Scuba Diving South Africa’s Sardine Run
Every June along South Africa’s coast, a sense of anticipation hangs in the air and sea. Locals, tourists, birds and ocean predators await one of the planet’s most spectacular shows: the great sardine run. Billions of sardines head north along the cold currents all the way to Mozambique and then veer off into the Indian Ocean. This great dark mass, visible just under the surface of the sea, often measures over a mile wide, several miles long and as much as a hundred feet deep. Scuba diving South Africa’s sardine run is the thing of dreams, a true bucket-list adventure.
Like a single, enormous animal, the sardines swim together, counting on safety in numbers to protect them from the entourage of predators that trail the run. It’s an all-out feeding frenzy. The silvery fish are attacked from above by swooping Cape gannets, cormorants, terns and gulls, and from below by South Africa’s biggest hunters.
Common and bottlenose dolphins expertly round their prey into tightly packed spheres before darting through to gorge on the sardines. Sharks – mainly bronze whalers but also dusky, grey nurse, blacktip, hammerheads, great whites and Zambezi sharks – gorge themselves on the plentiful fish. Game fish too, from bluefish to king mackerel, get in on the action, while Cape fur seals follow the shoals.
Dive Butler’s Barbara Cesario knows the dive well and has joined the melee of South African marine wildlife many times. Below, she remembers her recent experiences of scuba diving South Africa’s sardine run.
My last sardine run adventure
Every year between mid-June and mid-July the sardine run program gets into full swing. It’s Mother Nature at her finest and we’ll be seeing the spectacle with the most experienced outfit and guides South Africa has to offer. Our home for the week is the beautiful Ocean View Hotel, steeped in old-time grandeur. It’s the ideal place from which to launch our daily adventures along an untamed stretch of sea and land known as The Wild Coast.
The day begins at 7 a.m. with a hearty breakfast, before we are shuttled off by safari vehicle to the launch site. Winding along steep cliffs, it’s a breath-taking first journey. We launch in a sheltered stretch of water at the mouth of a river, protected by a heavy rock-line which keeps us safe no matter what the ocean throws at us. It’s all hands on deck as we push the boat through the shallow river towards the deeper estuarine waters as the river the ocean.
Above us, the gentle buzzing of our ultralight aeroplane can be heard, scouring the sloshing surface of the grey ocean for animal activity. Once we’re launched, the pilot directs our captain via radio to where the best action is unfolding. We get the call, and we’re off!
A typical day scuba diving South Africa’s Sardine Run
As we approach the hub of animal activity, the skipper drops us carefully and skilfully in exactly the right spot. It’s common for the animals to dive down, so snorkelling is the best way to catch a quick glimpse of them before they do. However, even guests who prefer not to get wet can enjoy the spectacle from the comfort of the boat.
And what a spectacle it is! Birds diving to catch sardines, dolphins herding the fish into position, whales playing around on their slow path north from the Antarctic winter. All the while our air support is keeping lookout, taking to the skies three to five times a day to ensure the best sightings.
After a brief stop for lunch, we’re back in the thick of the action, adrenaline pumping through our bodies. This time we don scuba equipment, ready to enter the middle of a vast sardine bait ball. We enter the water on the side of a ball and descend to witness the ultimate sardine run action. If we get really lucky we may get to experience several bait balls in one day, but as always with wildlife, nothing can be predicted.
Mid-afternoon and we return to the river mouth. Time to hop in the safari vehicle and head back to the hotel, tired yet exhilarated. We spend the afternoon relaxing in the garden, taking well-deserved naps, and lounging on the beach. After a sumptuous dinner and ice-cold beer, most of us are ready for an early night, tired from the fresh clean ocean air and utter excitement of the day. Tomorrow will be another action-packed day in the midst of the legendary sardine run.