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South Africa

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Text: Dylan Kotze. Pictures: Jean Treston. Article from the May 2012 issue of Getaway Magazine.

The sardine run is much more than a mass migration of fish up South Africa’s east coast. It attracts astonishing concentrations of marine mammals and birds that converge to intercept them. Dylan Kotze dived in to witness this remarkable struggle.

The sardine run is much more than a mass migration of fish up South Africa's east coast. It attracts astonishing concentrations of marine mammals and birds that converge to intercept them.

It was an icy dawn and a layer of mist covered the mighty Umzimvubu River in Port St Johns. The constant rumble of waves pierced through the morning stillness as we loaded our kit onto the boat. We had to conquer the surf to get out to sea. Skipper Steve Benjamin gently nudged the boat off the river bank and squeezed into the queue, waiting for his turn to tackle the surf zone. ‘Right guys, lifejackets on, feet in the straps and hold on tight,’ he instructed, sporting his characteristic grin. As he turned around, though, his demeanour changed. It was business time. He surveyed the sizeable waves and a final rise onto his toes confirmed we were in the clear. Down went the throttle. We punched over some whitewash – our wetsuits getting soaked by the unpleasantly chilly water – and weaved our way out of the river mouth to the open ocean. ‘Welcome to the sardine run,’ Steve said, the grin returning to his face.

Common dolphins playfully ride the bow wave ahead of the boat. Recent rain had resulted in extensive river run-off, making the visibility in the water near the mouth terrible. ‘There’s not much point in hanging around here,’ Steve said as we started to meander down the coast, vigilantly on the lookout for signs of activity.

As an ichthyologist (one who studies fish) and seasoned sardine runner, Steve’s passion and understanding of all things salty is overwhelming. He’d been diligently following the sardine’s movements by studying the latest satellite forecasts on his iPhone.

Sardine Run May to July‘Check this out,’ he said, pointing to a graph showing South Africa’s oceanic temperatures. ‘Sardines thrive in plankton-rich water between 14 and 20 degrees Celsius – usually over here off the eastern Agulhas banks – but around May to July each year, a sliver of cold water penetrates northward between the coast and the warmer Mozambique current.’ A band of blue indicated this on the graph. ‘This expands their natural habitat and countless billions of sardines travel in this coldwater current, as far as the KwaZulu-Natal coast.’

A recent scientific publication suggests the sardine run is a spawning migration, facilitated by the prevailing winter weather conditions. An army of marine predators instinctively follows suit to gorge themselves in this short-lived time of plentiful food. The Wild Coast usually offers the best opportunity to catch a glimpse of this treacherous trip because the continental shelf drops off quickly, bringing the sardines closer inshore. ‘Poor sards – they’re on death row,’ quipped Steve.

Cape gannets can dive over 10 metres deep to snatch their preySpotting a flock of bright-eyed Cape gannets hovering in the distance, Steve picked up the pace. ‘These birds have flown more than 500 kilometres from Bird Island near Port Elizabeth and are here for one reason only: to feast. They’re a telltale sign of any action in the water, so let’s stick with them.’

As we approached and the squawks of these seabirds grew louder, dolphins popped up next to the boat and rode the bow wave. Just as the gannets had, an estimated 20000 long-beaked common dolphins had travelled to these waters from their southerly offshore hunting grounds and were almost ever-present along the entire coast. Capitalising on their inquisitive and playful moods, we slipped into the water with snorkelling gear. Peering into the depths with shards of sunlight piercing below the surface, we heard their squeaks, clicks and whistles long before we could see them. Out of the greenish water, pods of up to 20 whizzed cautiously close and swam in circles around us. Punctuated by moments of silence, the exhilaration would then happen all over again … and again … and again.

A Bryde's whale rises from the depths to feed on sardinesBack on the boat we sat with contented elation and refuelled with snacks from the Fat Gannet, the appropriately named cooler box. With the engines off, we drifted lazily, listening to the constant slop of water against the hull. That was until someone shouted ‘turtle’ or ‘sailfish’, pushing the rest of us into another whirl of excitement as we watched from the boat. Humpback whales were also on their annual migration north to mate and calve. They launched their 40-tonne bodies – equal to the weight of about 500 people – out of the water and came down with thunderous splashes. These shows of sensational aerial acrobatics seemed to happen in slow motion.

Cape gannets bombard sardinesIn contrast, gannets took to the skies and turned into fighter-plane mode in a flash. After a brief pause to line up their targets from up to 30 metres high they descended, achieving speeds of about 100 kilometres an hour, tucking in their angular wings as they hit the water. They’re highly adapted for this method of attack with air sacs under their skins to cushion the impact and binocular vision allowing them to judge distance accurately.

‘Game on. It looks like the sards are here,’ hailed Steve, firing up the engines. Here, there and everywhere the birds hurtled out of the sky and descended at once. In unison, we scrambled for our snorkel and camera gear as Steve manoeuvred the boat closer.

He slid in first to do a quick recce. ‘The visibility isn’t great, but it’s decent enough. Come fast and follow my lead,’ he said. About four or five metres below the surface, large groups of small, silvery fish darted around trying to defend themselves against a 360-degree onslaught, In a hopeful attempt to confuse their attackers, they shoaled together forming tightly-knit groups, known as baitballs.

 A diver's stream of bubbles splits the circling baitballUsing their sonar and intelligence, dolphins methodically slashed into these baitballs. One would carve smaller bait-balls off the main body of fish, making it easier for another to attack and pick an individual fish with lethal accuracy and extraordinary skill. In all the chaos, gannets continued their aerial assault, unperturbed by our presence. If a fish wasn’t caught on entry, they persisted to depths far below my limit, using their wings and feet to swim underwater. After 20 seconds or so, they’d glide back to the surface, using the buoyancy of their feathers.

Most baitballs were a mixture of sardines and redeye round herring (a species similar in appearance to the sardine, but lacking the distinctive spots on its sides). Redeyes tend to move faster through the water and it took great effort to keep up with them. Scuba equipment would be too cumbersome, so we relied on snorkels.

A bronze whaler shark takes advantage of the rich pickingsWhen a baitball disappeared from view, there was only a short time to catch our breath before Steve had located another. It was during one of these intervals I looked down to see a copper shark rising swiftly from the deep and heading straight toward me. It got so close I even gave a kick, but it veered off at the last second, leaving me with a racing heart. I had turned from front-row spectator to on-stage actor in this spectacular story. It’s as close to a wildlife kill I’d ever been and probably as close as I’d ever want to get.

Along with braving the big surf launches and enduring full days of notoriously rough seas in a small boat without shade, I managed to catch a fever as well – sardine-run fever. As with many others I’d met around the bar, swapping sardine-run experiences (one American chap rambled on about how this was his 10th season returning without fail), I now suffer from an urge to follow these small silvery fish each year.

Steve prepares the boat before heading out to seaIt’s always a gamble though, as weather conditions can be highly unpredictable and in some years the sardines pass by either too deep or too far offshore for observers to notice.

Nevertheless, such a concentrated abundance of marine life and activity, coupled with an exquisite setting, is reason enough to be part of this oceanic tale.

Perhaps next year I’ll see a static baitball in clear blue water.

Things to do if the weather turns bad

The views as you descend towards The Gap are impressiveIt’s not called the Wild Coast for nothing. If there are rough weather days and you can’t make it out to sea, Port St Johns and its surrounds offers some special sightseeing as well. Just out of town is a place called The Gap, where a section of the cliff has fallen into the sea but still remains connected to the mainland. After a steep descent using a ladder and a metal cable to lower yourself, there’s a blowhole in the rocks that sends spray towering into the skies with an outrageous force after a swell passes.

There are also numerous waterfalls to explore. Magwa Falls is a spectacle with its waters plummeting almost 150 metres into the gorge below. Further north, near Mkambati Nature Reserve, Waterfall Bluff cascades 60 metres into the Indian Ocean. Frazer Falls and Angel Falls are also well worth a visit.

Venture into the forests at Silaka Nature Reserve, which offers hiking trails and exceptional birding opportunities.

Almost every evening, we headed to nearby Port St Johns Airport (er, runway) to get some views of the area from the hilltop and catch the last glimpses of the setting sun, making sure we rehydrated after the day’s labours.

Follow all the action of the 2012 sardine run with Steve’s blow-by-blow account on Twitter @animalocean.

Travel planner

Getting there

From Durban, take the N2 south and merge onto the R61 which passes Port St Johns, about 350 km from Durban.

Who to contact

The ever-optimistic Steve Benjamin sports his characteristic grin after a fantastic dolphin encounterGetaway experienced the 2011 sardine run with Animal Ocean, which will be offering trips from 5 June to 20 July 2012. Steve Benjamin, cell 079-488-5053, email.

Apex Shark Expeditions will run trips from East London between 26 May and 2 June 2012. Chris Fallows, tel 021-786-5717, email.

African Ocean Charters offers day trips between 15 June and 31 July. Ant Diplock, cell 072-501-8302.

What we drove

What we drove - 4-door VW Polo 1,4The four-door Volkswagen Polo 1,4 Trendline handled the windy Eastern Cape roads with ease in both its acceleration and braking (you never know when a cow is lurking on the road around the corner). It comes with air-con and electric windows and had ample space for my diving kit.

Hannes Oosthuizen, editor of CAR magazine, sums it up perfectly: ‘It’s very comfortable, spacious and economical.’

More info on the town of Port Elizabeth More info on the Sunshine Coast area


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