accommodation options shown above not be available at the time of booking, we reserve the right to propose alternative and similar accommodation options, which might incur some additional costs. Single supplements apply.