If you happen to be on South Africa's eastern coast during the winter months (June - July), check out the Sardine Run. It takes place along South Africa's Wild Coast and is hailed as one of nature's most spectacular events. It's an underwater version of the great annual migration of wildebeest in East Africa. Every year millions of sardines spawn in the cool waters of the Agulhas Bank (south of South Africa) and move northward to the warmer waters, just along South Africa's east coast. It's not unusual for shoals to be 4 miles long and 1 mile wide, they are clearly visible from the surface of the ocean.
The sardines are followed eagerly by predators. Thousands of dolphins, sharks, sea birds and seals enjoy this fishy banquet. To protect themselves from this onslaught, sardines form into giant balls called 'bait balls' which can measure as large as 65 feet (20 meters) in diameter. While bait balls are difficult to get up close and personal with (they dissolve after ten minutes or so) -- the predators that abound during this time in these waters make for some truly spectacular diving opportunities.
Just to add to the excitement - the Sardine Run also coincides with the annual migration of Humpback Whales that move north for the season into warmer water to mate and calve. Coupled with the occasional African penguin looking for a sardine snack, this is truly a wildlife spectacle not to be missed.
Can Anyone Watch the Show?
Unfortunately, you have to be a decent diver to get to witness the full spectacle underwater. But there are tours that offer non-divers a seat on the boat where you can still watch the feeding frenzy and appreciate the dive-bombing tactics of the Cape Gannets. You are welcome to jump in and snorkel among dolphins and the occasional shark.
When can I see the Sardine Run?
The timing is tricky (this is nature after all) but the migration normally starts at the end of May, so booking a tour around mid-June or early July should be perfect as the migration gets into full swing. The water temperatures can play havoc with the migration and back in 2006, it just didn't happen at all. Tour operators know this coastline well and will be able to keep you up to date.
How do I book a tour?
Several operators offer Sardine Run tours. Check their web sites for detailed itineraries, packing lists and tour dates.
- APEX Predators Sardine Run offers a tour from 2-9 June, 2013 to witness the Sardine Run. Join shark expert and wildlife photographer, Chris Fallows to experience this wildlife spectacle from a ringside seat.
- Dive Discovery offers a 5 day tour.
- Incredible Adventures offers 7 day tours during June and July, 2013, starting in Durban.