The Great Sardine Run

An underwater spectacle to rival The Great Migration

The adventurous scuba diving experience

The Sardine Run is a captivating natural phenomenon that takes place in the waters of South Africa. It is an adventurous scuba diving experience and provides some of the best game fishing in Africa. Every year, billions of sardines gather in vast shoals, swimming and feeding together. However, in late April, something remarkable happens. The ocean currents undergo a subtle shift as the southern winter approaches. Upwellings and eddies push a tendril of cold water towards the east, while the warm Agulhas current moves further offshore, allowing the cold stream to gain momentum. As this current moves along the eastern seaboard of Africa, it displaces the warm water, creating a narrow strip of cold water. This change in temperature leads to an abundance of plankton and other small marine life, which serves as a feast for the sardines and cold-water fish that thrive in these conditions.

To ensure their safety, the sardines travel in enormous shoals, stacked closely together, near the surface of the water where the cold current runs. This mass of fish is so immense that it can even be spotted from space by satellites.

Image courtesy of The Sardine Run Association

However, the most thrilling aspect of the Sardine Run is the entourage of predators that follow the shoals. Game fish, dolphins, whales, seals, penguins, gannets, cormorants, and sharks join the spectacle. Witnessing this breath-taking display first-hand is an unforgettable experience. Dolphins take a leading role in the action, swimming around the shoals of fish and herding them into tight “bait balls.” This strategic manoeuvre makes for efficient feeding, especially for larger predators like bronze whaler sharks and Bryde’s whales. The presence of sharks adds to the excitement, as they often collaborate with other predators. The formation of a bait ball can reach up to 50 feet across. The hungry crowd of predators repeatedly swim through it, mouths wide open, for as little as 10 minutes. Surprisingly, despite the intensity of the hunt, the activity appears choreographed, more like a synchronized flash mob than a chaotic frenzy. Once one bait ball disperses, the search begins for another, keeping the thrill alive throughout the Sardine Run.

It’s worth noting that these predators are not only after the sardines but also each other. Sharks may chase dolphins, and dolphins may chase sardines. Diving during the Sardine Run provides a front-row seat to this spectacular show of nature’s raw power and dynamics.

When to book

The best place to experience the Sardine Run is along the Wild Coast in South Africa. The best time of year is May – July, which is in the South Africa winter. This adventurous experience can be incorporated into an itinerary that includes a shore-based safari, which is also best enjoyed in the winter months when there is less vegetation and more visibility.

For more information contact The Sardine Run Professional Association. They will be able to provide you with a list of knowledgeable and experienced companies and guides to help you maximise this bucket list adventure.

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