Nov 2019

The Sardine Run. An African Ocean Safari

By Katherine Nash

Something stirs in the part of the southern African continental shelf known as the Agulhas Bank, where the warm Indian Ocean and the cold Atlantic meet. With a myriad of theories circulating about what exactly stirs, from the ideal temperature spreading up the coast between May and June, to current and water speeds, whatever has awakened drives hundreds of thousands of the South African Pilchard (Sardinops sagax) to spawn and then make their way up the coast in shoals up to 7km long, 1.5 km wide and 30m deep. These shoals pass through the coastlines of the Eastern Cape, and Kwazulu Natal, and up into Mozambique, where they leave the shoreline and move into the Indian Ocean.

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This migration triggers a feeding frenzy up the coastline that mirrors to the wildebeest migration in its magnitude. And it is this feeding frenzy, with the predator interactions, that makes this a bucket list event for any ocean lover. Because of the temperature variations between the currents, shoals are driven inshore making the action accessible by boat or even just off the beach.

Dive operators throughout the country scramble to put together tours and packages to make the most of the short time that the run occupies. Most of the operators will launch from the various beach towns on the coastline of Kwazulu Natal. Still, by far the most spectacular experience comes from the small, almost isolated outpost of Port St Johns on the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape.

This little town at the mouth of the Umzimvubu River exhibits some of the most spectacular landscapes in this part of Africa. Most of the lodges sit along the river, which means that boarding the RIB that will take you to sea for the day, is a lot more dignified, as they have small mooring jetties.

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Choosing an operator to work with, especially if you are overseas, can be complicated. Perusing the various tours on offer is very overwhelming, and very often people opt for joining a tour group rather than investigating options themselves. While this can be hassle-free, it may take a little away from the experience. As a responsible tourist, we want to try and enrich the areas we are visiting and support the local businesses as far as possible. That being said, the first search is to find an operator located where you plan to launch from. Despite what the internet tells you, in Port St Johns, there is only one.

Offshore Africa, run by Rob and Debbie, offers year-round tours of the coastline for divers and photographers, from ocean dive trips to river cruises on the “Bobalong Barge”. Years of experience, their passion for the ocean, and particularly for this stretch of coastline, means that they pour their heart and soul into providing every single client with the best service. Debbie is informative and responsive and, because they work with most of the lodges in the area, their Sardine Run safari packages are incredibly flexible.

Travelling for the Sardine Run, there are few things to consider. Port St Johns is a rural town, and the people will bend over backwards to help you and make you feel welcome. Still, there are no specialist shops, so if you have specific needs, you really should discuss it with the operator or lodge before leaving home to make sure that you bring everything that you need. The Sardine Run takes place in winter, and while the operator usually makes sure that you have a thick wetsuit, and an oilskin to put over yourself to protect yourself from the wind, don’t forget the winter woollies.

Debbie and her team will meet you at whichever lodge you choose to go through your rental gear requirements, fill in the paperwork and check your certifications. Like all good dive operators, they need to make sure that you are safe to dive. The good news is, if diving is off the cards for you, you can still have a great experience snorkelling and watching from the boat.

A typical day begins very early, most operators will collect you from the jetty at about 7 am, and you need to be breakfasted and dressed in your wetsuits and woollies before then. It isn’t fair to keep the skippers waiting so if timekeeping is an issue, get a thickskinned buddy to chase you. Space on the boat is limited, and things will probably get wet. Bear that in mind when packing a bag to take with you.

You will are provided with a boat safety briefing while you are still on the river. The skipper’s job is to get you and the rest of your group safely through the waves to the flat ocean behind them. Your responsibility is to follow instructions, hold on tight, and enjoy the experience.

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Once the boat is through the breakers, you will be taken out to sea. The skipper keeps in contact with spotter planes and the other operators to make sure that you are taken to see as much of the action as possible. Hot drinks, cold drinks, snacks and even lunch are on board, so there is no need to go back to shore until the day is done.

The variety of experiences take your breath away. Huge pods of dolphins surround the boat and follow for kilometres. Some come so close; you can almost reach out and touch them. The ocean silence was broken only by the hundreds of puffs as they clear their blowholes. Every so often a gigantic puff is heard and a whale breaches right in front of you, so close that you can feel the spray. If it is safe, you will be allowed to don your mask and snorkel and slip off the boat into the water, trying to slice the water and make no splash, and swim off to see the whale moving under the water, with dolphins darting all over the place.

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The action changes rapidly, and on the skipper’s direction you may need to don your dive gear quickly and after a synchronised backward roll, join the activity underwater. The sardines attempt to protect themselves by manoeuvering into whirling baitballs when attacked. Sharks, dolphins and other large predators dive in and out of the ball of fish, while the birds dive in from the top. It is heartstoppingly exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. You are reminded of how small you are in this vast expanse of water. A vigilant divemaster keeps a beady eye on you because, for most people, the movement is mesmerising.

The boats head back to the river after about 8 hours, depending on the situation. After a hot shower, the evening can be spent either joining a sunset drink at the airstrip, a night out with your divemaster or operator staff, or simply having a quiet dinner at the lodge. Then it’s off to bed to prepare to do it all again the next day. Ah, life!

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Katherine Nash

Ah, the mini-bio... OK, so I am a former paramedic (not a first aider, a real paramedic) who moved to a teeny island for a change of pace. Qualified Dive Medic, and Assistant Life Support Tech (for commercial divers). Did my PADI IDC in Dubai way back when, and now am sitting back watching.