Following the shoals are dolphins, game fish, sharks and birds that herd them into catchable baitballs, where a feeding frenzy takes place

DIVE WORLDWIDE South Africa “Following the shoals are dolphins, game fish, sharks and birds that herd them into catchable baitballs, where a feeding...
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South Africa

“Following the shoals are dolphins, game fish, sharks and birds that herd them into catchable baitballs, where a feeding frenzy takes place”


Sport Diver

MARCH 2014


South Africa Sunrise greets the divers

Out on the water searching for sardines


^Z/EZhE Tony Baskeyfield travelled 1,200km in ten days on a RIB in search of the Sardine Run. Along the way he saw false killer whales, orcas, humpback whales, dolphins, sharks and gannets. Then he got in the middle of it all! Photographs by TONY BASKEYFIELD


he Sardine Run is a physically tough expedition. There are so many factors needed to come together in order to experience what has become a Holy Grail in the world of natural history. Every year off South Africa’s east coastline, the greatest migration on Earth takes place. Billions of sardines leave their normal cold-water home in South Africa’s temperate seas and travel northwards into the sub-tropical seas of South Africa’s wild coast. In terms of biomass, the sardine run is bigger than East Africa’s great wildebeest migration. The sardines migrate along the cooler inshore waters to avoid the strong and warm offshore Agulhas Current, which flows in the opposite direction to the migration. Sardine prefer water temperatures between 14°C -20°C. This band between cold and warm water makes it easy for the predators to patrol up and down in search of the shoals of sardines. Following the shoals are dolphins, game fish, sharks and birds that

herd them into catchable baitballs, where a feeding frenzy takes place. It is not possible to accurately predict when the Sardine Run will occur. It happens when it happens, usually in June and July every year. But not knowing the best time to go, I first considered that I’d just hang around South Africa for a month, then jump onto a boat when the action was at its peak. As this was going to be a bit hit-and-miss, given most people had already booked spaces on boats last year, I feared I may miss out completely. So I chose to go with Apex Predators, based in Cape Town, as owner Chris Fallows only does the ‘run’ two weeks of a year, and then only goes for the historically best two weeks. He has done 2,000 white shark expeditions, with five years on the Sardine Run, in addition to being one of the leading authorities on great white shark behaviour. Chris is a professional wildlife photographer and many of his breaching great white shark images have been seen worldwide in newspapers, magazines and television documen-

taries. Chris has just recently completed his book Great White, The Majesty of Sharks. Chris prefers to launch from East London, which is further South from Port St John and has a harbour to safely launch from. Here there are less boats and fewer people doing the run. The harbour launch is better and safer than traditional South African beach launching. Chris knows many people in this area and has built up a network of contacts we met up with Planet Earth’s Charles Maxwell, who filmed the award-winning Bryde’s whale footage of the Sardine Run (when it comes out of the depths and eats a huge mouth-full sardines in one gulp). Most importantly, just off East London, there are a greater number of Cape gannets. Chris says that you just live by the gannets and then follow the dolphins. Chris has fantastic eyesight and doesn’t miss a thing. He watches for all the clues on the horizon and from observing the gannets - the direction that they are flying, the angle of the dive and the shape of the group of the

MARCH 2014

Sport Diver



South Africa Lighthouse marks dangerous waters

A superpod of dolphins charges past the boat

The dolphins round up the sardines

Dolphins pass the divers

Dolphin on the surface

birds when they are diving – this will tell him what the bait is, how deep the bait is and what is going on below. Sardine Run diving is hard work but, wow, it’s exhilarating! The Sardine Run occurs in South Africa’s winter, so in the morning it’s cold. On the boat it is cool too and we all needed hats and jackets to keep the wind-chill away. It got warmer at mid-day but we were never hot. Our day begins at 6am, when we get up, have breakfast, drive to East London, kit up and take our twin-engined eight-metre RIB from the mouth of the Buffalo River. The air temperature hovers around 6°C. In the day the air temperature rises to 18°C and as much as 28°C, with a water temperature of 17.2°C -20.5°C. We are out at see and on the water ten hours a day. On the first day we spot killer whales just outside the harbour and follow them around for 30 minutes or so before heading off in search of ‘sards’. To see Chris in action is brilliant. Chris never gets tired of it and he gets so excited, with this overwhelming adrenalin rush. “It’s unpredictable! It’s fantastic!” He is amazing and passionate and he enjoys it all. So it’s great to have such an expert to get

us onto the ‘sards’. Some days it is just a guess when you come out of the harbour to go north or south in our search; other days the evidence is immediately obvious. We could see the direction the main group of gannets were heading. Just following gannets is not always possible, as they fly too fast at 60kmh if the sardines are a long way away. First we go in the direction of the gannet’s flight. Then the next sign is the dolphins. One day, we saw thousands of dolphins all heading in the same direction as the faster-moving gannets. We joined one super pod and motored with them for 30 minutes till we approached a large cyclone of gannets diving into the water to feed on the sardines. Sharks were cruising close by with their fins breaking the surface. Wave after wave of gannets would dive at speeds of 100km and hit the water. Air pockets in their joints act as shock absorbers to cushion the blow of the dive. Their nostrils have a flap to prevent water being pushed into their brain. The gannets have brilliant eyesight and can see the sardines from the air and are able to target their dive precisely.

I heard the thud as a gannet hit the water, then saw the bubble trail as it plunged to about 5m and swam to catch a fish in its beak. They can dive down to 20m for as long as 20 seconds, see underwater and are able to swim and follow the baitball and catch fish with ease. On one occasion I was underwater during an aerial assault from the gannets and the sound was like a barrage of artillery fire. The ‘boom, boom’ of them hitting the water just goes right through you and this is the vibration that attracts the dolphins and sharks from miles away. At first I thought that the gannets were extremely accurate when diving, as they were swerving to avoid hitting me. Then one bird didn’t swerve quite fast enough - I was hit on the head and then on my hand in the poor vis. All of a sudden I realised if one of these gannets hit me at full speed with its beak in the head, I could be

MARCH 2014

Sport Diver



South Africa seriously injured. Luckily, I was treated to a magnificent display of diving, swimming and feeding. It all happened so quickly, ‘boom, boom’, with machine gun speed - there were gannets whizzing around me for a 30-minute show. You have to read the signs underwater and react to the situation. Suddenly everything is going crazy. Gannets are going ballistic and the sharks are highly charged. I hear clicks and whistles as common dolphins hurtle past my shoulder and sweep into the sardines. The dolphins scythe through and the school splits the ball, which then reforms behind the dolphins. A dusky shark moves in, turns on its side, opens its mouth and grabs a mouthful of sardines. It all happens so close and so quickly. Bryde’s whales are huge and their mouths are big enough to take a diver whole when they come up and gulp a massive mouth-full of sardines. Some people have bounced off the mouth! The whale knows exactly what is in its path and what it is about to consume with its echo-location and is only after the fish. However, we were putting ourselves into a highly charged situation when at any time a whale could come up to feed! “I’m excited, terrified and emotionally overwhelmed,” Chris said. “This is a crazy thing to do in a caravan of predators. Logically it is not the brightest thing to do to get into the water when a feeding frenzy is underway!” Depending on how long the baitball remains intact, or how long you can keep up with it, each dive can last from a few minutes to an hour. Often

Bryde’s whales gorge on the sardines...

...and are simply immense

Humpback frolics on the surface

Two Bryde’s whales swimming together


Sport Diver

MARCH 2014


South Africa Gannet makes a low pass



“On one occasion I was underwater during an aerial assault from the gannets and the sound was like a barrage of artillery fire”



Gannets and dolphins working in tandem

Gannet mid-dive into a baitball

Fly from the UK to Johannesburg, then take an internal flight to East London.

BEST TIME TO VISIT June and early July. Remember, this is the Southern Hemisphere and it is winter there when it is summer here.

“Overall, we had fast-moving, small sardine baitballs with dolphins, gannets and sharks all feeding around us with frenetic energy”


CURRENCY South African Rand (£1 to 15 Rand).

WHERE TO EAT AND MEET There are various restaurants and bars in and around East London. Being South Africa, you can expect fantastic steaks and other meat products, and as there are several microbreweries in the area, you’ll have plenty of fine local beer to enjoy.

THE LOCAL BREW Emerald Vale Amber.

VERDICT The Sardine Run is deservedly referred to as the ‘greatest shoal on Earth’, and with good reason. Yes, it is physically demanding, but nothing else compares.


Sport Diver

MARCH 2014

it’s easier and quicker to get in and less restrictive to freedive. Humpback whales were everywhere too. Getting onto the sardines is not always guaranteed every day, as this is a wild adventure. You have to take every advantage and seize every moment to extract every experience when it happens. On the days we didn’t get onto the sardines, we had the greatest time observing hammerheads on the surface, or with humpback whales. So for the first time ever I got into the water with migrating whales cruising north at ten knots. They are too fast to swim with, so you only get one chance as they steam past, weighing 80 tonnes and 15 metres long. I could see a bulge in the water on the surface and then feel the huge pressure wave in front of the animal as it approached and passed. Then as the tail swept past I ducked my head to avoid being hit. Some humpbacks had groups of common dolphins riding the pressure wave and were getting a free ride. Some came dangerously close to us as we freedived with them. A tail came up, swishing a group of Italian divers out of the way and narrowly missing them all as it came back down! Humpback whales were passing us in groups of twos, threes and fours. We

followed a pair of humpbacks for nearly one hour as they breached 50 times in turn. Overall, we had fast-moving, small sardine baitballs with dolphins, gannets and sharks all feeding around us with frenetic energy. We spent most of the days dropping in and out of baitballs, making sure we made the most of our opportunities as the water visibility was sometimes as low as four metres, which was not perfect for diving with snapping sharks close by. The Sardine Run is marine wildlife watching at its most spectacular - a once-ina-lifetime opportunity to be part of something that many of the world’s top marine biologists, wildlife photographers and film-makers consider the mostintense and spectacular marine wildlife event in the world. It does take time, patience and a lot of luck, but the Sardine Run truly is one of the most-amazing wildlife experiences I’ve encountered. ■

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