South Africa Sardine Run
The Challenge - From time to time, there can be great value in challenging yourself. Of course, any such challenge should offer potential reward at least equal to the investment of time and resources involved. Such is the nature of a journey to dive and snorkel South Africa's famous Sardine Run. Said to be our planet's largest bio-mass migration, the Sardine Run is an annual phenomenon in which millions of schooling sardines make their way around Cape Agulhas at the southern most point of Africa riding the prevailing current into the Indian Ocean and north up South Africa's East Coast. Following and feeding upon rich current-born plankton, these sardines in turn become prey to an array of the ocean's most formidable predators - dolphin, sharks and whales, all in great numbers, with huge flocks of voracious birds attacking from above. It requires considerable effort and expense to place yourself in the midst of this primal natural conflict. If you love the ocean and are heartened by encounters with truly prolific marine life, then the challenge of being witness to the Sardine Run, and immersing yourself in it, provides an immense and uniquely satisfying reward.
SEAL Expeditions (Sea-Air-Land) - An event and adventure of this complexity requires a very capable, responsive, and responsible expedition operator. These attributes are clearly to be found in Nic de Gersigny's SEAL. A native South African, Nic has been staging Sardine Run expeditions since 2003. To do so, he has assembled a very impressive team of boat captains and dive guides; all strong, hard-working, and extremely affable men and women. The carefully-equipped SEAL boats are operated to strict safety standards and procedures. Multiple channels of communication are maintained for logistics and in the event of emergency. Other SEAL gear includes Land Rovers, tanks and compressor, trailers, a Ford diesel tractor for pulling boats out of the surf, and the services of an ultra-light aircraft pilot who flies over the ocean to spot the Sardine Run action. Any time you venture out on the ocean you are assuming some risk. Unless you own your own boat, you are placing your safety in the hands of a Captain, crew and their equipment. From all I've seen, Nic de Gersigny and his SEAL team clearly have the necessary experience, as well as the right attitude, and are well worthy of your confidence.
Mboyti River Lodge - Located on the coast, approximately 300 miles south of Durban, Mboyti River Lodge was our base of operations. It is not a luxury hotel, but afforded comfortable, pleasant accommodations. Rooms offer a choice of one queen or two twin beds. Each has a desk and chair, a small balcony, and a good bathroom with plenty of hot water. The rooms are not heated, so bring something warm to sleep in. Meals are included in the program, and the spacious dining room provides good food with a daily fixed menu. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style, with dinner served to your table. Healthy fare included plenty of fresh salads and vegetables, plus meats and pastas, soups, freshly baked breads and homemade desserts. There is also a large bar and a game room with ping-pong and snooker tables. The staff is friendly and helpful.
Note: During my visit a number of guests experienced at least a day of stomach discomfort and even diarrhea. I'm not sure if this is a common tourist malady at Mboyti, or South Africa for that matter. I did take the matter up with the Lodge's manager and hope that they will be doing all they can to avoid similar problems in the future. As with all foreign travel, you should always carry Lomotil and a broad-spectrum oral antibiotic such as Cipro in your personal kit.
Surf Launch - A unique aspect of this diving experience is the need to launch the dive boats from the beach each morning. SEAL uses excellent rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) specific to this purpose. Each boat carries up to eight divers, plus a Captain and a Divemaster. Launching and later returning to shore through lively surf requires experience, skill, and split-second timing. Our impressive SEAL crew was more than up to the task, and our launches were quite exhilarating experiences. At the end of the day the Captain again times the set of waves and then speeds in on the crest of a wave right back up onto the sand, where the tractor is waiting to quickly haul the boat out of the surf zone and up the beach to be re-trailered.
Check-Out Dive - Once past the breakers, we waited on station for the next boat to make it safely out. Then on our first dive day we headed out to deeper water for a mandatory check-out dive. On back-rolling into the sea, we were instantly surrounded by curious sharks; Copper Sharks (Bronze Whalers) came in quite close to have a look at us. Once our attentive dive guide, Clive, was confident that we were properly weighted and could both sink and swim it was back aboard the RIB to begin the search for Sardine Run action.
First Day on the Water - Captain Paul scanned the horizon and headed towards the tell-tale bird action. Large flocks of gannet wheel over the water and then fold their wings and arrow into a dive trying to catch a sardine. The water was alive with thousands of common and white-side dolphin, their distinctive curved dorsal fins cutting through the water as they chased after their own breakfasts. Humpback whales, moving singly or in groups of two or more, cruised at the surface. We were occasionally able to approach close enough to hear them spout, but when Captain Paul positioned the boat in their path, the whales cautiously dived out of sight. We will keep trying and shall hope to see the whales from the water.
Day Two - Surf was down a bit and our 7 a.m. launch went very smoothly. We headed out to deep water again in search of bait balls, which can prove most elusive. After a few tries on snorkel and one very small bait ball, we did a scuba dive but found ourselves in visibility of just 10-15 feet. Sharks and dolphin moved at the periphery of vision and a few concerned looking sardines streaked past, but no real photo subjects presented themselves. Back on the boat, a pair of humpbacks and then a Bryde's whale cruised past. Then a pod of dolphin came in close enough to photograph on snorkel. Later we came upon a large and venerable loggerhead turtle sunning itself at the surface. It let us have a good look before diving to safety. By noon action on the water had diminished so we returned to the beach a little after 1 p.m., ready for lunch. An evening hike to Shark Point overlook afforded us a fine view of the coast and some good exercise, with a cold beer conveniently waiting at the top of the hill.
Day Three - This turned out to be our best day thus far. Another 7 a.m. launch had us on the water just after daybreak. Captain Paul quickly has us on our first bait ball, and we jumped in on snorkel. It was small, but had a pod of dolphin working it ruthlessly. It was amazing to see how fast the dolphin swim when they slice into the bait. I also noticed that even though the sardines are under predation, they too are constantly feeding on the plankton in the water column. We moved to another ball and this time went in on scuba. I was first over to the action and was able to make some first efforts at photographing this spectacle. Noticed that when the dolphin shift into hyper-drive, I could hear their bodies whooshing through the water column; I suspect they are able to cavitate the water. I was able to shoot four or five passes before the other divers joined the party; at which point the dolphin retreated out of visibility. They kept their distance until we got back on the boat then promptly moved back in to finish dining. As the morning waned and the visible bird action subsided, we went in search of whales and were quickly rewarded with a single, then a pair of humpbacks swimming languidly at the surface.
Day Four - Such a day as this must also be mentioned, even though it was a complete washout. Heavy rain had fallen throughout the previous night and in the morning when we showed up for our 7 a.m. launch, the flat beach of yesterday had been bisected by a raging river. The situation was reevaluated at 9:00 and again at 11:00, at which point the Captains had to admit that it would not be possible to launch safely. Fortunately, for days such as this SEAL stands ready with a nice array of alternate activities.
Day Five - On snorkel we jumped into the middle of a maelstrom, and immediately became one with the bait ball at point blank range. This was a feeding frenzy already in progress, with dolphin, copper sharks and birds all attacking a dwindling pack of sardines right at the surface. Though Captain Paul was concerned for our safety, the predators were oblivious to the divers, only interested in their natural prey the sardines. After 15 minutes of the most exciting action I'd ever seen underwater I reluctantly complied as the Captain ordered us back aboard the dive boat. Although dolphin, sharks and birds were frantically attacking the sardines all around us, not one of us snorkelers was ever touched by a predator, even by accident.
Day Six - On our final dive day we hit the ultimate Sardine Run jackpot. Captain Paul put us on a bait ball better than anything our guides had ever seen. The tightly balled school of sardines numbered in the hundreds of thousands. It went from five feet below the surface down to at least 70 feet, and at the start was well over 100-feet in diameter. Immediately on back-rolling into the water I came face-to-face with sharks; lots of sharks! There were packs of bronze whalers, a crew of very raggy sand tigers, a scattering of big black tips, and one truly colossal bull shark who cruised serenely through the midst of this natural chaos. An organized team of large dolphin zoomed around the edges of the ball, forcing the sardines into a tight silvery mass. The sharks let the dolphin do all the work then slowly finned through the ball to feed. Like a living Swiss cheese, the sardines would instinctively morph to create a tunnel in the bait ball for the sharks to pass.
As a rule, I tried to stay just at the periphery of the sardines, but once or twice ventured briefly inside to be enveloped by the living mass of the bait ball. On one such foray I almost bumped into the biggest of the sand tigers as it materialized out of the throng of bait fish. There was time to compose only a single frame, as the shark nonchalantly brushed past me to continue its feeding. At another point early in the dive I briefly allowed myself to sink to have a peek underneath the ball. In a shadowy world, a ghostly pack of sharks circled intently, preventing the sardines from seeking the safety of the darker depths. As my air supply dwindled, I made my way to the top of the ball, trying to eek every moment out of air supply. The broad apex of the ball was an ever-changing tableau of sardines, sharks and dolphin all jockeying for position in a struggle for sustenance and survival. Adding to the drama were flights of Cape Gannet birds which would dive from 20-30 feet in the air, percussively crash into the water with folded wings, and then swim after the sardines leaving contrails of bubbles in their wakes. Photographing the sharks and dolphin was easy compared to chasing after these swimming aviators. The challenge was enhanced by the trail of bubbles left in their wake, decreasing the visibility already minimized by rich plankton and the scales of fallen sardines.
Once my air was expended I got back on the boat, took five minutes to gather my wits, and then jumped back in on snorkel to regain the chase. I stayed on observing and photographing until the point of exhaustion. When I felt that I only had two more surface dives left in me, I did one more... and then regretfully made my way back to the boat which had been following along with us. Captain Paul said that the bait ball had moved more than two kilometers (over one mile), with us divers and snorkelers frenetically finning right along with it. What an astounding and completely captivating dive!
Before leaving this amazing experience behind Captain Paul positioned our boat right on top of the bait ball which was still boiling with action. Dolphin came up for air as gannet continued to crash into the water just a few yards from our boat, scores at a time, with a thousand more birds rafting on the surface digesting their catches. Putting a cap on this amazing experience, a Bryde's whale cruised across the top of the ball, an immense and imposing predatory punctuation mark. My Sardine Run rewards were many, and immensely satisfying. I came away with unforgettable memories, and fortunately some photographic evidence to prove this was all not just a diver's day dream.
Things to Bring - Expect water temperature of 65-70 degrees F., so bring lot's of neoprene, definitely to include a hooded vest and neoprene gloves. Some thin neoprene socks to wear inside your booties will add to your warmth and comfort. You'll be covered in neoprene while on the water, but will want a strong waterproof sun block for your face, a wide-brimmed sun hat and sun glasses, a stocking cap for warmth at early morning launches, and perhaps a baseball cap for general use. A compact point and shoot camera is great for photographing whales, dolphin, turtles and birds that swim beside the boat. Some of my guests had the new Olympus waterproof/shock-proof cameras which were a great choice to use with wet hands and spray from the boat. Bring a small dry bag to take on the boat for your camera, hat, etc. For topside trekking, have a comfortable pair of walking shoes or boots that will get muddy, and a good light to medium-weight rain jacket. If you have the room and want to be the envy of your peers, in addition to sweats and a long-sleeved shirt to sleep in, pack a small electric blanket (and an electrical converter, power at the resort is 220v.) and sleep warm and cozy all night long.
Expectation vs. Reality - You may hit the mother lode and swim with giant bait balls, countless thousands of sardines with multiple pods of dolphin, skittering sharks, and the occasional Bryde's whale crashing through them; and then again you may not. Do not expect your Sardine Run experience to play out like the BBC Wildlife film of the phenomenon, which took three years of shooting to realize. Your photographs and/or video has a very good chance of not being quite as impressive as all that. Also keep in mind that it's not just about the diving and snorkeling. Many of the coolest encounters take place topside and are viewed from the boat. Simply expect to be amazed by the profusion of wildlife that surrounds you every moment you are on the water... and the rest shall follow.
Travel Notes - For this expedition, your air travel must culminate at Durban, South Africa. Due to poor roads south of Port Edward, between Durban and Mbotyi, the transit down the coast to Mboyti Lodge is best accomplished during daylight hours. Thus you are asked to arrive in Durban no later than noon. Better yet, I suggest that you plan to arrive one day early and spend a night in Durban prior to commencement of your SEAL expedition. The chances of you and your luggage all being in the same place and ready to fully enjoy the adventure will be greatly enhanced. Also a suggestion that when you are doing the topside touring, be careful to avoid picking up chiggers and ticks. That means boot, long pants and insect repellent when walking in the bush or tall grass.
For more information about SEAL, and the Sardine Run in South Africa:
Sardine Run Photo Gallery