Sardine Run 2012
Every South African winter the Wild Coast comes alive in a boiling churning crazy happening known as the Sardine Run. Millions of small silver fish get trapped and herded by unusual water temperatures which kickstarts the greatest feeding frenzy on earth. Dolphins, whales, sharks and birds launch a synchronised attack on the small running fish. If you’re very very lucky and if you’re in the right place at the right time… you might just get to witness the madness.
With a wild and expansive coastline, being in the right place at the right time is a difficult endeavour. When I heard about the possibility of experiencing this great event from my friend David’s beautiful 82 foot Catamaran, Ocean Adventurer II, I cleared my diary and booked my berth. If the Sards are running, we’ll find them.
We left East London on Thursday morning, traveling overnight to reach the area south of Port St John’s where the Sardine Run is typically witnessed. With the fish making their way north, in a not very straight line, with pilot groups and stragglers, it’s hard to plan. So using years of combined experience and thorough research, David and Nic from SEAL made the call- 5 days in July on board a fast super Cat. Criss-crossing the open blue, now inshore now off, now clean water now murky I was once again reminded of how large the ocean is when you’re searching for something. The key to pleasant ocean expeditions, is a keen sense of adventure, a hunger for the unknown, an easily entertained nature and an easy laugh.
Numerous whales breaching hailed sunrise every day, the horizon specked with gannets, the flying diving machines- birds that can dive to 20 meters. ‘Dive! Dive!’ we shout at them… willing them to do their tell-tale kamikaze swoops straight down, the unmistakable sign of a sardine bait ball.
Friendly bottlenose dolphins let us play with them, clicking and scanning they show off their aquatic acrobatics, making my monofin look like a clumsy children’s toy. A fin breaks the surface… ‘What is it’ we echo each other as we peer over the side. I swim around the side of the boat to see what it is… ‘A ray, it’s a ray’ Nic shouts at me, I speed up… cautiously, a large stingray in open water is not a creature you want to irritate. Getting closer I see the lobes on the side of the head, then the distinct black and white markings on the back. A giant manta! My heart soars as I recognise a friend, I circle close to her and the large eye looks me over. The manta plays her secret games at the surface, splashing and twirling. Following slowly I watch her elegant wings move seamlessly… with no visible effort she glides forward smoothly.
We get to greet some friendly humpback whales as our paths cross, their long pectoral fins glowing white in the murky water. The loud exhalation followed by the eerie metallic sounding echo of the inhalation rattles my chest. Swimming down to below ten meters I hang in silence, listening to them sing. I’ve never heard whale song this loud. Surely they are right under me, right above me… right next to me. I peer into the dusk, no sign. Their song carries for miles under water but I know they are close. I am suspended in their sound. Held by their notes I surrender to the sound. I feel tears form inside my mask. I am mesmerised. I want to stay here in the sung silence forever. This is enough.
Day after day the generous ocean offers us her gifts, glowing sunrises and friendly animals, clear skies and clean water. Crashing waves against majestic cliffs, perfect evenings on deck watching the day sink away. Sometimes I completely forget why I am here. The small silver fish become secondary to this great living ocean. Then I remember the feast I wish to witness and start willing the tell-tale gannets to dive and the dolphins to herd… but no. The millions of small fish evade us. Running the coast on this glorious boat I am not sad to arrive in Durban. I have leapt and whirled in our ocean playground, listened to the humpback whales sing and seen her white belly as she rolls over below me.
I have been invited into dolphin games and met an unexpected manta-friend. We’re not sure why the Sardine Run this year saw less small fish than ever, but I don’t mind. I will be here again next year, and the next and the next… I will feast on whatever the ocean dishes up on her vast table of delight.
Join us next year as we search again... enjoying the Ocean Adventure!
ALL IMAGES: Jean-Marie Ghislain