Sardine Run Report
by Nic de Gersigny - SEAL


Sardine Run - "The Greatest Shoal on Earth" - The greatest faunal event on the planet plays out on the East Coast of South Africa in the months of May through July. This phenomenon takes on many phases and undergoes many changes as it travels over more than one thousand kilometres (600 miles) of ocean. The only constant is the inexorable path that the sardines follow to the north at this time of year.

Scientific opinion holds that some of the sardines move from their home range off the Agulhas Banks head north. A number of events then converge to assist in this range extension. The first event (and possibly the most important) is the formation of a cold south to north current that develops close inshore at this time of year. If you were a sardine, even slip streaming the leader would be of little value if there were not this counter current. Your other option would be to swim against the strong Agulhas current which flows at nearly 13 km/h (8 mph) to the south. At this speed, the sardines would not be holidaying in Durban in July but would probably find themselves washed up against the rocky shores of Tristan da Cunha.

Seriously though, this quirk of nature not only transports the sardines but also their food source - plankton named kalenoides and the room temperature of their home waters (being approximately 19 - 21 degrees Celsius/ 66 - 70 Fahrenheit). The first cold fronts of the season provide further stimulus for the sardines as they surge north while being carried by the current and pushed by the cold polar winds that move up the coast.Dr. Allan Connell has shown that the sardines' head back south to their home waters around November thus concluding the cycle.

A Bounty Beyond Measure - For the bean counters, there are no accurate figures on what tonnage of sardines comes up the coast although we do know that the beach seine netters of Kwa-Zulu/Natal account for about 700 tons per year. This is a minute percentage of the total sardine population and is no reflection of the actual biomass that enters the coastal waters of Kwa-Zulu/Natal at this time of year - so let's just go with huge and massive in terms of the sardine numbers entering the coastal waters of the Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu/Natal.

How many sardines do you think there are in a shoal that is 15 km (9.5 miles) long, 3.5 km (2.2 miles) wide and nearly 40 metres (130 ft) deep? This is just 1 of 3 shoals within a 70 km (44 mile) stretch of the Transkei and Kwa-Zulu/Natal coast that are this size. In the book of scientific opinion on the sardine run this is about as much as we know - further investigation though will take you into the wide world of anecdotal reports from all and sundry - the only constant being that the sardines will run, and run, and run. These little silver fish form the butter of the sea and the plankton that they feed on the figurative bread.

The bottom line is that its no fun being number two in the food chain. If one adds:

Feeding Frenzy - Thus, to our erstwhile harmonious ultra marathon for sardines, the harmony is shattered and the chaos that ensues is a visual feast of unsurpassed magnitude. The common dolphin forms huge pods of between 3000 - 5000 animals. They cover wide stretches of the ocean in hunting lines that can extend for a kilometre or more. Should one of the sentinels find the sardines, an eruption of the ocean ensues as the entire pod turn on their axis with military precision and work together to herd the sardine shoal to the surface. Pinning the sardines to the surface fulfils two functions; the sardines are effectively "cornered" being unable to fly and the dolphin have ample access to the breathing air on which they depend.

It is here that one of the most amazing spectacles of co-operative feeding behaviour takes place. The dolphin whirl around the baitball that they've worked to the surface. The gannets - one of the many animal species that take their cue from the common dolphin - start raining into the water and snatch whatever comes within the range of their razor sharp beaks. The copper sharks also join the fray, having shadowed the commons for hours at a seemingly impossible pace. These greyhounds of the sea join in with a ferocity and selfishness that perpetuates the ferocious myth of the basic nature of sharks. Seals seemingly take great delight in pirouetting into this baitball and picking off the hapless sardines one at a time. Add to this frenzy, the spectacle of a Bryde's whale as it lunges through the centre of the baitball swallowing all in its path! And yet, no sooner has it begun than it comes to an end. The ocean returns to a calm that eerily makes you think that what you've witnessed is nothing but a fantastic figment of your imagination. The only reminders are a few scales, an oil patch and the odd feather drifting aimlessly on a still ocean.

It doesn't stop here. The surviving sardines run on and on, a massive juggernaut rolling and morphing its way up the coast. Once the holding area of Waterfall Bluff in the Transkei is passed, the sardines move up onto the Port Edward shelf where another amazing phase in this quest of perpetual motion unfolds. The huge shoals of the south give way to smaller shoals. Their numbers winnowed by the constant onslaught of predation day and night. As relentless as the predation may seem, the ability of the sardines to out-produce the appetite of their predators is the key to their survival. The cruel quirk of fate that brings them close to shore does away with the need for the common dolphin to herd them to the surface.

Here, in the shallows, the predators such as the plump bottlenose dolphin, gannets and languid copper sharks do not engage in the desperate and dramatic feeding strategies employed in the deeper waters of the south. By virtue of the shallow water, the sardines are compressed into shoals that are perhaps only a few hundred meters in length, tens of meters wide and fewer deep. The predators feed when they wish as these long, snakelike shoals of sardines wind their way north in a lemming-like fashion. The sardines are often squeezed over the sandbanks in their quest becoming easy prey for the vast number of shore anglers and beach seiners. Once netted the sardines are packed into crates to be sold to the highest bidder. The last frantic and erratic wriggles of the sardines pass unnoticed by the fishermen as the sardines lie squashed on top of each other on the beach - in a medium seven hundred times less dense than the fluid medium that they have just come from, that not only sustained them but gave them form and shape and resistance so as to make their movement fluid and dynamic.

Aquatic Ballet - The sardines are like a troupe of choreographed ballerinas, performing perfect parabolas and circles en masse, yet as one entity in the water. The orchestrated magic of the beautiful doughnuts they form when invaded by a predator and the perfect space accorded any undulation in the seabed is gone - and yet this is what I have seen. Still, the sardines run on and on. Despite the constant attack on their number the sardine shoals move north, perhaps as a remnant of some relic behaviour, or for some other reason that only they know. Some days, they are easily found and the activity as intense as I have described. Other days, for a plethora of reasons not yet fully understood, they seem difficult to track down-if not impossible. I'm sure they are still there and moving north all the time. The constant recruitment from the south sustains this activity for the period and seemingly, almost as soon as it has begun, it's all over. Having witnessed the spectacle of the Sardine Run from the rocky shores of the Transkei to the open beaches of Kwa-Zulu/Natal leaves me with only one goal in mind - next year's run!

I hope you will join me!     Yours in diving,   Nic de Gersigny - SEAL


The Bottom Line - Ken Knezick of Island Dreams writes: If you hit it big, this can be the most exciting diving of your life. The downsides are a long flight, and cold water when you get there. The reward is an opportunity to experience high voltage, large scale marine life encounters unequalled anywhere else in the world. The chance to do some topside touring in South Africa is icing on the cake. If you are interested in experiencing the Sardine Run and South Africa, give Island Dreams a shout. We stand ready to serve you. KDK

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

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