The sardine run is a phenomenon that occurs when schools of small sardines move along the eastern Cape coastline of South Africa. The timing and quantity of fish that move each year may vary, but there will usually be some shoals of sardines to see from late May on through July.
Whilst the sardines themselves are small fish that only attain 20cm in length, they can be found in very large numbers. This, in turn, attracts predators.
Common dolphins, bottlenosed dolphins, bronze whaler sharks, Bryde’s whales and seals follow the shoals of sardines and prey on them. From the air, flocks of seabirds, the most prominent of which is the Cape gannet, launch spectacular diving attacks on the shoals in conjuction with the dolphins and other marine predators. It is also possible to see albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters, to name just some of the pelagic bird species that benefit from the plentiful supply of food.
This all takes place along a section of the coastline of South Africa known as the Wild Coast. As it’s name implies, the sea here can be rough and unfriendly, but there are an equal number if not more, of calm days which allow for safe boating. As there are no major inlets along the Wild Coast, there are no ports for large boats, so the only way to get a boat into the ocean is to launch it through the surf. We make use of a small but fast and manouevrable inflatable boat withan outboard engine for launching through the surf.
The continental shelf is at it’s narrowest along the Wild Coast, and this brings the warm waters of the Agulhas within sight of the shore at times. Water temperatures can reach above 20 degrees Centigrade but can also plunge to less than 14 degrees Centigrade overnight, depending on wind direction.
Whilst diving amongst the action is possible, there is an equally spectacular view to be had from boats on the surface. All that is needed is good weather without too much wind.
Wavecrest, situated at Nxaxo River mouth, is an ideal base to view the sardine run from, as it has comfortable accommodation in the form of a hotel, as well as great, untouched beaches, forests and estuaries with lots of birds and smaller wildlife to see when the weather may not allow access to the ocean.
This season I got to spend ten odd days at Wavecrest, which is a good base to operate from. We managed to get our boat close to the feeding frenzies on perhaps six occasions, and had some spectacular sightings.
The Cape gannets provide the clues as to where the feeding action is happening, as they start to gather in wheeling, diving flocks above the fish and dolphins. On one particular day when big surf prevented us from launching, we still enjoyed some exciting viewing from shore as a flock of Cape gannets kept diving on sardines that ended up within the surf zone, the gannets risking life and wing in their fearless dives in the breaking waves.
The sardines also seem to attract more bottlenosed dolphins to the area, and on one day we saw more than ten pods of these spectacular cetaceans between sunrise and midday. Some of our best photographic opportunities came about when the dolphins would surf close to shore.
We also had a couple of good humpback whale sightings both from the boat and from shore. Next season I intend spending three weeks at the same place.