PAUL, DO YOU SEE ANY SHARKS FROM THERE Mark Addison was speaking into his two-way radio. Paul Buchel was circling 500ft above in his single-engined Piper. The plane banked to one side and Buchels voice crackled over the radio: There are a few on the inside of the shoal and a big one on the outside.You can book for the Sardine Run through Blue Wilderness Dive Expeditions, 0027 39973 2348, or visit www.bluewilderness.co.za
That wasnt what I wanted to hear, just as I was about to fall off the side of the boat into a writhing mass of fish. The water below had turned from blue to dark brown as the shoal of sardines passed beneath us. It seemed to boil as the sardines were chased to the surface by predators, swarming on the surface and then retreating to deeper water. The smell of the sardines filled our nostrils as the greasy little fish left a slick that trailed behind them on the surface.
OK, lets do it, called Mark.
Ive come this far, I thought. Theres no turning back now. Camera in one hand and my heart in my throat, I rolled in. Cautiously we descended into the endless, moving mass of fish.
The Sardine Run is an annual phenomenon that takes place during the early winter months along the coastline of Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa.
Visitors are amazed to see copious quantities of the silvery little fish being washed onto the beaches, to the obvious delight of local residents.
Consumed by sardine fever, the locals wade into the water with any suitable container to get their share of the harvest.
The sardines are not always the main attraction. Following them are a host of predators such as game fish, dolphins, birds and sharks. Large crowds assemble on the beaches to watch the spectacle just beyond the waves.
It also heralds a time of intense activity for the large fishing community, which crams onto the beaches and rocks, eager to capture the predatory fish that dine relentlessly on the sardines. In sheer biomass, the sardine migration rivals that of the wildebeest through the great plains of Africa.
Our search for the sardines had started the day before. We had driven to Mkambati Nature Reserve in the Eastern Cape, hoping for the first sighting of the fish as they approached the coastline.
Reaching Mkambati, a former leper colony, was an adventure all in itself. The two-hour drive from Flagstaff along a bumpy dirt road left my kidneys aching, and the bumper that fell off my car was never seen again.
We joined a dejected-looking group of film-makers and nature-lovers. No sardines had been spotted here for the past three days. The group was being hosted by Blue Wilderness, the first company to offer the opportunity to view this phenomenon from the sea, but perhaps finding the sardines was going to be less easy than I imagined.
At first light the next morning, Paul Buchel took off and headed south along the Wild Coast. Flying as far as Port St Johns, he spotted only a few small, isolated pockets of sardines, so we decided to head north by sea toward Port Edward.
We secured our equipment on the boat and launched through the Mzikaba river mouth onto a glassy sea. The former Transkei coastline is still an unspoiled paradise, and from the sea we could view areas impossible to reach by road.
In the early-morning sunshine, eland grazed on plunging cliffs. At Horseshoe Falls a river cascaded into the ocean.
We were reminded of how the Wild Coast inherited its name when we motored past the steel hull of a rusting wreck, stranded on the rocks high above the waterline. The ocean was alive. Numerous schools of dolphins tirelessly surfed the waves. Above us appeared the first sign of sardines nearby - a continuous stream of Cape gannets circling and heading north with us. There was a sense of expectancy in the air.
I see them! Buchels voice crackled over the radio above the drone of his aircraft. Theres a shoal about a kilometre long off Margate. Dont waste any time. Come straight here.
Mark Addison leaned on his throttles and we sped toward Margate.
Thirty minutes later we caught sight of hundreds of gannets feeding on the shoal. They would circle and then, arcing their wings back, plummet into the water like kamikaze pilots. Popping up on the surface, the birds, with their distinctive yellow heads and black wingtips, gulped down their fresh meal. Taking to the sky, they would dive again and again until they were too full to fly. Further out to sea, a flock of gannets rested on the surface, digesting their meal.
The first time is the worst time when descending into a sardine shoal. You have no idea what to expect.
The shoal was heading north at unbelievable speed, as if on a mission to nowhere for a secret rendezvous. The solid wall would split up in front of us and reform a few metres behind.
I dropped a few metres and held my breath. The sardines swarmed over my head and suddenly day became night. The school was so thick above me that sunlight could not penetrate it.
Breathing out, my bubbles rushed to the surface, carving a path through the dark mass of fish around me. Instantly daylight returned. I made a conscious decision not to hold my breath again. Amazingly enough, with thousands of fish flying past me, there was dead silence. Sardines make no sound.
Out of nowhere a bronze whaler shark flashed over my head and slammed into the wall of sardines. The school split up as if hit by an explosion as the shark vanished inside them. I blinked in disbelief as the sardines closed the gaping hole left in them by the shark and continued on their endless journey.
I shuddered at the thought of how many predators might be in the water around me. A shark could be feeding a few metres away and I would never see it.
Out of the gloom appeared a school of dolphins, their distinctive echo-locating clicks breaking the silence. One glided toward me, curiously inspected me and gulped down a sardine as the rest of the pod indulged in the free feast.
Mention to anyone that you have been diving in the sardines and the immediate reaction is: What about the sharks
With us was Frenchman Didier Noirot, director of photography for Jacques Cousteau for 12 years. There are few places on this planet that he has not dived. I asked if he was concerned about sharks. He looked me up and down with the sort of disdain perfected by the French and replied in his broken English accent: The sharks! I am not worried about the sharks. They are too interested in the sardines to eat me.
Brave words, but Dr Vic Peddemors from the Natal Sharks Board in Durban agreed. There is so much food around, why would they look elsewhere
During the Sardine Run, the shark nets along the Kwazulu-Natal coast are lifted, to spare the huge numbers of dolphins and sharks that would otherwise be caught by mistake.
Peddemors is researching methods of preventing the bottlenose and humpback dolphins that frequent the area becoming entangled and drowning in the nets. Following the sardines are mostly bronze whaler sharks, which could potentially be dangerous to man. There are also spinners, hammerheads and, of course, great whites.
Only last month Diver News reported how British underwater photographer Tony White suffered a serious arm injury when he was bitten by a bronze whaler while taking part in the annual sardine run at Mkambati. He had been diving from Mark Addisons boat. The bite was clearly a case of mistaken identity by the shark, White told Diver.
Photographers have been getting in among the sardines only for the past four years, but this was the first such incident. Before that, the last shark attack recorded during June along the Kwazulu-Natal coastline was in 1964, though there was no evidence that sardines were in the area at the time.
Historically, swimming was banned when the Sharks Board lifted its nets, said Vic Peddemors. Now many local authorities use our preferred system of discretionary bathing. This allows the nets to be kept out of the water for longer, while still placating the occasional diehard swimmer, and thereby reduces the death of many species during the Sardine Run feeding frenzy.
We wouldnt put a diver in the water if there was a lot of shark activity, Michele Addison of Blue Wilderness reassured me. Our tours are not aimed specifically toward the diver. They are for anyone who wants the adventure of going out to sea and witnessing the wealth of marine life that follow the shoals of sardines. Its a wildlife experience.
But are there as many sharks following the sardines as everyone suggests Three days later, I had my answer.
Bouncing down the Margate airfield, I took off with Paul Buchel on his daily shoal-spotting flight. The crisp wintry air swirled through the tiny aircraft - we had removed a door to make photography easier.
Off Port Shepstone we found a shoal about 2000m long, lying just behind the surf zone. Feeding on the outside of the shoal was a pack of at least 50 sharks.
Circling 500ft above, we watched, fascinated, as the sharks surged into the shoal, leaving a wake of sardines behind them. Unaware of the unbridled feeding going on a few hundred metres from him, a surfer happily caught a wave into shore. Ignorance is truly bliss.
Where does Sardinops sagax come from Although sardines are also found in deep waters off Japan, Australia, California and the west coast of South Africa, they are known to migrate close to the shore only along South Africas east coast. There has been surprisingly little research into the Sardine Run.
No one really knows anything about the sardines, fumbled Lyneth Beckley of the Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban. So I spoke to Alan Connell, who for 12 years has been sampling fish eggs and larvae off the Kwazulu-Natal south coast. Squinting through a microscope, he can identify the fish and collect statistics about their migratory habits.
It all happens because of the configuration of our coastline and the currents that flow down them, he patiently explained. In summer the warm Agulhas Current sweeps down the east coast, with its associated tropical fauna. The sardine is a coldwater species which in the summer months is found in the cooler, deeper waters between Storms River and Port Alfred.
With the onset of winter, the Agulhas waters are replaced by a cool band of water from the south. This counter-current hugs the length of the Transkei and Kwazulu-Natal coastline and offers the sardines a chance to extend their range.
These filter-feeders readily follow the planktonic food supply that drifts north in winter. Concentrated into a narrow area close to the coastline, the schools are soon located by fish, bird and mammal predators. The sardines are often driven ashore by predators, caught up in the strong surge of the waves and dumped onto the beach.
After passing Hibberdene they break up into small pockets and eventually move offshore into colder water, where they remain until November.
I know theyre there, said Alan Connell. You dont see the fish but their larvae are particularly abundant during June and November. With the onset of summer and warmer water, the sardines migrate south, back to the colder waters off the Cape coast.
Surprisingly, the number of fish that migrate during the Sardine Run is only a very small percentage of the total population. Most remain in the Cape.
It is still not clear why they come ashore only along the Kwazulu-Natal south coast and not the beaches of East London or the Transkei.
Sardines caught commercially off the Western Cape are canned, frozen or reduced to meal and oil. In Kwazulu-Natal the 35 licensed beach-seine operations can net up to 700 tons during the Sardine Run. Most of it is eaten fresh.
You have to be the first one to net the sardines, said South Coast fisherman Bobby Naidoo, whose eyes are continually searching the waves for the telltale dark shadows. Then you get the best price. There is good money to be made during the short Sardine Run, so its not surprising that tempers can flare.
On a cold Sunday morning, the beach at Rocky Bay was buzzing. The sardines were being washed onto the beach by the strong swells and people were wading fully clothed into the chilly water with plastic bags, nets and even washing baskets to scoop up the writhing fish.
I watched a beach-seine fisherman launch his boat from the shore. One end of the net was held on the beach while the skipper circled the sardines, casting the net around them. In his haste he entangled a spearfisherman, who was understandably upset.
For 20 minutes, the beach became a battleground. Punches were thrown, and I was shocked to see some fishermen threatening each other with knives.
Thats sardine fever for you, commented an onlooker. People are quite prepared to fight each other just for a few little fish.
I estimated that 10 tons of fish must have been netted on that small stretch of beach that morning. Its hard to visualise so much fish being consumed fresh, mostly by the local Indian community. A few hours later, every sardine had been sold and tranquillity returned to the little beach.
Early one grey June morning, we experienced what must be the highlight of the sardine run - a baitball. Feeding frenzies do occur, although very few divers have been privileged enough to witness one.
The telltale sign of a baitball is hundreds of birds diving into a small area of water, the surface churning and bubbling from the frenetic action just below the surface.
Gannets and sooty shearwaters popped up, some with sardines in their mouths. After gulping them down the birds took to the air to circle and dive back into the writhing mass. What was visible from the surface was only a small part of the madness. Below us we knew that sharks, dolphins and who knew which marine predators were feeding.
Be careful, warned the skipper, as we scrambled for our diving gear and cameras. Some divers opted to stay on the boat. Hovering in the middle of the baitball we could see movement above, below and behind us. Bronze whaler sharks and bottlenose dolphins appeared out of nowhere to drive into it.
Once assaulted, the mass convulsed and briefly lost its formation. It then reformed into a powerful cyclonic force.
My eye glued to the viewfinder, I fired off shot after shot. A shark swam into me and I pushed it off with a strobe. Are we crazy I thought to myself. I hoped my buddy was watching my back.
Moving away from the baitball, it became evident that the dolphins were undertaking a co-ordinated attack.
The school circled the baitball, keeping it in a tight formation, because once the sardines had scattered it would be far more difficult to feed on them. Below the sardines, the dolphins released bubbles of air that drove them further to the surface. The dolphins took turns to charge through the whirling mass - a unified flash of grey in a silver cloud. The sharks, excited to the point of frenzy by the activity of the dolphins, charged into the baitball with mouths wide open.
After 30 minutes, the sardines disappeared into the depths. The feasting was over. We boarded the boat, adrenalin pumping - we all knew we had witnessed a rare feeding phenomenon.
After a few weeks, the sardines vanished into deeper water as mysteriously as they had appeared, ending a phenomenon that is still not fully understood, but annually brings a bonanza to the people of Kwazulu-Natal. Following the Sardine Run is a fascinating adventure for both the diver and nature-lover. See you down the South Coast next June!