South Africa Sardine Run

Report and Photos by Ken Knezick

Copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams -- South Africa Sardine Run

Report and Photos Copyright © Ken Knezick, Island Dreams -- All Rights Reserved



Divemaster Clive, Sardine Run 2009 - photo by Ken Knezick, Island Dreams The Challenge - From time to time, there can be great value in challenging yourself. Of course, any such challenge should offer potential reward at least equal to the investment of time and resources involved. Such is the nature of a journey to dive and snorkel South Africa's famous Sardine Run. Said to be our planet's largest bio-mass migration, the Sardine Run is an annual phenomenon in which millions of schooling sardines make their way around Cape Agulhas at the southern most point of Africa riding the prevailing current into the Indian Ocean and north up South Africa's East Coast. Following and feeding upon rich current-born plankton, these sardines in turn become prey to an array of the ocean's most formidable predators - dolphin, sharks and whales, all in great numbers, with huge flocks of voracious birds attacking from above. It requires considerable effort and expense to place yourself in the midst of this primal natural conflict. If you love the ocean and are heartened by encounters with truly prolific marine life, then the challenge of being witness to the Sardine Run, and immersing yourself in it, provides an immense and uniquely satisfying reward.

SEAL Expeditions (Sea-Air-Land) - An event and adventure of this complexity requires a very capable, responsive, and responsible expedition operator. These attributes are clearly to be found in Nic de Gersigny's SEAL. A native South African, Nic has been staging Sardine Run expeditions since 2003. To do so, he has assembled a very impressive team of boat captains and dive guides; all strong, hard-working, and extremely affable men and women. The carefully-equipped SEAL boats are operated to strict safety standards and procedures. Multiple channels of communication are maintained for logistics and in the event of emergency. Other SEAL gear includes Land Rovers, tanks and compressor, trailers, a Ford diesel tractor for pulling boats out of the surf, and the services of an ultra-light aircraft pilot who flies over the ocean to spot the Sardine Run action. Any time you venture out on the ocean you are assuming some risk. Unless you own your own boat, you are placing your safety in the hands of a Captain, crew and their equipment. From all I've seen, Nic de Gersigny and his SEAL team clearly have the necessary experience, as well as the right attitude, and are well worthy of your confidence.

Mboyti Lodge, South Africa - Copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams Mboyti River Lodge - Located on the coast, approximately 300 miles south of Durban, Mboyti River Lodge was our base of operations. It is not a luxury hotel, but afforded comfortable, pleasant accommodations. Rooms offer a choice of one queen or two twin beds. Each has a desk and chair, a small balcony, and a good bathroom with plenty of hot water. The rooms are not heated, so bring something warm to sleep in. Meals are included in the program, and the spacious dining room provides good food with a daily fixed menu. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style, with dinner served to your table. Healthy fare included plenty of fresh salads and vegetables, plus meats and pastas, soups, freshly baked breads and homemade desserts. There is also a large bar and a game room with ping-pong and snooker tables. The staff is friendly and helpful.

Note: During my visit a number of guests experienced at least a day of stomach discomfort and even diarrhea. I'm not sure if this is a common tourist malady at Mboyti, or South Africa for that matter. I did take the matter up with the Lodge's manager and hope that they will be doing all they can to avoid similar problems in the future. As with all foreign travel, you should always carry Lomotil and a broad-spectrum oral antibiotic such as Cipro in your personal kit.

Surf Launch - A unique aspect of this diving experience is the need to launch the dive boats from the beach each morning. SEAL uses excellent rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) specific to this purpose. Each boat carries up to eight divers, plus a Captain and a Divemaster. Launching and later returning to shore through lively surf requires experience, skill, and split-second timing. Our impressive SEAL crew was more than up to the task, and our launches were quite exhilarating experiences. At the end of the day the Captain again times the set of waves and then speeds in on the crest of a wave right back up onto the sand, where the tractor is waiting to quickly haul the boat out of the surf zone and up the beach to be re-trailered.

South Africa Sardine Run - Copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams

Check-Out Dive - Once past the breakers, we waited on station for the next boat to make it safely out. Then on our first dive day we headed out to deeper water for a mandatory check-out dive. On back-rolling into the sea, we were instantly surrounded by curious sharks; Copper Sharks (Bronze Whalers) came in quite close to have a look at us. Once our attentive dive guide, Clive, was confident that we were properly weighted and could both sink and swim it was back aboard the RIB to begin the search for Sardine Run action.

South Africa Sardine Run - Copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams

Hiking to Shark Point, South Africa - Copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams Other Activities - On my trip we were immensely fortunate, getting more days in the water than any other group that season. The Sardine Run experience is very much weather conditional. If the surf is too high to permit safe boat launches, then you won't be on the water that day. With a window of 7 or 8 days planned on the water, you will be fortunate to get five or six days in the boat. Planning for this, SEAL has a full range of interesting activities available for those times when you are not on the water. These include hiking, horse-back riding, canoeing, an exhilarating flight in the ultra-light, and even the unique opportunity to visit with a local African tribal witch doctor. Of course, you can also just enjoy a well-deserved nap, savor a coffee on the veranda, or make new friends in the Mboyti Lodge bar. Just know that it will take some imaginative dive lies to top this savvy crowd.

Things to Bring - Expect water temperature of 65-70 degrees F., so bring lot's of neoprene, definitely to include a hooded vest and neoprene gloves. Some thin neoprene socks to wear inside your booties will add to your warmth and comfort. You'll be covered in neoprene while on the water, but will want a strong waterproof sun block for your face, a wide-brimmed sun hat and sun glasses, a stocking cap for warmth at early morning launches, and perhaps a baseball cap for general use. A compact point and shoot camera is great for photographing whales, dolphin, turtles and birds that swim beside the boat. Some of my guests had the new Olympus waterproof/shock-proof cameras which were a great choice to use with wet hands and spray from the boat. Bring a small dry bag to take on the boat for your camera, hat, etc. For topside trekking, have a comfortable pair of walking shoes or boots that will get muddy, and a good light to medium-weight rain jacket. If you have the room and want to be the envy of your peers, in addition to sweats and a long-sleeved shirt to sleep in, pack a small electric blanket (and an electrical converter, power at the resort is 220v.) and sleep warm and cozy all night long.

Expectation vs. Reality - You may hit the mother lode and swim with giant bait balls, countless thousands of sardines with multiple pods of dolphin, skittering sharks, and the occasional Bryde's whale crashing through them; and then again you may not. Do not expect your Sardine Run experience to play out like the BBC Wildlife film of the phenomenon, which took three years of shooting to realize. Your photographs and/or video has a very good chance of not being quite as impressive as all that. Also keep in mind that it's not just about the diving and snorkeling. Many of the coolest encounters take place topside and are viewed from the boat. Simply expect to be amazed by the profusion of wildlife that surrounds you every moment you are on the water… and the rest shall follow.

Travel Notes - For this expedition, your air travel must culminate at Durban, South Africa. Due to poor roads south of Port Edward, between Durban and Mbotyi, the transit down the coast to Mboyti Lodge is best accomplished during daylight hours. Thus you are asked to arrive in Durban no later than noon. Better yet, I suggest that you plan to arrive one day early and spend a night in Durban prior to commencement of your SEAL expedition. The chances of you and your luggage all being in the same place and ready to fully enjoy the adventure will be greatly enhanced. Also a suggestion that when you are doing the topside touring, be careful to avoid picking up chiggers and ticks. That means boot, long pants and insect repellent when walking in the bush or tall grass.

South Africa Sardine Run - Copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams

Ken Knezick - Copyright 2009 - All Rights Reserved



For more information about SEAL, and the Sardine Run in South Africa:

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