SARDINES. THESE SMALL OILY FISH have permeated my thoughts for some time now, to the point of becoming an obsession: millions of sardines packed into one giant glittery baitball.
In among this mass of silver are dolphins, working in unison, like dogs shepherding sheep. Capitalising on the dolphins’ herding skills are the sharks. Their approach is a little more agricultural – with mighty sweeps of the tail, they propel themselves through the baitball, grabbing mouthfuls of dinner en route.
Up above, gannets – avian missiles – pepper the water, skewering a sardine or two in the process. From the deep, a colossal shadow appears: a Bryde’s whale launches into the action, gullet-first.
Then it’s over. And I’ve witnessed the whole magical episode, while shooting photos worthy of gracing DIVER’S cover. This is how the Sardine Run plays out in my dreams.
However, as most underwater photographers and dive journalists know, our wettest fantasies don’t always pan out exactly as we think they will. There are the missed opportunities and equipment malfunctions, murky visibility and non-compliant animals.
“The trials and tribulations of an underwater photographer on assignment would make for great television!” This is how my colleague, film-maker Chris Scarffe, and I pitched the idea to Epic TV, an online portal for adventure film-makers.
While some people get a buzz throwing themselves off high buildings, I get mine from travelling the world, encountering marine animals. The guys at Epic liked the idea, and easy as that we were off to Port St John’s in South Africa. My wait to cover this unique event was over at last.

On the job
You’d have to have been living on Mars – your head buried in a deep red crater – not to know about the Sardine Run, but let’s recap anyway.
Between the months of June and July, billions of sardines spawn along South Africa’s Agulhas Bank. As they make their way northwards towards warmer waters, this creates a feeding frenzy of unparalleled proportions.
On the face of it, a gigantic sardine buffet full of predators doesn’t sound like ideal family viewing. So on arrival at Port St Johns, I’m a little surprised to be met by Belgian family the van Doorns.
Mum Kiki and dad Roy own a veterinary practice in Antwerp and spend their spare time travelling the world, seeking out underwater adventures with 17-year-old twin sons Chaim and Lloyd, and 21-year-old marine-biology student Loic.
While the event is traditionally viewed as one for elite divers, over recent years Shark Explorers (our operator for the week) has been receiving more enquiries from families.
“This is an ideal trip for older kids, as it’s essentially like going on safari – except you’re on the ocean,” explains owner Morne Hardenberg. “And instead of lions and elephants, we see whales, sharks and dolphins.”
Let’s not forget about the sardines. In the 1980s, bloated sharks would wash up on the beach, having gorged themselves into a state of exhaustion. They would then promptly regurgitate the sardines to make space, before wobbling off and feasting again on shoals so large they had turned the ocean black.
Birds, on the other hand, ate so much that they were unable to fly.
Over recent years – and as ocean temperatures rise because of global warming – the Run has scaled back somewhat. Sardines prefer water of around 17°C. On my arrival in early July it is 21°. Along with environmental pressures, it is rumoured that industrial fishing vessels are denting populations.
While those famous baitballs are shrinking in size, arrive at the right time, get a bit of luck with the conditions and there’s the potential to witness a once-in-a-lifetime event.
A trip on the Sardine Run represents a slight gamble: the underwater photographer’s equivalent to going all in on red. But if it comes off, you’ll be talking about it for the rest of your life.

Out in the open
However, just finding sardines turns out to be a giant game of cat and mouse. Our week starts with a chilly 5.30am wake-up. Wetsuits on, we head for the launch site, where skipper Paulie waits with flasks of sweet milky coffee.
As we saunter through the river-mouth, life-jackets are handed out and we’re instructed to place our feet in the straps: today’s launch will be a touch hairy.
As Paulie navigates some testing waves, a brilliant pink sun starts its ascent. After all those years of thinking about this moment, my hunt is on.
A couple of enormous grey domes puncture the water’s surface; humpbacks on their way to the birthing grounds in Mozambique. They move purposefully, occasionally spurting from their blowholes.
Dolphins congregate elsewhere, scouring the ocean for goodies. Paulie goes full-throttle because he has seen action on the horizon – dive-bombing gannets.
“Get ready!” comes the shout as we arrive at the melée. Coat off, fins and mask on, snorkel in mouth, camera at the ready, and then, a back-roll into murky green water – the visibility’s even worse than it looks from the surface.
For the rest of the day we continue our chase, and numerous trips in and out of the water.
On one occasion we arrive right on cue, flopping in among a whirl of gannets. Through the greenery, dolphins power through a pack of baitfish – anchovies, perhaps A couple of skittish sharks even join in on the action. Then, as quick as a flash, the action is over.
As we make our way back to base-camp after seven hours on the water, we see a couple of juvenile humpbacks lolling around at the surface – playing, breaching, swimming upside-down, tail and pectoral fin slapping.
At the Creek, chef and aptly named owner Joy presents a ravenous crowd with minestrone soup and homemade bread, as everyone makes their way for a well-deserved hot shower. We spend the afternoon sharing photographs and talking through the day’s highlights.
Our week continues in much the same vein. We swim with lots of dolphins and have amazing humpback encounters; we amuse ourselves on the boat listening to music and eating delicious snacks. Joy’s dextrous fingers rustle up barbecues at night, and we talk fish.
Sadly, however, the visibility remains terrible all week, never much more than 3-4m. It’s like walking around Kruger National Park without your contacts in.
As for the sardines, while one small baitball gets our hopes up, that’s it for the week. They’ve either been fished or, more likely, the water is simply too warm for them.
The fact is that no one really knows why the sardines are less numerous than they used to be.
While I’m a little disappointed not to have seen those famous baitballs in clear blue water, it’s still been a fantastic week. The van Doorns have loved what they’ve seen. Sadly, however, great weeks don’t pay the bills – great pictures do.
My green offerings of dolphins or breaching humpbacks aren’t going to grace the cover of DIVER. And a film about taking the Epic Shot that features zero epic photographs is like a murder mystery without any killing. We need a Plan B.

Selfie-obsessed
Famed for its schools of raggedtooth and baited tiger/blacktip shark dives, Aliwal Shoal is one of the top shark-diving destinations in the world. With more consistent visibility and near guaranteed sightings, what better place to take the Epic Shot
Chris, our soundman Sebastian and I make out way east towards the small seaside town of Umkomaas. Our host is African Watersports, run by legendary shark film-maker Walter Bernardis.
Over dinner (and a well-deserved beer) Chris announces that he has had a brainwave. “Why don’t we make the Epic Shot a selfie in front of a load of feeding blacktips” he says proudly, a wicked glint in his eye.
We head out towards the deep blue with a rough plan: bait for sharks, wait for sharks, jump in among sharks, take selfie. What could possibly go wrong
After a short time baiting with sardines (so that’s where they’ve been all week) the water simmers with blacktips.
I back-roll, a little tentatively, into shark-fin soup. All around me, blacktips – like large, toothy puppy dogs – munch away happily. While they’re a bit frisky, at no point do I feel threatened.
I snap away in an attempt to take the perfect selfie: a shark, mouth open, eating a sardine over my shoulder.
As I get smacked across the face by a tail and receive an eyeful of claspers, I realise that the ideal image is easier to achieve in theory than in practice.
And then, as I continue to photograph obliviously, a shark takes the buoyline just a couple of feet from my head and bolts towards the seabed. Luckily I capture the image as the shark – rope in mouth – nearly decapitates me.
My predator-filled baitball of an Epic Shot had inadvertently turned into a series of amusing Epic Selfies. While perhaps not the images I envisaged at the start of the job, that’s the nature of the ocean: always unpredictable, yet capable of providing the most thrilling moments imaginable.
Sometimes I think it would be easier (certainly less hazardous) to photograph flowers instead. But life wouldn’t be nearly as much fun, would it

Shark Explorers: www.sharkexplorers. com. African Watersports: www.african watersports.co.za.