Published in issue 31:01/2015 of Ocean Geographic
South Africa – Thousands of dolphins surrounded our boat. An anxious flock of cape gannets darkened the skies as they watched over the arrival of humpbacks and Bryde’s whales for the impending feast. The sardines appeared. What was placid at first, exploded into a mad feeding frenzy – whistling of dolphins sparked coordinated attacks; gannets bombed into the water in a ferocious air-raid; cormorants zealously preyed on sardines that broke away from the shoal; lurking dusky sharks made their appearance from the deep. Amid the chaos, a dusky stamped its authority on our skipper, leaving teeth marks on his tank straps. A Bryde’s whale startled the other predators and stunned the frenzy with one majestic gulp, swallowing a third of the bait ball in slow motion. We clung onto our underwater cameras and fervently put the hardware to work. Nevertheless, no footage would sufficiently capture the experience of a spectator, to the greatest show (or shoal) on Earth.
That was the Sardine Run of 2011. I was one of the lucky ones.
The sardine run is an expedition that promises no guarantees. Images and videos on YouTube suggest that an epic diving adventure beckons, when all you need is to book a flight. In truth, the phenomenon is as elusive as the cause of the sardine run is puzzling. Every year, millions of sardines migrate from the eastern Agulhas Bank to the coast of KwaZulu-Natal, in shoals that can stretch four square miles. However, a myriad of factors must align before a bait ball can be realised as a scuba diving spectacle; a cold front must bring the migrating sardines to shallow waters; a pod of feeding dolphins must herd the shoal to the surface; and the entire phenomenon must be stationary and enduring enough for a feasible scuba dive. In the absence of any one variable, the day is lost. In 2011, I spent 7 hours each day over 9 days to look for the bait ball, and was eventually rewarded with 25 minutes of action. In hindsight, the 25 minutes experience was worth the trouble and enough for me to embark on a second attempt in May 2014.
Operators for the sardine run are predominantly stationed in Port St. Johns and Mboyti. However, there is a closely guarded secret found further south. A lone operator by the name of Rainer Schimpf is based in Port Elizabeth. I was curious about the less explored Algoa Bay. Rainer, of German origin, has been conducting sardine runs since 2001. He explained that at Algoa Bay, the sardine shoal was easier to access and stayed for a longer period from February till May. With no other operators, the experience with the bait ball was an exclusive affair. The offer appeared too good to be true and I was sceptical. Apparently, to be an operator in Port Elizabeth, a Whale Watching Permit, Film Permit and Marine Protection Area Permit are required; red tape that is too much trouble for others, but not for the German. Apart from the exclusivity, what really drew me to Port Elizabeth was the rare opportunity to get into the water with Orcas. Rainer reported sightings of Orcas over the last few seasons and had underwater photos to show for it. He left me no room for second thoughts.
“Keep expectations low,” I uttered this mantra on the first day of the 2014 sardine run. At 8am, we launched from Dom Pedro jetty in a twin-engine RIB. I was quickly reminded that the sardine run was no luxury cruise. Bouncing rather violently on the RIB was part of the program, usually for a good hour before someone reminded the skipper that a toilet break was due. The RIB then continued speeding over the swells in a fashion that appeared to be aimless to everyone on board, save the skipper.
“We follow the birds,” Rainer announced.
“What birds?” we thought to ourselves.
The 7 hours each day passed by slowly. Much of the time was spent in some sort of trancelike slumber that balanced the consciousness between detachment and not falling overboard. The ability to daydream was an important skill, so as not to notice the seconds ticking by. Motion-sickness pills that caused drowsiness were rather useful for this purpose.
“Whale!” someone shouted.
Suddenly the senses came back to life. It was not just any whale. A tall black dorsal fin protruding the waves gave hints to what was approaching from the horizon. As the RIB raced towards the distant sprouts, I readied the zoom lens and shielded the camera from the splashes. I watched the pod of six whales cruise in synchronised rhythm. It was only when the distinctive white eye patch broke the surface that a surreal feeling sunk in; I was in the presence of wild orcas. The dance of the orcas as they surfaced to dive again was simply majestic. It was going to be a long shot, but we sped ahead of the pod, donned our snorkels and slid into the water with the hope of encountering the orcas in their element. We did not have such luck.
There were enough signs that the sardine bait ball was going to manifest itself sooner or later. The predators were already gathering at Algoa bay. First, there were the orcas and on the second day, a super-pod of a thousand common dolphins was spotted racing north-east, away from the coast. We followed the dolphins, thinking that they would lead us to a sardine bait ball. After trailing the pod for over an hour, we were too far out and had to turn back towards shore. Although sharing the waters with a super-pod was exhilarating, there was also disappointment that the dolphins did not find the sardine shoal. In the remaining days, we saw cape gannets form little social groups on the surface of the water. Sometimes we stayed with these birds in anticipation that they would take off abruptly and flock to a feeding frenzy. Tired of waiting, we turned our attention to a small herd of fur seals frolicking under the sun, or towards a passing Bryde’s whale and counted the intervals between each of the whale’s plume. Apart from these distractions, time started to crawl when there was not much going on. Sometimes, we resorted to guessing the contents of the lunchbox to keep ourselves entertained. The faith that we would encounter a sardine ball began to wane as our trip drew towards a close.
It was the final day of the sardine run. The mood of the camp was mellow; a sharp contrast to the day when we encountered the orcas. The scuba tanks had yet to be turned on and our BCD was dry. When heads were beginning to drop, something from afar caught the crew’s attention. The RIB picked up an extra gear and sped towards the horizon. I could see silhouettes of cape gannets skydiving into the water. “Bait ball!” Rainer shouted.
There was a plan; two divers would enter the water stealthily and spend 15 minutes before another two take their place. In the excitement, the plan was respectfully expunged. There was no time to don our scuba gear and we fumbled into the water all at once. Blocked by the swells, it was not easy to locate the bait ball. I figured that the four copper sharks prowling just beneath me would show me the way. When I found the bait ball, it brought back memories of the 2011 sardine run. But there was something different this time. The bait was too small to be sardines and there were no dolphins in sight. As I approached, a barrel-sized ball of anchovies revealed itself. Darting in and out of the ball like hummingbirds on steroids, was a flock of African penguins! Also called jackass penguins, these flightless birds were reaching speeds of 20 miles per hour in their hunting mode. Wave after wave the penguins attacked, forcing the anchovies to take evasive manoeuvres and reshaping the bait ball mercurially. It was a spectacle to behold.
The sardine run can be an emotionally volatile experience. I fluctuated between states of apprehension to exhilaration; between repose to awe. Despite finding a small anchovy bait ball, there was a certain sense of disappointment that we missed the sardines. In fact, Rainer reported that the sardines did not show up at Algoa bay for the rest of the season. There were several theories why it was so. Rainer hypothesised that the red tide at the beginning of 2014 prevented the formation of cold currents necessary to lead the sardines north along the east coast. Others felt that the sardines were scarce at the bay because fishing boats were hauling 100 tons of sardines around Port Elizabeth daily. Regardless, I realised that having no guarantees was part of the sardine run adventure. It was certainly not all the grandeur depicted on YouTube and expectations should not be predisposed accordingly. The sardine run is really about being a spectator of Mother Nature's show, with the affirmation that we have absolutely no say on her designs.