Dive From the Field: South Africa's Sardine Run 2017
After the massive success of BBC documentary Oceans, which featured footage of the Sardine Run in South Africa, Port Saint Johns became a hotspot to witness the mass migration of sardines. Divers from all over the world travel to the Wild Coast with the expectation of encountering massive sardine baitballs amid a feeding frenzy of birds, dolphins, sharks, whales, sailfish and more. But in recent years, expectations have been lowered. The huge shoal of sardines, which can be seen from space, has not been observed in a long time, and diving the Sardine Run has become increasingly complicated due to climate change and overfishing. I am on my way to dive my fifth Sardine Run, and even though I have always been lucky enough to get some good action and images, I don’t know what to expect this year. But anything can happen at this beautiful place.
A dolphin feeds on a sardine baitball.
I note the Cape gannet birds are flocking in large numbers, and the visibility looks good for this area. However, the temperature of the water is around 64-68 degrees Fahrenheit — too warm for most sardines. All of the birds are flying in the same direction, so we follow them. The weather is very good today; we are sailing at high-speed on the calm water. After a one-hour ride, we spot a big cloud of birds in the blue sky. The skipper cranks the engine to full power while I put on my weight belt, fins, mask and snorkel. I can feel adrenaline on the boat! I get my camera ready as frantic sounds of gannet birds become louder, their dives from the air seeming to accelerate as they shoot down, piercing the surface of the sea. The baitfish are moving about, so the birds aren’t all diving in the same place — we call this “popcorn action.”
I decide to jump in the water to capture some dolphins or birds diving. I swim as fast as I can, but my first attempt is unsuccessful. A few dolphins rocket under me, so I follow in their direction. When I look on the surface, I see some splashes and decide to swim toward them. Underwater, I can hear the dolphins and see the reflections of the sun shining off small fish. I get closer, and the baitball explodes in front of me when the dolphins launch their attack. For the next 10 minutes, several dolphins hunt the baitball, and one dusky shark circles around me, waiting the best opportunity to chase the fish. Then action slows down and the baitball disappears.
On this day, we have three opportunities to go snorkeling with sardines. There isn’t big action, but the ocean is alive and very promising for the next days.
Want more Sardine Run? Click here to read our feature from the July issue of Scuba Diving.
A spinner shark follows a baitball during the Sardine Run.
Day two on the water looks similar to yesterday: lots of birds, good visibility. A small plane helps us locate the best area with a lot of marine life, and we come across a lot of “popcorn action.” I hope the predators will work together to shape up a baitball. We decide to wait and follow the dolphins, giving them time to corral the fish. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be working. The fish are running in all directions. From the boat, it is hard to locate any baitballs, and we only see dolphins and birds feeding briefly. I still jump in the water to see if I can capture some animals.
It is early morning and the sun is low, but I am surprised by the water conditions: deep blue and clear. I get ready to photograph anything passing around me. I’m trying to follow the action, but it is too hard for a mere human: I feel very small in the big blue, being surrounded by all the agility and power of marine predators.
Everything is quiet around me, so I ask the skipper of the boat to pick me up. Instinctively, I look down to see if there is any life passing around me, and suddenly there’s a commotion. I hear the sounds of dolphins and see a school of fish running in my direction. What a surprise: There are not only dolphins here chasing the sardines, but several sharks are finally here as well! A massive baitball passes just under my fins, and a spinner shark follows just behind, ready to catch its prey.
We continue to snorkel with some small baitballs, getting spurts of action periodically throughout the day. And when the action slows down, we enjoy the opportunity to admire humpback whales breaching during their migration to the warm water of the Indian Ocean.
These are unique moments, and we are well aware of how privileged we are to be in the Wild Coast.
A dolphin swims in South Africa during the Sardine Run.
This morning, the activity of marine predators is very quiet. The gannet birds are sitting on the sea, and a big pod of common dolphins, very compact and calm, is hanging out in the deep. We follow them slowly, keeping an eye on the horizon. It is spectacular to see so many dolphins swimming together.
After a while, a few dolphins deviate from the group. They seem to be agitated on the surface, and together they perform several leaps from the water. By their way of moving through the air, they seem to be hunting, repeating their jumps and bowing to the side. I decide to go in the water to check if there is enough activity to photograph a predation. It’s then that fewer than 30 little sardines come to take refuge next to me. I am not sure if I can even call it a baitball, it’s so small. But one thing is certain: the dolphins are intent on eating every last one of them.
It’s an incredible opportunity to photograph these mammals as they are swimming so close to me, waiting for a sardine to make the fatal mistake of swimming away from my cover. A game of hide and seek is established between the few unfortunate fish and the dolphins — a game in which I play an integral part. As soon as I start to swim back to the boat, the sardines find themselves at the mercy of the dolphins, who immediately seize the opportunity. The hunt is spectacular, and it’s happening just in front of my mask. The dolphins charge in and out of the small school several times before they consume all the fish.
Back on board, it looks like other boats have their own small baitballs to witness, and all of the divers are having fun snorkeling with marine life. The marine activity this year is definitely much better than the last five years. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring.
A Bryde's whale makes an appearance at the Sardine Run.
We start day four early in the morning. The surf break, accompanied by a splendid sunrise in shades of pink, is impressive. After enjoying the dramatic scenery, we run south to clear water. Like the past few days, several baitballs are present — along with many predators.
I submerge myself in the water to admire the dolphins that attack the sardines in waves.
I focus on several massive dusky sharks circling around the fish, but my eyes are distracted by a big shadow. I turn my head and am thrilled to discover a Bryde's whale, which passes right under my fins with its broad tail and small, slender flippers. It is surreal to be in the water with this long and elusive animal!
Unlike humpback whales, this species is not in migration to warmer water. Its purpose during the Sardine Run is only to devour all the fish.
Bryde’s whales are a baleen whales, which have twin blowholes with low splashguards in front. Like other rorqual whales, they have no teeth — instead, they’ve got two rows of baleen plates. The plates act as a filter-feeder system inside the mouths of baleen whales. The baleen system works when a whale opens its mouth underwater, taking in water. The whale then pushes the water out, and fish or plankton are filtered by the baleen and remain as a food source for the whale.
These whales open their mouths wide to lunge at the biggest mass of fish; a photograph of a Bryde's whale during this kind of meal is a “holy grail” shot for all underwater photographers.
The conditions were perfect, and I was at the right place at the right time. It was a moment I had been dreaming of for a long time! The whale checked out the baitball but, unfortunately, did not open its mouth to feed on it… Guess I’ll have come back next year!
Watching an orca surface was a spectacular way to end the trip.
This year, the sardine run is high quality, with excellent conditions and memory cards full of unforgettable moments. Above and below the surface, the show is magic. It truly deserves the title of "greatest show on earth."
Even though visibility is not at its best today, marine life is omnipresent. This can be challenging, so we have to be patient and wait for the best opportunities. On some days, marine activity is very calm, but the ordinary can turn exceptional in the blink of an eye. In the late afternoon, as we head back to the gate of Port Saint Johns, we witness an incredible behavior that I will never forget.
In front of our boat, a bustle in the ocean creates little white foam swells. But we know it’s not a feeding frenzy — so what is it? Suddenly, we see the characteristic fins. They are four in number: three female orcas and one calf.
Their agitation is surprising; they seem to be going in circles at high speed.
An orca surfaces during the Sardine Run.
I am amazed by their attitude when a bottlenose dolphin appears in their game. It does not jump naturally, like we’ve seen all week. It does not hunt. It is being chased.
One of the orcas whips her tail above the surface of the water, delivering a powerful blow and sending the dolphin flying.
The orcas seem to take their time, as if they are playing or educating the calf. The poor dolphin suffers many injuries but manages to escape before our eyes from its incredible predators.
The Sardine Run is a very challenging trip. Overfishing and climate change seems to be making it even more unpredictable year over year. This year’s run is very promising — we haven’t seen as much baitball action in a long time. Even if they are small baitballs, the predators they attract — hunting dolphins and whales — are the highlights of the season. You have to be on the water constantly, waiting and waiting and waiting for action. But sometimes, like it did this year, all that waiting pays off.