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September 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 31, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Sardine Run: South Africa

the best ten minutes you’ll ever spend in the water

from the September, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

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Dear Fellow Diver,

As the boat sped toward the gannets flying overhead, our skipper, Mike, reminded us that we needed to be ready to go when we arrived at the spot. I put on my mask, fins, and weight belt, and when I heard "Go!" I was already sliding into the sea. Suddenly the action was all around me. A dozen dolphins sliced the water from every direction. As I looked down, two seven-foot dusky sharks ascended from the depths. In front of me, a gannet hit the water and disappeared. And then, as quickly as it had happened, the action moved on, and I was left looking at a lot of tiny fish scales sparkling in the water -- all that remained of the anchovies that had been there a minute ago. This was my third day on the Sardine Run, and all the endless motoring on the open sea that I had been doing for nearly three days was forgotten in a couple of minutes of ultimate fish frenzy.

That day had started like the previous two -- up for breakfast at 5 A.M. and then in the van for the 40-minute drive from Cinsta, where we were staying, to the East London Harbor, where our boat was moored. I would don my 5mm wetsuit, zipping it above my waist, and then arrange the four layers of clothing over my torso (T-shirt, long-sleeved cotton shirt, fleece, and waterproof) so that the layers under the waterproof wouldn't get wet (this had been a problem the first day -- one I didn't want to repeat.) Then I'd help cart the gear from our storage space in the funky yacht club down to the boat at the dock. We'd leave the harbor by 6:45 A.M., in time to watch the sun rise over the Indian Ocean. There were seven of us on the boat -- Mike Nortjie, the owner of Pisces Divers, his mate, Jan de Bruyn, and five divers -- a South African couple, a Belgian, a Frenchman, and me. Mike and Jan had spent the previous week with eight divers from the Czech Republic, and they reported that the action had been good -- one day they had spent 30 minutes in the water with a "relaxed" humpback whale, and they had several good encounters with the baitfish, birds, and dolphins.

This was welcome news -- I love viewing mammals, birds, and fish. I not only keep a log of fish that I see, but also I have lists of birds and mammals I've seen on the six continents I've visited. I know that nothing in nature is promised, but having read and seen videos about the Run, and now hearing about the previous week's success -- well, it was mid-June and I was ready.

On the Look Out for ActionThe Sardine Run actually includes five types of baitfish: sardines (South Africa pilchards), red-eye (another type of sardine), garfish (walla walla), anchovies, and mackerel. The baitfish spawn in the cold water about 150 miles off the southernmost tip of Africa in May and then swim northeast toward the warmer water of the Indian Ocean. By June, they are close to the coast and begin attracting predators.

Up to 18,000 common dolphins are attracted by the Sardine Run -- not to mention sharks (including silkies, bronze whalers, ragged-tooths, and bull sharks), several species of whales (including Bryde's and orcas), and lots of birds (including gannets, albatrosses, terns, and skuas). As documented in the 2001 BBC documentary The Blue Planet and the 2008 IMAX film Wild Ocean, huge schools of dolphins herd sardines into baitballs up to ten meters in diameter. The dolphins cut through them, sharks join the feast, gannets hit the ball from above, and the grand finale -- a Bryde's whale comes up from the bottom and swallows the entire ball. ...

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