THIS INCREDIBLE MIGRATION starts every year in the South African summer (February-March) and ends during the second half of winter (July-August).
It can be accessed through operators based mainly in two locations of the primitive and rough Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape Province: Port Elisabeth, from late March to mid-May, and some 370 miles north in the area between Port St Johns and the Mbotyi river, in June and July.
At the end of July the survivors reach the coast around Durban and, after spawning, disappear into deeper and cooler waters, to undertake the far less perilous trip back to the Agulhas Bank. There they rest and start all over again the following year.
The reasons for their journey are debatable, one way of saying that we don’t really know much about what lies behind this phenomenon.
For the visiting diver this hardly matters – we just count our blessings to be able to witness the show live and fall in love with it.
Every morning I would wake thinking that today the genie of the Run would take me inside a real-life action movie.
At first, however, everything seems intimidating. The Wild Coast in winter and the idea of the chilly air and waters, the powerful Indian Ocean and the vast magnificence of the surroundings can overwhelm. Then the sheer adventure kicks in and carries you away.
I have been to the Run twice now, and after the first time wondered why I’d waited so long. The mouth of the Mbotyi where I stayed on both occasions is a lost paradise, at the end of 18 miles of dirty track that suddenly opens onto the infinity of the ocean. The white sandy beachfront and the views are inspirational.
African Watersports has organised operations for the Sardine Run since 1998, and over the years Walter Bernardis, its “Chief Pirate”, has seen every spectacle the Run can produce.
His operation, not unlike others in the region, uses 8.5m twin-engined RIBs producing at least 180hp. Every morning these launch with a reserve of 200 litres of petrol, to allow for the long distances often required in chasing the action.
The Sardine Run is no typical diving holiday, where you select a site and go dive. Here, your dive-sites cover 50 miles of Wild Coast, six miles or more out into the ocean.
Winds permitting, a Microlight aircraft roams above, seeking shoals and radioing in promising co-ordinates. The hotspot can of course be anywhere in those 300sq miles.
Long- beak common dolphins get among the sardines.
The essence of the action lies with the bait-balls, which offer unmatched adrenaline-filled hunting action. There are two kinds, depending on which sardines (or at times mackerel) compose them.
Moving bait-balls can shift quite fast. Dolphins fly all around you to attack the fleeing fish, which often seek refuge in the shadows of the divers witnessing the hunt. And if it’s not dolphins it could be sharks, in which case you don’t really
wish to be taken for refuge; the feeding frenzy could become such that you really don’t want to find yourself right in the middle of it.
Stable bait-balls, on the other hand, occur when the fish are trapped and revolve on themselves. They’re going nowhere because they don’t know which way to go, what with predators arriving from everywhere, including from the air above – the most daring birds such as gannets can plunge to 20m or deeper.
This is when you can finally put your tank on, sit back at a reasonable distance, and just watch in a state of bliss Nature unfolding in front of your eyes and lenses.
And if it is your day, you might even witness a Bryde’s whale arriving and closing the show by taking all.
I’ve been lucky on both years I went – the second time this year – and although no Bryde’s whales marched through my bait-balls I did witness several stable ones featuring both dolphins and sharks.
The former are organised and determined hunters, both attacking in groups and taking turns, with some going for the catch while the others continue to scare the sardines from the same position.
I noticed that at least one or two would check me out regularly, just to ensure that I was not a danger or a nuisance. Luckily, they didn’t mind me taking their pictures.