For years I had dreamed about returning to South Africa to experience the Sardine Run. I was born in Durban, South Africa and spent the first six years of my life there before moving to the United States. I have only faint childhood memories of the Sardine Run. It was a time of year when the sky over the beach filled with birds, dolphins broke the surface in the hundreds, when we stayed out of the water for fear of sharks, and when fishermen on the shore hauled in huge nets bursting with glistening silver fish.
Now a seasoned diver and underwater film-maker, I returned to the Sardine Run to relive that excitement, but this time anxious to join the sharks underwater and experience the full energy of the Run. With me were my close buddies Justin Ebert, Mattias Fornander and Nick Jackson. Our leader Drew Wong and boat captain Pkee would do all they could to get us as close as “safely” possible to the action.
Having traveled to big animal destinations around the globe, I had learned enough to temper my expectations. Nature can be unpredictable and unfair. Sometimes for no apparent reason, the seas can be empty when they should be full. The Sardine Run has a particular propensity to promise much and deliver little…sometime nothing. The number of factors required to get in the water and nail the legendary baitball are many. For a baitball to form, at a minimum the following conditions are necessary:
– Cold northerly flowing current
– Counter current pushing cold current close to the shore
– Presence of sardines
– Dolphin pods (and or sharks) detect sardines
– Cape gannets find the dolphins
– Predators succeed in driving sardines to form baitball
If all these factors combine to form a baitball, there are a whole set of additional factors necessary for one to actually experience the baitball underwater. These include:
– Good fortune of actually finding the baitball
– Enough daylight to view the baitball (10am to 3pm)
– Safe sea conditions (the seas on this coast can be rough)
– Sufficient visibility (vis is frequently less than 2 meters)
– Baitball lasts long enough for you to suit up and get in
When all these factors are considered, the odds of a baitball encounter are very, very low. Many a diver who has come to the Sardine Run with dreams of the “Blue Planet” baitball on daily basis, have left severely disappointed. On the Sardine Run you can count on many things, but a baitball is not one of them! That being said, with enough time, patience and tenacity, a well orchestrated effort to locate a baitball has a good chance of paying off over a two week period.
The real stars of the show are the dolphins and whales. Day after day, dozens of humpbacks pass by on their way north to their calving grounds off Mozambique. Along he way, the put on quite a show, charging, diving and performing spectacular breaches. If you are very fortunate, you may even have in-water snorkel encounter with one of these gentle giants. I had such good fortune and will cherish that memory for a long time.
The massive schools of common and bottlenose dolphins are not to be overlooked either. From kilometers away, they can be seen leaping and splashing as they charge in on sardines. In the water, one has many opportunities to snorkel and play with these curious and excitable creatures.
The cape gannets, in their thousands, put on an impressive show. When the action really heats up, they pile into the water by the dozens. Combined with the dolphins churning the surface, this creates quite a melee. Of course the action most sought after by divers is that of the elusive baitball below the surface.
We did find our baitball. The vis was ok. The baitball was not very big. There were few sharks. But even then, the charging dolphins, diving gannets and graceful motion of the sardines recoiling in unison made the encounter amazing! The entire experience lasted ten minutes but the memory will last a lifetime.