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Sardine Run: All you need to know

Welcome to The Sardine Run: All you need to know. Looking to explore the Sadine run?

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

sardine run shoal
Photo from

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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.


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 sardines.

We know their passage has a great deal to do with the cold currents stretching along the Wild Coast of South Africa, for these currents produce a great deal of plankton – a significant food source for sardines.

Where does the Sardine Run occur?

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

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

A small group annually makes it’s way east up the Wild Coast in what we know as the Sardine Run. They take advantage of an excellent water current on the continental shelf of the east coast. This cool water is seasonal 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 why the Sardine Run did not occur in 2013 and 2014.

Shoals and bait balls

sardine run bait balls
Photo from

The sardines converge and travel in huge shoals to minimize their risk of being eaten. 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 visible from spotter planes or the surface.

As a result, they become targets for 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 the slightest change in water pressure, so when one fish in the shoal moves, the rest react. Predators use this 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

YouTube video

You didn’t think this would be about sardines, did you?

The number of sardines creates 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)

sardine run

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

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.

For example, one UK Fish Industry Authority 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 sardines. In contrast, FishBase calls at least six species “pilchard”, over a dozen just “sardine”, and many more with the two primary 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 reduction into fish meal or oil. The chief use of sardines is for human consumption, but the 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)

Common cape dolphin
Photo from

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

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 considered 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 toward 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 utilize 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)

cape gannet

The Cape gannet is listed as vulnerable since it has a minimal 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 water foraging.

This species is not strictly migratory, and most 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)

fur seal pups

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

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

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. They are far less relaxed on land and 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, 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)

Blacktip shark

The blacktip shark is a species of requiem shark and part of the family Carcharhinidae. It is common to coastal tropical and subtropical waters worldwide, including brackish habitats. They are swift and energetic sharks – known to leap out of the water and spin three or four times about their 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 into the air.

Divers and coastal fishermen in South Africa commonly encounter blacktip sharks. During the sardine run, they frequently feed on shoals of sardines, anchovy, and other bait fish.

They usually pose little danger to divers. Blacktip sharks showing curiosity towards divers have been reported, but they remain at a safe distance. Under most circumstances, these timid sharks are not considered 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 shark

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 known to top 2,000 nautical miles.

They are long-lived and may survive up to half a century but are slow to grow and reproduce. This and their territorial pride make small, isolated communities 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 frequently encounter gorging themselves on bait balls of Sardine and other baitfish. They can readily be recognized from blacktip sharks by their muted coloration, relatively more minor dorsal fin, and the absence of distinguishing black pigmentation on their pectoral and dorsal fin.

Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera brydei)

bryde's whale

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 living year-round in warmer waters near the equator.

The Bryde’s whale is the only one 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 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 whales have been known almost to knock, and some claim “swallow” humans as they engulf sardine bait balls.

They make sudden direction changes when feeding 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. However, it is capable of staying below the surface for longer. They have also been seen to blow or exhale whilst underwater.

The Bryde’s whale rarely shows more than the top of its head when surfacing between dives.

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Humpback whale

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 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 favorite to view on the Sardine Run.

Humpback whales are known for their magical songs, which travel 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, 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?

cape gannets
Photo from

Every year between May and August, billions of sardines spawn in the calm 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.

The movement of currents and specific weather patterns causes this natural phenomenon. Therefore, it’s essential to know that there are no guarantees to see sardine bait balls. However, regular close-up encounters with sharks, dolphins, whales and seabirds make this a once-in-a-lifetime experience regardless.

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

How can you be part of this incredible natural event?

divers in sardine run

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

As any diver knows, specific marine life on a dive is not guaranteed. You can schedule your dives for specific sites and 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 with aviation companies, fishing boats, and land-based observation centers to track and find the shoals. We have collected a list of top operators to contact if you want to witness this fantastic opportunity.

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

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

Operators to contact:

dusky shark in sardine run
Photo from

The Sardine Run is a fantastic experience — 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.

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

Standard packages of 5 nights and four 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

Nadia Aly and Pro Dive South Africa run PSJ tours.  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 90s, Blue Wilderness pioneered diving expeditions to follow and film the Sardine Run.

Their team tracks the Sardine Run annually and develops new detection technologies, perfecting their observer networks and retrofitting ocean vessels to ensure the best experience of the world’s greatest marine event.

Adventurers joining Blue Wilderness for the Sardine Run are highly recommended to be SCUBA qualified. However, guests who are not qualified or prefer to dive free 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 want to spend the day enjoying the sardine run action from the boat – ScubaCo Diving & Travel will make this possible.

They offer many packages and 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 the action!

Traveling down to the Transkei, ScubaCo Diving & Travel wouldn’t miss this yearly phenomenon for the world; 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 with highly experienced Sardine Run specialist teams of skippers and dive guides.

They offer boat-based adventures for everyone, whether a diver or a 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 unforgettable fun-filled trip on the Sardine Run. They have over 20 years’ of 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 itself on its extensive knowledge and experience of where to find the best Sardine Run action for its clients.

Summary on The Sardine Run: All you need to know

shark in sardine run
Photo from

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, and sharks. It also coincides with the humpback whale migration, which, being there in the area, also enjoys the free lunch.

The Sardine Run is a bit like a Safari. Instead of a jeep, you have a speedboat; 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.

The best place to enjoy the Sardine Run is along the Wild Coast in South Africa.  The sardine run can be tough to predict as a natural phenomenon relying on the complex interrelation of currents, weather, and animals. 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 listed Sardine Run operators are dedicated to running environmentally and socially responsible Sardine Run expeditions.

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Ashleigh Heath

Wednesday 8th of July 2020

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.