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Trip Reports

Sardine Run Report Back, Wild Coast

written by Monique Fallows

The Sardine Run in East London

Posted on Monday, 1 July 2013

There’s no getting around the Sardine Run being a tough expedition. So many factors have to come together under the right conditions in order to experience what has become one of the Holy Grail’s of natural history.


Each year from May to July the sardines move within the Agulhas Current as a thin band of current stretches up the south coast of South Africa. This huge moving bio mass of sardines becomes a very important feeding event at this time of the year for a variety of predators. Of particular importance are young of the year Common dolphins as this is their first major feeding opportunity after being weaned off their mother’s milk. Mega pods of up to 15,000 Common dolphin can be present to participate.


Other predators that partake are Bronze Whaler, Dusky and Black Tip sharks, Brydes whales and sometimes up to 15,000 Cape gannets. The coming together of large numbers of all these predators makes for spectacular feeding events. It is mostly the dolphins that so skilfully ball the baitfish which gives the sharks an easy feeding opportunity and also creates an opportunity for the Cape gannets to rain down into the ball and to gauge themselves as well.


The conditions however can be challenging with the Wild Coast of South Africa being notorious for rough and wild sea conditions which also brings poor water visibility. So, not only do the sardines and predators need to be around, the sea conditions need to be conducive as well. I guess this is what makes diving in a baitball situation so spectacular and rewarding when it does all come together.



In early June our first Apex Sardine Run Expedition began with poor weather. We were off the water for two days so by day three we were willing to head out into conditions that were far from perfect. But, a very big surprise greeted us as we rounded the harbour wall. A small school of dolphins were racing just past the harbour entrance and as we looked up two very large dorsal fins pooped up behind us. Orcas!


We really did not expect to see Orcas so we were all extremely excited. One of the two orcas immediately disappeared but the second orca, a sub adult male, stayed visible about 100 meters from us. We cautiously approached him, hoping for a close interaction. This male orca gave us one close pass of the boat and then lost interest in us. It was still amazing to have seen the orcas and a really great surprise.


As we headed round the bullnose of the harbour we almost instantly began bashing into the sea. We make use of a RIB and as such there is no protection from the waves and spray, making for very wet and uncomfortable conditions! We had a fantastic group this year, made up of guests that were there for the true experience. Fortunately it meant that we all accepted the situation and actually had a great time being pounded by the sea. I guess life is what you make of it, and this certainly had us all laughing and enjoying ourselves.


As we ended our very rough day on the water we spotted a group of fifteen or so False Killer whales. This is only the fifth time I have seen them and it was another great encounter with a rarely seen cetacean species. I guess our earlier enthusiasm in the rough sea rewarded us.


On our fourth day we finally received the good weather we had been waiting for, and bait ball activity. The activity was all on fast moving, small sardine bait balls, but the experience was still phenomenal. Dolphins, gannets, sharks and Brydes whales were all feeding around us with frenetic energy. We spent most of the day dropping in and out of bait balls, making sure we made the most of our opportunities as the water visibility was at least 8 meters, perfect for diving.

Dolphins, gannets, sharks and Brydes whales were all feeding around us with frenetic energy.

I think the difference about the Sardine Run experience is that it takes wildlife watching to a completely new level. On safari we are watching wildlife from a vehicle, and on a shark watching trip it is from a boat. In fact almost all wildlife experiences take place with us somewhat removed from the situation.


The Sardine Run is different as it allows an extreme interaction whereby we are diving in the bait ball, alongside the predators in active hunting mode. This makes for an off the scale type of excitement. Cape gannets explode into the water at 120km per hour, sending shock waves through you. Dolphins all around are squealing and squeaking (as they emit sonar) and racing into the ball, and sharks are blazing through for their share as well… All this just arm’s length away at times! If you are very lucky you may even observe a Brydes whale as it opens its huge mouth to lunge forward and obliterate the entire bait ball. Chris and a guest had a very close encounter as a Brydes whale brushed past them just before consuming the ball.



On the fifth morning we continued to have small, fast moving bait balls which we made the most of diving on. In fact on most occasions we would be greeted by sharks as we entered the water. This activity had died down by lunchtime but on the way home we had a great experience snorkelling with a mother humpback whale and calf. It was a brief pass but in the clear water we had the calf turn up towards us and gave us a curious look as he sailed by.


I was not on the second expedition but the start of the trip was made up with excellent Humpback whales sightings and snorkel experiences. Bait ball activity was quiet but the last the two days of the trip came together in a fantastic way with sustained bait balls on both days. These balls were about 45 minutes long and slow moving providing an excellent scuba diving experience as all the predators feasted with the divers alongside.


It does take time, patience and a lot of luck, but the Sardine Run truly is one of the most amazing wildlife experiences one can have, and the key is to appreciate what each day gives you on the water. We certainly had our fair share of variety that made for two outstanding expeditions.


Thank you to all the guests that made this such an enjoyable time on the boat as well!


Shark Expeditions - South Africa, Marine Life, Sardine Run - East London

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