Sardine Run, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
What to see: Massive shoal of sardines and its predators like dolphins, whales, sharks, sea birds, big gamefish and seals on feeding frenzies or not much at all.
The sardine run can’t be observed every year so you have to be lucky. Even if the sardines are around there is no guarantee that much action happens around them. A stable bait ball has to build up to jump in on scuba which probably won’t happen. However, even without seeing the typical bait ball and predator action the trip might be worthwhile. Many dolphins, sharks and whales are in the area this time of the year. It is possible to observe them from the boat or even snorkel with them. Read more about how that all works.
Diving: Mostly watching dolphins, whales and birds from the boat and freediving with dolphins. Scuba diving might be for 15 minutes every few days, if lucky.
Level: Some physical strength and resistance to cold is more important than the certification level. When jumping in a lot of action might happen around the divers or snorklers.
Who should go there: People who are willing to spend hours and hours on a boat everyday in the cold for a chance to jump in with one of the most fascinating and exciting phenomenon underwater.
How to get there: Flight to Durban or Mthatha and transfer to a lodge in Port St Johns or Coffee bay. Alternatively it is possible to transfer down with dive shops from Aliwal Shoal or Protea Banks. The transfer costs are very high and therefore it is recommended to rent a car. In addition there are operators starting from East London or Port Elizabeth (both do have an airport) where the sardines are expected earlier in the season.
Where to stay: Different accommodation options are available. Your tour operator can help you organizing it. Accommodation costs are in the range of USD 30-50.
Where to dive: Book your tour with Offshore Africa, the only operation based in Port St Johns, one of the operators from Aliwal Shoal (Blue Ocean Dive Resort and Aliwal Shoal Scuba) or Protea Banks (Africa Dive Adventures). Apex Shark expeditions organizes trips from East London, Prodive from Port Elizabeth. There is many more operations moving to the area during the sardine run.
Rates: Searching for sardines for around 7 hours including possible freedive or scuba, food and drinks starts at around USD 150 per day. It is possible to book by day with the first 3 operators mentioned above or to book packages which often include some game drives too.
Climate: Temperatures can drop down to below 10°C at night, most houses are not heated so bring warm cloths. During a sunny day it can get to 25°C
Water temperature: 16°C to 21°C, sardines prefer below 20°C
Visibility: 2 to 15 m
Season: May till July. In the south (Port Elizabeth and East London) the best time is usually in May, further north (Coffee Bay and Port St.Johns) most operators offer trips between mid June and mid July. However, there are chances to see the sardines before or after this.
Favorite dive sites: Somewhere along the coast in blue water with a bait ball surrounded by predators
I flew from Johannesburg to Durban and did first dive with Blue Ocean Dive Resort in Aliwal Shoal for a couple of days before they organised my very expensive transfer down to Port St Johns (would have been a better option to rent a car). The drive took almost 5 hours. In Port St Johns I was staying at Spotted Grunter Lodge which is a beautiful lodge located directly at the river. The service could be improved. The accommodation was 650 Rand (USD 45) per night including breakfast that was not ready before leaving at 7 am.
I was „diving“ with Offshore Africa. The operation is based in Port St Johns while everyone else just comes down there for the sardine run. I can highly recommend them. We had very experienced and fun guides as well as an amazing skipper who kept us save during the launges from the river into the open ocean through the surf. The food on the boat was amazing too. I don’t know about the drinks. I refused to drink as, you know, 7 hours in my wetsuit on a boat…