Without warning this submarine-sized whale emerged through the huge ball of sardines. I fired off two frames and swam away very quickly.
Chasing the sardines
FOR SIX YEARS, I have waited for this day; sharks and dolphins, gannets in their hundreds and Bryde’s whales charging though a ball of sardines – a very big ball, as big as Harrods.
But here I am, virtually blind, firing the Nikon D3s in rapid mode, just about able to make out the shape of the animals through the huge S45 Seacam viewfinder.
Earlier in the morning, I lost my mask with its prescription lens. In the next moment, a 40-tonne behemoth emerged from the deep, and it was too late to take evasive action.
I was lifted out of the water by the Bryde’s whale’s snout. The mouth that had just charged through the dark cloud of sardines looked as wide as the universe. I was in the whale’s way.
My life flashed before me as I thought of my son, whose name happens to be Jonah. In the next instant, I was thrown out of the water, complete with scuba gear and with camera housing in hand.
Friends on the boat had thought I had been swallowed up by the whale; my German friend had suffered a hefty dose of myocardial infarction. But I had survived, and my smile was as big as the whale!
I am living what should be the best day of my life, immersed in one of our planet’s greatest extravaganzas. Commonly referred to by wildlife enthusiasts as the Sardine Run, the annual migration of sardine shoals can stretch over 12 miles long, two miles wide and nearly 40m deep. These fish move in furious synchronicity.
This unique and mystifying phenomenon occurs along the eastern coastline of South Africa, moving northwards towards the Transkei (Eastern Cape) and KwaZulu-Natal between May and July. Zulu legends relating to the Run have been passed down from generation to generation.
The sardine migration is a sight to see in its own right, but it is the hundreds of thousands of predators that arrive to feed on the sardines that make this a marine experience to rival the Great Migration of the Serengeti.
Try if you can to imagine 100 billion sardines, 150,000 Cape gannets, 20,000 dolphins, 10,000 sharks (dusky, bronze whalers, Zambezi and sometimes tiger sharks) and Bryde’s’s whales, all gorging themselves on sardine balls before your eyes; it’s a sight to last you a lifetime.
Such natural marvels move to the rhythm of a concerto that we can neither hear nor understand.
The “Wild Coast” boils with these predators, along with cormorants, seals and, on occasion, orcas, albatrosses and penguins that have followed the sardines all the way from the Southern Ocean.
INSPIRED BY US PHOTOGRAPHER Doug Perrine’s iconic picture of two dusky sharks charging through a large bait-ball with their mouths full of sardines, I was first enthused to embark on my own pursuit of the Sardine Run in 2005. Doug advised me to arm
myself with books, as there would be lots of downtime.
I also talked to Jennifer Hayes, David Doubilet’s other half. She encouraged me to shoot a picture of a gannet with a fish in its beak, smack in the centre of a bait-ball. At the time, this was an image that had yet to be captured.
So I brought along 20 books, a camera and one fisheye lens, and took 22 hours of flights and a five-hour bus ride to our base camp at Mboyti, south of Durban.
The very first day, at 1pm, I found myself alone in a cathedral-sized sardine ball. The dolphins were charging in from left and right, pushing the silvery ball of fish to the surface.
Gannets with chisel-hard beaks fell from the sky, like missiles striking the face of the sea at various angles. I should have worn a crash helmet.
As these birds dived through the water column, revealing their trajectories in “vapour trails” of white foamy bubbles, they used the momentum from their aerial free-fall to pursue fish at high speeds, striking at them with a precise snap.
It took me more than 45 minutes and hundreds of frames before I could reasonably anticipate the action. Then luck struck – a bird with a fish in its beak, smack in the centre of a bait-ball. I had got my shot the first time out!
I was hooked. The experience obsessed my imagination. I wanted to return to shoot the motherlode – a bait ball as big as a six-storey building, but despite coming back every subsequent year it had not happened until now. Today would have been the day – if only I had not lost my mask!
THE MAIN SPAWNING GROUNDS for the sardines are off the Southern Cape coast. The adults assemble here for a prolonged breeding season through spring and early summer.
Their eggs are released into the water, fertilised and left to drift into the open ocean. Most of the developing larvae are carried by currents west and north, into the Atlantic Ocean and along Africa’s west coast.
The Sardine Run remains unexplained. It begins in the cool waters south of the continent, where the sardines form hundreds of large swirling shoals. As winter approaches, the ocean starts to cool, and the migratory route takes these small fish north from the Cape towards KwaZulu-Natal.
An intermittent counter-current sometimes pushes a tongue of cold green water north along the coast, inshore of the warm, clean, southerly current from Mozambique. This current allows the sardines to travel through shallow water, where plankton concentrations are higher. Upwellings stir up nutrient-rich water from the deep, providing nourishment for these filter-feeders.
Their diet consists of larvae, plankton and fish eggs, which contain low-density lipids. The sardines harvest thousands on thousands of these minute fat-soluble vitamins and amass them into a few grams of fish oil, nutritionally known as Omega 3 – the most concentrated and healthiest food source on the planet.
Only a few fish species can compare as Omega 3 resources – pink and chinook salmon, herring and hoki, a deepwater fish from New Zealand. This is why sardines are the preferred food of large marine animals such as sharks, dolphins, seals, whales and discerning seabirds, including gannets and penguins.
SURVIVAL INSTINCT CAUSES the sardines to shoal tightly to minimise the chances of being eaten. But bottlenose and common dolphins use a hunting strategy that works the shoals like sheepdogs, herding them into a tight ball and pushing them towards the surface.
While the dolphins pounce and gorge themselves on the tiny fish, the gannets fall from the sky, and the sharks and Bryde’s whales swarm from beneath for an easy feast.
So the dolphins do all the work, and the rest of the predators free-load.
On one encounter on my most recent trip, I start shooting a bus-sized sardine-ball with about 10 dolphins herding the fish to the surface. Once there, more than 50 sharks move in, pushing the dolphins away. In fewer than 15 minutes the baitball has been annihilated – all that is left is a sea of glistening scales.
If you want to see the Sardine Run for yourself, beware – some years, there will be a “no shoal”.
At one time this seemed simply to be a lottery, but it now seems to be down to global warming, which will inevitably put an end to the greatest show in the ocean. The shoals come closer to shore, and accessible to divers, with the cold currents, but these need to be below 20°C, with 17°C preferred.
Over a 20-day period during the 2009 season, for the first time we recorded water temperature as a consistent 22°C, way too warm for the sardines to run close to shore. If the ball was previously as huge as Harrods, in 2009 it was as small as a Piccadilly Circus ticket booth, actions lasting no more than 10 seconds.
Through a combination of unsustainable global fishing rates, ocean-warming and poor environmental management, we are likely to see more bad years for the Sardine Run than successful ones. The depletion of sardine stocks affects the well-being of sharks and mammals, the health barometers of the seas. We are at the oceans’ tipping point, and need to address these environmental issues urgently.
I am glad to have seen the most spectacular natural concentration of wildlife on our planet six times, but have yet to capture the picture I imagined – a Bryde’s whale rising from the deep, mouth wide open, engulfing thousands of sardines in its massive throat.
I swear it happened several times right in front of me in 2010, but I was too blind and slow to capture the shot.
I’ll just have to return, and hope the cast turns up. All the firework displays in the world pale in comparison with the Sardine Run.
A video montage of six years of Sardine Run footage shot by Michael AW can be seen at www.vimeo.com/16381351