South Africa's Sardine Run: The Greatest Shoal On Earth
South Africa’s annual Sardine Run, the biggest natural animal event on the planet, is becoming increasingly hard to pinpoint, perhaps because of climate change; but one photographer and his crew refuse to give up the chase until they’ve got their gannet — and so much more.
Gannets dive for sardines.
THE DAY STARTED WITH A POD OF SURFING DOLPHINS, followed by two humpback whales breaching side by side. We were mesmerized, but nothing could compare to what would come next. After 20 days on expedition, towing our boat 1,500 miles, we were so focused on the whales that it took us a while to look in the opposite direction. A gigantic cloud of fast-moving gannets was descending at high speed and diving to depths: The Sardine Run was happening, the biggest natural event on Earth, and the only animal event that can be seen from space.
My adventure had begun months before I boarded a flight to South Africa, when Jean Pierre Botha and I conceived a unique way to dive the Sardine Run. JP and I have dived with Nile crocodiles and great whites, so I invited him to become expedition leader for our “mobile operation.” Our vehicle would tow a boat and our tanks, generators and compressors, following a plane that would feed us daily reports of all shoreline activity for South Africa’s east coast.
Our journey began in Gansbaai, on South Africa’s southern tip; from there we drove a day east to Port Elizabeth. Our small plane reported no sardine activity but many “superpods” of dolphins by the hundreds. We decided to move north to East London, where I had had an incredible Sardine Run experience in 2009. East London was a promising spot, but the plane wasn’t giving us good reports. Launching the boat without that intelligence could be a waste of precious time: Packing and unpacking required a huge effort, and could make it hard to respond quickly to any better reports from the plane. We decided to stay a while at East London to wait and see.
Local bottlenose dolphins are known to love surfing big waves.
Three days passed and my hopes were sinking. Over the past 10 years, the Sardine Run has become much harder to find; some blame climate change, others cite overfishing of sardines. It’s hard to be certain why, but for sure the Sardine Run has become more elusive. But what is the Sardine Run? On South Africa’s east coast, two major currents compete: the Benguela, a warm current coming from the northern Indian Ocean, and the Agulhas, a cold current coming from the south. The more it moves north, the weaker the Agulhas becomes, as the warm Benguela traps cold water in a tiny line close to shore.
Yearly, sardines living at the Agulhas Banks start a migration north to reproduce. Sardines prefer cold water; once they reach an area where warm currents are stronger, they get trapped in the smaller portion of cold water that persists — millions and millions of sardines in a small, shallow area, restricted by temperature. That’s when the feast starts, and all predators aggregate to feed. The Sardine Run is so old that all local predators rule their migration and reproduction by it. Birds, sharks, dolphins, whales — they know the time of year to look for sardines.
Fully aware of these wonders, I was stuck in East London, hoping for any word, any small feeding activity, but so far the only thing the plane reported was the huge pods of dolphins. Finally, a good report came from a very remote place called Mdumbi, a small village in the Transkei; our plane had seen some feeding action nearby. Time to hit the road! We were concerned that our route to Mdumbi is in fact an off-road challenge, and our vehicle could be in trouble towing a heavy boat through mud hills — we were all a bit nervous.
The sun sets over Mdumbi village, in South Africa’s eastern Transkei region.
We left East London with the first rays of the sun. The first half of the trip was quite nice, with all the beautiful landscapes that South Africa has to offer. But when we reached the off-road section, our vehicle skidded and struggled to climb the hills, even though it was a four-wheel-drive truck.
All concerns evaporated when we finally got to Mdumbi: Even from a distance, I could see the tiny splash of a humpback whale breaching — and we hadn’t even parked!
I talked to a local fisherman about the action the day before that our plane had spotted. The fisherman said there were sharks everywhere, a big frenzy. JP reported that there was no place to stay and we would probably need to camp nearby. We had everything with us — generator, compressor, butane gas, stove — but after a long journey and knowing we would be here a while, I was hoping for more permanent headquarters.
Luck was on our side — we found a nice house for rent that became our Sardine Run command post. Then it was time to explore and organize the logistics needed to launch the boat the next morning. We went to examine the Mdumbi “jetty” and found a rock where local people launch small boats — our car would soon be in the water if we tried to launch there. JP found a farm tractor available for rent; we’d use the tractor to launch and pick us up when we got back.
On the first day, early in the morning, I couldn’t help myself, so high was my excitement to finally put the boat in the sea. Tanks filled, dive gear ready — we were all set to go!
The first hour on the water showed us how wonderful this place was, surrounded by mingled humpback and southern right whales, common dolphins by the hundreds, and a very nice pod of local bottlenose dolphins famous for their surfing.
Diving gannets are a clue.
Every day was as wonderful as the first — no doubt we were at one of the wildest places on Earth — but something was wrong. After all the excitement about whales and dolphins, I was missing what I came for: the Sardine Run. We had seen several groups of gannets — birds that are the most important signal for Sardine Run action — but to be sure of a baitball, we needed to find a big group working hard at a specific target. Our main job was to patrol these groups of gannets with the binoculars and, of course, the plane.
We had been already a full week at Mdumbi, and while we were happy to be in such a beautiful wilderness, deep in my heart I was feeling a mix of frustration and fear that we would not find the Sardine Run.
Reports from our plane were discouraging. No action at all from the entire coast. Ours was a big plane that could fly up to five hours, covering the entire east coast in one day, but what the pilot was reporting we could see with our own eyes: many gannets, but scattered. Add to that, the visibility was miserable.
A small spotter plane.
The water was too warm — green and quiet — but we tried to keep up spirits and the right attitude, putting ourselves in the water every day from sunrise to sunset, trying to be available for any opportunity. I felt something deep in my mind telling me: We need the winds of change.
Visibility was clearly improving; with no gannets around, we decided to explore the reefs along the coast, since we were diving places no one had ever been before. I felt fortunate to see the pristine environments around Mdumbi, where more than five lobsters could be seen in each hole, hundreds and hundreds of lobsters, schools of fish, and a unique mix of fauna from temperate to tropical — amazing!
A weather forecast told us a cold front was coming, so we put in early one morning. Just before noon, we caught the southwest wind blowing against us; it was time to get back home. Conditions were miserable, with rough seas bouncing us higher than we wished in our small rubber boat. Reaching the jetty that day was like winning the lottery, and nothing was more welcome than a cup of coffee at headquarters while we watched the storm come through.
Because of the weather, we had no reports from the plane. My crew was frustrated, but something was telling me that this was the wind that would change our luck.
Our headquarters was surrounded by a pasture. I was still awake around 10 p.m. when I saw a big fire not far from us, probably caused by the thunderstorm. I checked the wind direction and it was not good — the fire was coming straight at us. I woke JP, asking, “Hey, JP, is there any river between us and the pasture?”
He gave me a sleepy answer: “Yes, there’s a river down south; it will stop the fire from reaching us.” Wait a minute, I thought, the fire is coming from the north…. Oh, my God! I woke the crew and began packing passports and the most expensive gear, and very quickly we were ready to run. The fire ultimately came within 15 feet of the house before dying right in front of our eyes.
A brushfire at headquarters.
After the storm, dangerous seas and fire, we were understandably tired. But the shining sun and blue water, clearly visible from the house, filled our small breakfast with joy and hope. As soon as we reached the water, our boat was surrounded by surfing dolphins — an amazing sight! To see these bottlenose dolphins perform acrobatic moves and surf big waves was refreshing.
It didn’t take long for other characters to steal the scene — two humpback whales breaching side by side, again and again. We sped toward the whales because I wanted that photo. We were so enthralled that it took us some seconds to notice what was happening in the distance, until someone shouted: “GANNETS!” After all that effort, finally we could see a massive cloud of gannets working on a baitball; my heart was beating so hard that probably everybody on the boat could hear it.
There are two kinds of baitballs: static and mobile. The static baitballs are the best to work with because we can spend some time diving with it. The mobile ones move fast — the only way to work with this is on snorkel, speeding to the front of the ball and dropping the divers, then picking them up and running again to the head of the action. This can be tiring, and a very limited scenario for documenting the Sardine Run.
We didn’t know what type of baitball we had — or even if it was sardines — so I jumped in first with snorkel gear for a quick look. Once in the water, I needed to swim fast toward my target: the gigantic cloud of gannets.
Dolphins in a baitball
I could hear dolphins and could see many fish scales floating at midwater — a very good sign. It didn’t take long for me to see what I wanted so badly: a magnificent baitball, with dolphins, sharks and gannets. After five minutes it was still there, so I signaled the boat to bring my scuba gear.
Once I got my gear on, I was in heaven — dolphins all around and gannets entering the water like missiles, their impact on the surface like a small bomb — boom! boom! I could feel it in my chest.
After spending an entire tank on that ball, I went back to the boat. JP asked if I wanted to try other baitballs. After hours underwater, I was out of touch with the situation at the surface; it took me a while to see that clouds of gannets were spread all over.
We targeted the biggest — huge dusky sharks mounting a massive attack on an even bigger baitball, and again I called for my scuba gear.
Author Daniel Botelho's shots are the first to document the hunting behavior of a blue marlin at Sardine Run.
Suddenly, from the limits of our visibility, I saw something big coming. I could tell it was a beaked fish — sailfish, maybe. But when it came closer, it was evident by the dorsal fin that it was a marlin — mind-blowing!
The marlin came close and I pretended I was dead, not even making eye contact. I kept my face behind my camera, waiting to get the fish’s confidence. After two approaches, the marlin — 13 feet long at least — started to attack the ball. Later, three different researchers identified it as a blue marlin, the first image of a blue marlin displaying this hunting behavior.
The marlin spent almost five magical minutes with me when suddenly something scared the fish away. Another animal was hitting the ball so fast that at first I couldn’t tell what it was. I zoomed in on my LCD and saw a big yellowfin tuna.
I was in the middle of the action when I realized my tank was nearly empty and we were losing daylight; it was time to get back to the boat. Once I reached my crew, I said, “Be careful with this camera; I have a marlin inside.”
NEED TO KNOW
WHEN TO GO: The Sardine Run can happen from May to September, but the best window is June to late July, the peak of winter in the Southern Hemisphere and the best time for strong storms pushing cold, sardine-laden water up from the south.
DIVE CONDITIONS: Water temperatures may vary from 53 to 65 degrees F; I would suggest a 7 mm suit or possibly a semidry suit, which is what I used.
TRAVELERS TIP: South Africa has multiple unusual power-outlet socket styles, so make sure to pack an adapter or buy one at the airport.
OPERATOR: Many dive operators work with at least an ultralight aircraft for aerial reports; give preference to companies that do because this can be crucial for finding the action. There are many good places to experience the Sardine Run, from Port Elizabeth to Port Saint Johns. Blue Africa Tours has fully supported Sardine Run operations in Mdumbi.
PRICE TAG: Blue Africa’s 2017 expeditions start at $1,614 for a six-day, seven-night package that includes meals, accommodations, diving and land transfers.
Towing the boat to Mdumbi.
WHAT IT TAKES
The Sardine Run is a true ocean safari. The run itself is very hard to pinpoint because it doesn’t happen on a daily basis. Good “frustration management” and a positive attitude are needed (opportunities to swim with whales, sharks and dolphins at close range make that easier). The Sardine Run requires excellent dive skills because all action happens in open water; it’s vital to have proper buoyancy control.
4 TIPS FOR SHOOTING THE SARDINE RUN
1) Sardine Run animals move really fast, so keep in mind that high shutter speeds are required; never play with less than 1/250.
2) You want to be able to document the entire environment, so a proper depth of field is recommended; keep the aperture size range from f/9 to f/12.
3) With so many particles and fish scales in the water, be very careful with strobe positioning.
4) Photographers always want to be as close as possible to the action, but keeping a minimum distance from the baitball will ensure longer interactions. Finding the right place to hover during the feast is crucial to keeping the party going.
For this assignment, Daniel Botelho used a Nikon D4S and Nikkor 16mm FX fish-eye lens inside Subal’s Daniel Botelho Signature Series housing and Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes.