Is to dive the sardine run on top of your bucket list?
A huge school of sardines several kilometers long stretches along the coast, birds are circling and dolphins jumping. You jump in while the dolphins herd the sardines closer together towards the surface forcing them into a bait ball. A wide variety of predators are lurking around getting closer to surround the sardines and then shoot through the ball to catch as many of the little fish as possible. There are sharks and sailfish circling the scene while birds dart down through the surface just before a whale opens its huge mouth and swallows it all.
It is this or similar that we all imagine a typical scene at the sardine run. We have seen it on BBC’s Blue Planet and other TV programs.
That would be the most amazing dive holiday ever! So why doesn’t every single diver go there? Maybe you have heard it is expensive? Maybe you know someone who has been and it did not sound like on TV? That was the reason for me. And in the video below you can see how I experienced the running sardines. They were probably running from us.
Then finally this year I decided to give it a go anyway, just to see how it works, what I will see and to tell you about it. My expectations were not very high after I had spoken to some people that have done it before. I knew what to expect. Many people don’t and are disappointed when finally fulfilling the life-long dream of diving the sardine run.
That’s why I’m writing this article. I still think you should go but do read this piece first.
What is the sardine run
The sardine run is a recurring natural phenomenon along the east coast of South Africa between May and July. Millions of sardines are traveling in shoals several km in length with the cold currents up along the coast.
It is one of the largest migrations of the world with regards to biomass and still it is not fully understood why it is happening.
This massive amount of potential food that is available attracts all kinds of predators such as sharks, dolphins, whales, big game fish, seals and sea birds.
Why is it happening
There are numerous, sometimes even controversial theories that try to explain the why and how of the sardine run.
Scientists recently compared these theories. They came to the conclusion “that the sardine run most likely corresponds to a seasonal (early austral winter) reproductive migration of a genetically distinct subpopulation of sardine that moves along the coast from the eastern Agulhas Bank to the coast of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) as far as Durban and sometimes beyond, in most years if not in every year.”
The reason the sardines are traveling so close to the coast is, according to the scientists, due to the preference for colder water and using a band of cooler coastal water in which to travel. The sardines then stay for several months and travel back latest in December. The return migration happens a deeper depth due to the warmer water temperatures and is therefore generally unnoticed.
The sardine run has been of great economic importance for the local population long before the tourism industry started bringing foreigners for wildlife watching.
Is it happening every year at the same time?
The time of the run can vary by several weeks and the sardines cannot be observed every year either.
Scientists explain the no-run years by either its absence due to high water temperatures and/or other hydrographic barriers or a migration which is happening deeper or further off shore enabled by hydrographical anomalies.
One day at the sardine run
Typically the boats leave around 7 or 7.30 am. The air temperatures can be chilly (down to 6°C) in the early mornings. When the sun is out it can get over 20°C during the day but it also much colder if it is cloudy.
You should fully suit up with preferably a thick wetsuit, a hood, boots and probably gloves. The gloves are not only against the cold but nice if it is rough and you have to hold on to the ropes on the boat. Putting on a moist wetsuit in the cold wasn’t my favourite time of the day. Make sure to bring a raincoat/windblocker you can wear over the wetsuit, and bring a beanie to keep your head warm on the boat.
Small boats and big waves
The ribs (rigid inflatable boats) launch from either a river or from the beach through the waves out into the ocean. The launch can be a bit rough through the surf, make sure to hold on tight to the boat.
If the waves are too high or the weather is bad the ribs cannot launch and there is no chance to go wildlife watching. These days you could probably sneak in a sightseeing day if you arrive there in a rental car.
How to find the sardines
Then out in the ocean the skipper will make some phone calls. The different operations stay in contact to inform each other if there is an area where it seems that bait balls are forming.
In addition he is observing the birds. Dolphins try to bring the bait closer to the surface which makes it easier for them to hunt. This also brings them to the diving depth of the birds. The birds gather above the bait ball, start to circle and then shoot down.
We had this right away one morning just in front of Port St Johns and everyone got really excited. We were watching trying to figure out where the bait ball is building. The group on the boat got ready, masks and fins on, snorkel in but then the whole situation just disappeared and nothing happened. Later that day the birds where just hanging around and sleeping on the surface. They did not seem to be interested in the massive shoal of sardines passing by. They probably just weren’t hungry or the sardines were not as tasty this time.
What to do all day?
The 6 to 8 hours on the boat are mostly spent with wildlife watching and driving around looking for sardines, hoping for action around them. It is mainly birds, whales and dolphins (literally 1000s of dolphins around, both common and bottlenose) that can be observed. Besides that there are loads of drinks and snacks on the boat to help to bridge the time. Girls might wanna skip the drinks though. I did. There is no toilet on the boat and the water is quite chilly….
When a situation looks promising, with birds darting down and dolphins around, the group would jump in with snorkeling gear. Unfortunately most of the time the situation moves away within minutes if not seconds.
The only chance for the guests to jump in on scuba is when it looks like a fairly stable bait ball has formed. This is initiated by the dolphins and then everything else follows. That is what you want. That is the very very lucky wonderful sardine run action everyone would love to see.
This scene might last for around 10 to 15 minutes when the lucky divers can observe probably the most amazing underwater phenomenon ever. This makes it worth waiting for days on a boat, to be freezing cold, jumping in and climbing back out of the water several times.
However, most visitors will not see this. The chances are good to snorkel with dolphins and whales. You will probably see some big game fish too. To give you an idea, friends of mine who were lucky did see the action for a total of 30 minutes in 6 days out on the sea.
The days on the boat can be long and cold, especially if there is not much to see. Some physical strength and resistance to cold is required.
To sum up
Even without seeing the sardines and bait balls, many dolphins, sharks and whales are in the area and it is possible to observe them from the boat or even snorkel with them. This makes it already worth to give it a try if you don’t mind sitting on a boat and being cold for 7 hours per day. And if you get lucky and you see the whole action it will be a huge reward for any discomfort because it will be THE 15 minutes of your diving life.
Have you been to the sardine run? Share your experience in the comment section below
P Fréon, et al. (2010). “A review and tests of hypotheses about causes of the KwaZulu-Natal sardine run”. African Journal of Marine Science 32 (2): 449–479.doi:10.2989/1814232X.2010.519451
SH O’Donoghue, PA Whittington, BM Dyer and VM Peddemors (2010). “Abundance and distribution of avian and marine mammal predators of sardine observed during the 2005 KwaZulu-Natal sardine run survey”. African Journal of Marine Science 32 (2): 361–374. doi:10.2989/1814232X.2010.502640.