Spectacular Diving Experiences: The Sardine Run

The Sardine Run in South Africa is recognized as one of the world’s most spectacular marine events.

Annually, from May to July, vast shoals of sardines migrate from their temperate-water home off South Africa’s southern coast and travel north-east into the sub-tropical coastal waters of the Wild Coast.

If you want to learn more about the african continent read our article on reasons to visit Africa.

An unparalleled concentration of marine predators including seabirds, sharks, game fish and marine mammals follow these shoals on their Sardine Run.

sardine run shoal
Photo from http://www.sardinerunassociation.org

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What is the Sardine Run?

Animals of the Sardine run

Where and when can you experience the Sardine Run?

Operators to contact

What is the Sardine Run?

The Sardine Run along the South African coast is one of the largest marine-life migrations on earth. Here’s all you need to know about this extraordinary event:

Ecology

The sardine run is still poorly understood from an ecological point of view. A recent interpretation is that the Sardine Run is a seasonal reproductive migration of a genetically distinct population of sardine. We know that their passage has a great deal to do with the cold currents that stretch along the Wild Coast of South Africa, for these currents produce a great deal of plankton – a major food source for sardines.

Where does the Sardine Run occur?

Sardines mate and spawn on the Agulhas banks off the southern Cape coast and their fertilised eggs are left to float on the waters of the open sea, where they are carried north west. Once the hatched sardines are strong enough to swim against the current, they collect in huge shoals and make their way slowly back to their spawning grounds.

sardine run map
The green area of the map is the extent of the coastline where you can experience the sardine run.

There is a small group that annually makes its way east up the Wild Coast in what we know as the Sardine Run. They take advantage of a cool water current on the continental shelf of the east coast. This cool water is a seasonal occurrence and happens only as a thin strip between the coast and the warm Agulhas Current. If the current doesn’t occur, the sardines don’t run. This is the reason that the Sardine Run did not occur in 2013 and 2014.

Shoals and bait balls

To minimise their risk of being eaten the sardines converge and travel in huge shoals. They travel in groups of thousands at a time remaining close to the surface of the ocean and close to the shoreline for much of their passage. This results in what is commonly termed The Greatest Shoal on Earth. The sardine shoals are often more than 7 km long, 1.5 km wide and 30 meters deep. These shoals are clearly visible from spotter planes or from the surface.

sardine run bait balls
Photo from http://www.sardinerunassociation.org

As a result they become targets for a whole group of predators – birds, larger fish, sharks, whales and dolphins – all join in the feeding frenzy. The appearance of common dolphins along the KwaZulu-Natal south coast is an indicator.

Sardines are extremely sensitive to even the slightest change in water pressure, so when one fish in the shoal moves, the rest react. Predators use this to their advantage to move some of the fish into concentrated balls. Dolphins sometimes blow bubbles toward the ball to concentrate the fish even more before launching an attack. Sharks and Cape gannets join in the feast and the fish become lethargic as the oxygen in the surrounding water decreases, making them easy prey.

Animals of the Sardine run

You didn’t think this was just going to be about sardines, did you?

The numbers of sardine create a feeding frenzy along the coastline. The run, containing millions of individual sardines, attracts a diverse array of marine predators. And when predator meets prey, a feeding event of unmatched proportions begins!

Sardines (Sardinops sagax)

Sardines are small epipelagic (shallow water) fish that sometimes migrate along the coast in large schools. They are an important forage fish for larger forms of marine life. 

sardine run

Sardine” and “pilchard” are common names used to refer to various small, oily fish within the herring family. But these terms are not precise, and what is meant depends on the region. One UK Fish Industry Authority, for example, classifies sardines as young pilchards. Another suggests that any fish shorter than 15 cm (6 in) in length are sardines, and larger fish are pilchards. A Codex standard for canned sardines cites 21 species that may be classed as sardines, whereas FishBase calls at least six species “pilchard”, over a dozen just “sardine”, and many more with the two basic names qualified by various adjectives.

Sardines are commercially fished for a variety of uses: for bait; for immediate consumption; for drying, salting, or smoking; and for reduction into fish meal or oil. The chief use of sardines is for human consumption, but fish meal is used as animal feed, while sardine oil has many uses, including the manufacture of paint, varnish and linoleum.

Common dolphin (Delphinus capensis)

As their name implies, the Common dolphin is one of the most abundant of all dolphin species, found world-wide in tropical and warm temperate waters. Like most dolphins, the Common dolphin are preyed upon by orcas and various sharks. Their only other threats are man-made: pollution, toxins and fishing activities.

Common cape dolphin
Photo from http://www.sardinerunassociation.org

In South Africa, the Common dolphin is a primary predator of sardines and other baitfish during South Africa’s annual Sardine Run. The dolphins are thought to be critical players in the run because they do most of the hard work by herding the fish. The sardines are herded into tight bait balls which are easier to feed on for all predators who take advantage of this natural phenomenon.

The ‘bait balls’ are formed by using cooperative herding and bubble netting to drive pockets of sardines towards the surface in tight groups. Once a bait ball has formed, dolphins will swim through the bait ball picking out individual fish to feed on. Other opportunistic predators, such as sharks, gannets, fur seals and whales will also utilise these bait balls for an easy meal opportunity.

Experienced tour operators will frequently shadow the movements of common dolphin pods and wait for them to drive part of a sardine shoal to the surface. It is these dolphin-made bait balls that allow divers to view and witness the Sardine Run in South Africa

Cape gannet (Morus capensis)

The Cape gannet is listed as vulnerable since it has a very small breeding range on just six islands. Over-exploitation of its prey by human fisheries – compounded by pollution – is causing a continuous decline in the quality of surrounding waters for foraging.

cape gannet

This species is not strictly migratory, and the majority of Cape gannets remain within 500km of their breeding site year-round. Some (mainly adult males) use the breeding grounds as roosting sites throughout the non-breeding season while others disperse up to 3300 km from the breeding colonies. They are, however, strictly marine. They nest on open ground and the cliffs of offshore islands. Usually silent at sea, rasping arrah arrah is the most common call at colonies.

Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus)

Cape fur seals belong to the eared seal family and are a sub-species of the Afro-Australian Fur seal. Cape fur seals normally reside on offshore islands or isolated beaches along the western and southern coasts of South Africa and Namibia.

fur seal pups

Encounters of Cape fur seals in the annual sardine run are limited. Divers will frequently encounter single fur seals that feed opportunistically on sardines alongside common dolphins and sharks. It is rare to encounter more than single individual Cape fur seals.

This species is an inquisitive and friendly animal when in the water and will often accompany scuba divers. They will swim around divers for periods of several minutes at a time. On land, they are far less relaxed and tend to panic when people come near them. 

The Cape fur seal’s main predator is the great white shark, although they are also preyed upon by various other animals, as well, such as orcas. South African fur seals have a very robust and healthy population. Harvesting of seals was outlawed in South Africa in 1990.

Blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus)

The blacktip shark is a species of requiem shark, and part of the family Carcharhinidae. It is common to coastal tropical and subtropical waters around the world, including brackish habitats. They are swift and energetic sharks – known to leap out of the water and spin three or four times about its axis before landing! Some of these jumps are the end product of feeding runs, in which the shark corkscrews vertically through schools of small fish and its momentum launches it into the air.

Blacktip shark

Blacktip sharks are commonly encountered by divers and coastal fishermen in South Africa. During the sardine run they are frequently encountered feeding on shoals of sardines, anchovy and other bait fish. They usually pose little danger to divers. Blacktip sharks showing curiosity towards divers has been reported, but they remain at a safe distance. Under most circumstances, these timid sharks are not regarded as highly dangerous to humans. However, they may become aggressive in the presence of food, and their size and speed invite respect.

Dusky shark (Carcharhinus obscurus)

Dusky sharks are long-distance swimmers known for seasonal, temperature-driven migrations. Local patterns vary but the sharks often head toward the Poles in summer and return to the Equator in winter on sea voyages that have been known to top 2,000 nautical miles.

dusky shark

They are extremely long-lived and may survive up to half a century, but they are slow to grow and to reproduce. This, along with their territorial pride, results in small, isolated communities that are susceptible to localized overfishing pressures. Commercial and recreational fishing for these sharks was banned in 2000 but they are often accidentally caught on longlines and other fishing gear—with high mortality rates. Elsewhere they are still targeted for trade in shark fin soup, with devastating results.

During the Sardine Run large dusky sharks are frequently encountered gorging themselves on bait-balls of Sardine and other baitfish. They can readily be recognised from blacktip sharks by their more muted colouration, relatively smaller dorsal fin, and the absence of distinguishing black pigmentation on their pectoral and dorsal fin.

Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera brydei)

The Bryde’s whale (pronounced “broo-dess”), is named after Johan Bryde who helped build the first whaling factory in Durban, South Africa in 1909. They are the only baleen whale species that lives all year-round in warmer waters near the equator.

bryde's whale

The Bryde’s whale is the only whale that can be frequently observed feeding on the sardine bait balls of South Africa’s annual sardine run. Shallow bait balls will often be engulfed in their entirety by a lunging Bryde’s whale. As a baleen whale, the Bryde’s Whale will suck in a massive amount of water and bait fish during a single lunge at a bait ball. Once captured, the whale will stain out seawater through the baleen and retain the fish.

For divers in the water, the presence of these massive baleen whales can be intimidating, and lunge feeding Bryde’s wales have been known to almost knock, and some claim “swallow” humans as they engulf sardine bait balls.

They are known to make sudden changes of direction when feeding both on the surface and underwater. Sometimes inquisitive, the Bryde’s whale can be seen approaching or swimming alongside boats. It has irregular breathing patterns, and will often blow four to seven thin, hazy spouts, followed by a dive, usually about two minutes long, although it is capable of staying below the surface for longer. They have also been seen to blow or exhale whilst underwater. When surfacing between dives, the Bryde’s whale rarely shows more than the top of its head

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

The Humpback whale is a common sighting for adventurers experiencing the sardine run. These frequent sightings lead many visitors to incorrectly believe that their presence is related to the Sardine Run, but they are just there at the right time during their migration. Humpbacks migrate annually from summer feeding grounds near the poles to warmer winter breeding waters closer to the Equator. Despite having no ecological relationship to the sardine run, the humpback whale is a firm favourite to view on the Sardine Run.

Humpback whale

Humpback whales are known for their magical songs, which travel for great distances through the world’s oceans. These sequences of moans, howls, cries, and other noises are quite complex and often continue for hours on end. It is most likely that humpbacks sing to communicate with others and to attract potential mates.

Mothers and their young swim close together, often touching one another with their flippers with what appear to be gestures of affection. These powerful swimmers use their massive tail fins, called a fluke, to propel themselves through the water and sometimes completely out of it. They regularly leap from the water, landing with a tremendous splash!

Where and when can you experience the Sardine Run?

Every year between May and August, billions of sardines spawn in the cool waters of the Agulhas Bank and travel along the east coast of South Africa. They follow the cool Benguela current as it moves up the east coast of South Africa from Agulhas Bank to Mozambique.

This natural phenomenon is caused by the movement of currents and certain weather patterns. Therefore, it’s important to know that there are no guarantees to see sardine bait balls. There are, however, regular close-up encounters with sharks, dolphins, whales and seabirds, which makes this a once-in-a-lifetime experience regardless.

cape gannets
Photo from http://www.sardinerunassociation.org

Some days divers can spend more than 8 hours out on the water, hoping to find a bait ball of sardines. That said, the last few years have been quite active for sardines, and your chances are good for some fantastic underwater action.

How can you be part of this awesome natural event?

An old joke says: “If you want to experience the Sardine Run, you will be the one running.”

divers in sardine run

As any diver knows, there’s no guarantee of specific marine life on a dive. You can schedule your dives for certain sites and certain times of the year but seeing what you came to see is never a sure thing. It is the same for the Sardine Run. Dive centers in the area often work along with aviation companies, fishing boats and land-based observation centers in order to track and find the shoals. We have collected a list of top operators to contact if you want to witness this fantastic opportunity for yourself.

Can’t make it in person? Witness it online!

In the late 90′s, Blue Wilderness were instrumental in epic productions such as the Emmy Award winning BBC film “The greatest shoal on Earth”.

Operators to contact:

The Sardine Run is an amazing experience — there is nothing quite like it. Seeing an iconic sardine bait-ball in crystal-clear conditions with dolphins, sharks, whales and sea birds in a feeding frenzy is, in fact, quite rare and very special.

dusky shark in sardine run
Photo from http://www.sardinerunassociation.org

Here is a list of operators are dedicated to running responsible Sardine Run expeditions if you want to witness this spectacular natural event first-hand:

1. African Dive Adventures

Don’t let life fly past you, join African Dive Adventures on the adventure of a lifetime and witness the Sardine Run!

Afridive Adventures is offering the best Sardine Run Packages along the Wild Coast, making them our top choice if you want to witness this wonderful natural event! Their base is set up in Coffee Bay where the divers are accommodated in the lovely Ocean View Hotel.

Standard packages of 5 nights and 4 activity days at sea are offered. For groups there are offers of tailor-made, longer packages or combinations of Sardine Run and Protea Banks.

2. PSJ and Pro Dive South Africa

PSJ tours are run by Nadia Aly and Pro Dive South Africa.  Pro Dive South Africa has proudly been offering the Sardine Run experiences out of Port Saint John’s (PSJ) for over 21 years, working hard to put together the best experience of the Sardine Run in Port Saint John’s.

You should have good diving experience and skills for this expedition. These trips are not suitable for new divers.

3. Blue Wilderness

In the late 90′s Blue Wilderness pioneered diving expeditions to follow and film the Sardine Run. Their team annually tracks the Sardine Run and they are always developing new detection technologies, perfecting their observer networks and retrofitting ocean vessels to ensure the best experience of the world’s greatest marine event.

It is highly recommended that adventurers joining Blue Wilderness for the Sardine Run are SCUBA qualified. However, guests who are not qualified or prefer to free dive are still welcome. For free divers, we do insist that you do not move into a bait ball as this interferes negatively with aerial predators such as the Cape gannet.

4. ScubaCo

Whether you are a scuba diver or just want to spend the day enjoying the sardine run action from the boat – ScubaCo Diving & Travel will make this possible.

They offer many packages as well as a “Build your own package” for Sardine Run 2020, should you have limited time in South Africa. This way you can be sure not to miss out on the action!

Travelling down to the Transkei, ScubaCo Diving & Travel wouldn’t miss this yearly phenomenon for the world; and you shouldn’t either!

5. Offshore Africa

Offshore Africa has been operating on the Wild Coast for many years and has extensive home-based knowledge. They are ideally located to offer you a superb, fun-filled trip, coupled with highly experienced Sardine Run specialist teams of skippers and dive guides.

They offer boat-based adventures for everyone, whether a diver or non-diver! All nature lovers, bird watchers, photography enthusiasts, dolphin and whale enthusiasts, snorkelers and scuba divers will thoroughly enjoy this incredible event of nature, which has been likened to the land based “Wildebeest migration of the Serengeti” and the marine equivalent of this has since been called “The Greatest Shoal on Earth”.

6. Aliwal Dive Centre

Join Aliwal Dive Centre for an amazing fun-filled trip on the Sardine Run. They have over 20 years’ experience on the Sardine Run, so they know their stuff!

Based in the scenic town of Port St Johns, where the boats launch out of the Umzimvubu river, Aliwal Dive Center prides themselves on their extensive knowledge and experience of where to find the best Sardine Run action for their clients.

Summary

The Sardine Run is a migration of billions of sardines that follow the stream of cold water from Agulhas Bank and ends up in Mozambique. This massive migration is an annual event that attracts thousands of birds, dolphins, sharks. It also coincides with the humpback whale migration which, being there in the area, also enjoy the free lunch.

The Sardine Run is a bit like a Safari. Instead of a jeep you have a speedboat and instead of the savanna you have the ocean. It is the largest biomass migration on the planet – outweighing even the annual wildebeest migration in the Serengeti.

shark in sardine run
Photo from http://www.sardinerunassociation.org

The best place to enjoy the Sardine Run is along the Wild Coast in South Africa.  As a natural phenomenon relying on complex interrelation of currents, weather and animals, the sardine run can be very hard to predict. As a general rule – the action moves from up from the south, so if your dates are early (May to June) look around Port Elizabeth and East London. From June to July look at Coffee Bay, Port St Johns and Mboyti.

All of the listed Sardine Run operators are dedicated to running environmentally and socially responsible Sardine Run expeditions.

1 Response
  1. Ashleigh Heath

    This article has made me realise just how little I know about the ocean right here in my home town. Very interesting! Especially that the humpback whale just happens to be in the area.

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