The Sardine Run takes place most years along the east coast of South Africa. Although the sardines do not migrate they do follow the a band of colder water, below 20°C,which forms between the coastline and the warm Agulhas current of the Indian Ocean.
This movement of a huge bio mass of potential food is vital to a whole variety of predators. It provides 9 month old Common dolphin their first big feed and up to 15 000 common dolphins can make up of various mega pods as they frequent this area. Bronze whalers, dusky and black tip sharks also drop their pups in this area to give them the greatest chance to feed. Up to 180,000 Cape gannets also benefit from this mass feeding event and if you are very very lucky divers may even glimpse a brydes whale as it lunge feeds on a bait ball that has so nicely been worked by the dolphin.
This sounds like risky business but if you strike it lucky the rewards are huge and you will find yourself experiencing the most exhilarating nature experience
A lot has to go right to even have the privileged opportunity to dive in a bait ball feeding event. The current needs to have worked its way up the coast, ideally the water temp needs to be 17 C. You have to pick to right location to have the activity taking place within rubber duck range, you have to have good weather and as with everything you need to have a good experienced team guiding you. This sounds like risky business but if you strike it lucky the rewards are huge and you will find yourself experiencing the most exhilarating nature experience.
Apex had employed the expertise of Mark Addison and our group was the first boat out on The Sardine Run this year. After day 3 we all started to be a little concerned. Day 1 was spent being pounded out at sea in a very exposed rubber duck. We were soaked by the end of the day, and not due to diving. On Day 2 there were a few signs of activity with dolphin and gannets in the area, although no sign of the sardines. Day 3 was bad weather… So, things were not looking good but we had a fantastic group of people with us who were very understanding with a lot of laughs to go with it.
The highlight from Day 2 is well worth mentioning. We came across a humpback whale that was swimming very close to a school of bottlenose dolphin. As we approached we could see there was some interaction between the two so we quickly lined up in the water ahead of the whale. To our immense surprise the humpback swam straight towards us with two bottlenose dolphins just to the left and right of its head. It appeared as if the dolphin were herding the whale and I am certain that the two species were playing with each other. It was a truly beautiful sight and definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me.
Things happened really fast once we arrived in the area as dive kit was thrown on and we were all yelled at to get in as quick as possible!
Mark had told us that the bad weather could just be what we needed to change the conditions. Heading out on Day 4 we knew it could go either way. The immediate change we saw was 3 times the amount of cape gannets. They were all mostly rafting on the water but it was a good sign as we headed further south.
After about 10 kms from our launch site the engines on the rubber duck suddenly kicked into over drive as Mark & Chris spotted was we were looking for, Gannets diving! Things happened really fast once we arrived in the area as dive kit was thrown on and we were all yelled at to get in as quick as possible!
I felt quite stunned at the first sight I saw. It was a large sardine bait ball that was being neatly herded by dolphin and the dusky and bronze whaler sharks from below. Sardines use the school as a defence, the safety in numbers theory. They also do better in their escape from predators deeper below but the dolphins try their best to school the sardines to the surface. They do this by sonar stunning them and blowing bubble curtains.
Once the dolphins school the sardines the various species of sharks are able to rush the ball and catch what they can. When both dolphin and sharks go into the ball, the ball itself parts like a curtain and despite the carnage it is actually a beautiful sight to behold. The first ball we had was large so although there was a huge amount going on the energy did not quiet reach fever pitch. After a while the dolphin and sharks stopped working the ball and it was all over.
This animal was so fast and came blitzing past us like a freight train
Just as we come up Mark spotted another bait ball in progress which we yet again raced over to at great speed. This one was a little smaller and had both dolphin and sharks working it. Added to this a big (as in size as well) surprise was on its way to us…a brydes whale. This was the first time I have ever seen a brydes whale underwater so the excited scream through my snorkel was pretty loud! This animal was so fast and came blitzing past us like a freight train. In a few gulps the ball was gone. This was just a mind blowing thing to see and I can still feel my excitement as I sit here writing.
I guess diving in a bait ball that is being attacked by all sides by such a variety of predators is a risky thing to do. However, I never felt threatened by the sharks, they were just pretty intent on what they were doing and only gave the divers an occasional inspection. The dolphins were unfazed by our presence and we got amazing views of their hunting prowess. I tell you what though, sometimes you can’t help moving into the ball either as it moves towards you suddenly or the current takes you in. When that happens you are left with a very unsettling feeling while you imagine that huge open mouth of the brydes whale as he completely swallows the ball. In all seriousness, being swallowed by a whale was by far the biggest risk!
After having 2 very good bait balls we felt our trip was more than a success. We still had 2 days left and although the next day was quiet we managed to finish the last day on a major high by finding and diving with another 3 fabulous balls.
One ball actually spit into 2 and we dived on them for 2 hours. The balls were smaller and the action was much more frantic. The sardines were trying to use us for cover and the dolphin and sharks would flash by with great bursts of speed in pursuit of them. Sometimes the action would quieten down and then pick up again as the dolphin stepped it up a notch. These ebbs and flows persisted until it was all gone and the scales of the sardines were left drifting down to the depths below.
We were suddenly surrounded by a feeding frenzy of sharks
Another amazing event we came across was a “shark bait ball”. Normally the dolphins do all the hard work and the sharks are able to benefit from their balling. From afar I spotted a brydes whale spouting, on closer inspection the sea was a froth of disturbance as about 30 bronze whalers and large dusky sharks were working a very small bait ball on the surface. I am not sure how rare this is but it is only the third time Mark has seen it. The brydes whale had also picked up on the activity so we all knew it was biding its time before stealing the ball. Everything was happening really fast and people were anxious to get in. I jumped over board first with Espen and although the brydes whale was my main concern we were suddenly surrounded by a feeding frenzy of sharks! It was manic, there is just no other way to describe it. Within 10 seconds the whole boat was screaming at us to get back on board. The sharks did nothing to us but we really did put ourselves is a bad situation. It was a good thing we could just laugh about it afterwards and nothing worse than that!
Shortly after we were back in the boat the brydes came through the ball 3 times. Not only was that the end of the bait ball but also very sadly the end of our Sardine Run.
To end off I have to say that our experiences underwater on The Sardine Run rate as one of the most intense and exciting wildlife experiences I have had. When it comes to predatory behaviour in wildlife you are either on a boat watching or watching safely from a car. Here, you are in the ball and part of the activity. As with most wild animals, the various predators here, and prey, were very accepting of our presence and I take it as a great privilege to have been able to witness and be a part of this. I for one can’t wait for 2012 Sardine Run!