Greatest Shoal on Earth: The Sardine Run
The underwater world hosts many a mysterious spectacle, but perhaps none are as extraordinary as the Sardine Run. Known as The Greatest Shoal on Earth, the Sardine Run is one of the planet’s biggest migrations in terms of biomass. Our contributor, Bhushan Bagadia, is one of the lucky few humans to witness and document this fascinating event. Read on, and be thoroughly enthralled!
Scuba diving introduced me to a different world – to be able to see and experience underwater ecosystems was truly life-changing. I started diving in 2006, and my first dive experience lassoed a hook into my veins that hasn’t ever released its hold. The underwater world accepts us with open arms even when we do not belong in it – a metaphor for life itself. The world that thrives beneath the surface of the ocean has become the epicenter of my world, and I want, in my small way, to showcase its beauty and educate humankind about why it is imperative that we start conserving it before it disappears and we are left wondering if we had dreamed it all.
After my first dive in 2006, it took me 11 years to get to the Sardine Run – a bucket-list item for most divers. While the Sardine Run sounds like a marathon, in essence, it is the Sardines doing all the running, as mesmerized humans watch in wonder.
What is the Sardine Run?
The Sardine Run in South Africa is an annual event that happens between May and July. It is among the largest animal aggregations on the planet, and yet, is poorly understood. Scientists have still not determined how or why the sardine run occurs, apart from establishing the fact that these sardines are essentially swimming to colder waters and away from their predators… It is the inherent mystique surrounding this phenomenon that makes the experience even more riveting.
A Typical Day on the Sardine Run
Imagine being cold all the time: that is the Sardine Run for you. A few fleeting moments that you can be warm are when sitting near a fireplace or under a hot shower. But the rest of the time… you are just cold.
The day begins early: breakfast is at 6:00 AM, and by 7:00 AM you put on your wetsuit and start walking down to the beach for the launch.
The Launch is a mini adventure unto itself and is a phenomenal start to the day. Boats are put onto the water, the whole crew, including the tourists and photographers, push the boat in the right direction. Everyone then rolls onto the boat, already soaked waist-deep in the freezing cold water. The strong surf that the Captain has to tactfully guide the boat through is probably even more thrilling than the most epic roller-coaster ride. By the end of this initial process everything on the boat, including us is soaking wet, and yes, cold.
The next five to seven hours is the real Sardine Run activity. The scouting begins by looking for the Gannets who typically circle overhead in search of the sardines. We also have eyes in the sky: Larry aka ‘Sparrow’ is busy flying around on a microlight to guide us towards the action.
The hours are spent hoping to find a large and constant activity. Jumping into the water and getting back up happens multiple times, so jump in, get wet, get out, and be cold – repeating this over and over again is standard practice on the Sardine Run. The ocean and all its marine life are utterly unpredictable, so finding large activity which is not moving away too fast takes a lot of trial and error, with a generous dash of luck too.
Every moment is different on the Run. There are moments when the ocean goes silent with absolutely no activity, and all that peace and calm can change in a matter of seconds. The quicker one is, the more chances one creates for oneself to be involved in the action.
While all this already sounds tough, what no one will tell you is how tough it is to get back on to the boat. There are no ladders – you hold on to the ropes, kick with your fins and pull yourself up and roll onto the boat. I struggled in my first season and had to be pulled up, and only eventually managed to learn the technique after a number of awkward attempts.
Predator Central: everyone is on a strict Sardine diet!
From May to July every year, billions of sardines follow cold ocean currents. They swim in large shoals, putting the principle of “safety in numbers” at play. They are in constant motion – to try and both confuse, and dodge their predators.
Their predators come together in perfect, jaw-dropping synchrony, revealing the beautiful clockwork magic and interconnectedness of nature – with the dolphins being the busiest of them all. They undertake the hard work of compressing the shoals of Sardines into a ball by surrounding them and attacking them from all sides. The sharks then push the sardines upwards, thereby compressing them further. All this while, the gannets are waiting to dive in from the skies to grab their share. The whales wait for their turn to end this party with a giant scoop. We, a handful of lucky humans, are merely an audience to this grand spectacle.
Barely a few minutes into our dive, we hear the coordinated clicks of the approaching dolphins getting louder as they come in to attack the Sardines. They zip in and out of the Sardine ball and repeat this until they have had their fill.
The Sharks approach slowly from the depths and slip into the ball of Sardines.
With a swift movement, the sharks take in a mouthful of sardines as they swim out. The sardines swim in all directions, opening up what looks like an inter-dimensional portal for the sharks to swim out.
My favourite piece of action is the attack is by the Gannets. Studies show that they dive into the water almost like missiles, with speeds of up to 100 km/h. Inside the water, their attacks sound akin to someone firing bullets. These gannets dive in, catch their prey and swim out.
There is a strange rhythm to this cacophony of the gannets diving in and the dolphins with their clicking sounds while the whales are whistling in the background. The showstopper in this other-worldly spectacle the Bryde’s whale. It swims up, scoops up the ball of Sardines, and swims away. The Humpback Whales come along as an added surprise. During this period, they migrate to safer waters where there are lesser white sharks and predators, to mate or give birth. They end up putting on quite a show – breaching, spy hopping and just being their wonderful playful selves.
Never a dull moment!
The reason why the Sardine Run is so exciting is the unpredictability and the possibility of absolutely incredible encounters.
On days that we had zero Sardine activity, the dolphins would put on a show for us. We even put on our scuba gear and just stayed in the water while the dolphins studied us curiously.
When on the boat, we were always on the lookout for Humpback Whales. Even if the Sardine activity was low, the Humpback whales would always be around as backup entertainment. Watching a whale breach the water with complete abandon is an utter joy to the eyes, making one momentarily forget all about the sardine run.
One day, we had absolutely no activity for hours, and even our captain was surprised that the ocean was so quiet. We had been on the boat for four hours and not jumped into the water even once – this was unprecedented by Sardine Run standards! To bide time, we had eaten everything in our snack box and even run out of conversations. Suddenly, we heard a ‘Puff’. We all thought it was a whale, but when we saw the fin we realised that it was an Orca – right in front of our boat! Then, another ‘Puff’, this time behind our boat. Another Orca! No one could believe it. Our captain and divemaster, who had been at the Sardine Run for 10 years, had never ever seen Orcas.
Unsure if we could jump in or not, our divemaster went in to check if it was safe, and immediately signaled us to jump in. The Orcas swam towards us and then swam away. It is possible that all the other predators had disappeared that day because of the arrival of the Orcas.
The Orcas swam towards us and then swam away. They stayed around to give us another chance to jump in and see them, and then they were gone.
It’s never enough, and yet so satisfying!
One can never get enough of such experiences, despite them being extremely tiring. In fact, the fun is not all underwater as the landscape all around the Transkei region is breathtaking. The day ends with a meal and a few drinks at the bar while sharing the experiences of the day.
Visiting untouched waterfalls, canyons, valleys, and stunning viewpoints in the Transkei region takes up the rest of one’s time.
They say when you put yourself out there, things begin to happen. That is absolutely true for the Sardine Run. There is no way to predict the right time to be there – you just need to put yourself out there and allow the marvels of nature to bedazzle you.
Image Credits (for all images): Bhushan Bagadia