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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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September 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 42, 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

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.

But for an observer, reality is different -- this event occurs over hundreds of miles along the South African coast, and the fish can be hard to find. When you do find the baitfish, you need the dolphins to come and herd them into baitballs. And when this happens, the baitballs rarely last for more than ten minutes.

Mostly what happens is that the boat travels along the coast looking for diving birds that signal the presence of baitfish. Our boat was an eight-meters Superduck with two 90HP Honda four-stroke engines, so we covered a lot of ocean in a 6- to 10-hour day. But it was a basic boat -- no seats or benches, no head, and no overhead for shade. Most of the boats -- about 20 of them -- that follow the Sardine Run are based in Port St. John's, a small town about 350 kilometers to the northeast. I had opted to stay in East London, where only two operations are based, because previously I had been diving with Pisces Divers in Cape Town and liked their operation. Furthermore, unlike Port St. Johns, where small boats can encounter big surf leaving the harbor, the East London harbor is sheltered, and transferring into the open ocean is generally easy.

South Africa mapThe first two days on the water were slow, but the sea was rough -- luckily, my seasickness was mild compared to that of several others on the boat. After almost seven hours on the water, we had seen lots of seabirds, some dolphins, and humpbacks in the distance. But no sardines. I felt better the second day, but still no significant sardine action. We saw 40- to 50-foot humpbacks several times, but each time we approached, they disappeared. In the afternoon, Mike suggested a scuba dive to see seven gill sharks. No one had been in the water yet, and so most of us were eager to dive, but we had been on the water since before sunrise, and I sensed the others were cold and tired, too. But all of a sudden, we dropped the discussion as the boat was surrounded by common dolphins. And not just the boat -- they were everywhere. Mike estimated there were 700-800 dolphins across a 2-kilometer swath of water. In the distance, humpbacks were breaching.

We stayed with the dolphins for 40 minutes, and then Mike maneuvered the boat parallel to a humpback whale, 20 yards away. Suddenly the whale turned and swam just below the surface of the water straight toward the boat, bumping the underside -- hard -- then emerging on the other side. I could see barnacles in the water dislodged from the whale's back when it scraped the boat. Things were looking up.

Day three started slow again, and once more, Mike suggested an afternoon scuba dive at a small, rocky shoal called Three Sisters, where tropical and temperate meet -- a good place to see a wide range of species. Most of the underwater fauna in the northwestern Indian Ocean were new to me -- corals, plants, and fish. Since his wife sat out the dive, the other South African diver went in solo with his camera. The two other guys were paired, and I paired with Mike. (Unlike the South African, with his serious underwater camera, the rest of us had GoPros.) Visibility wasn't great -- 15 to 20 feet. At the beginning of the dive, I recognized a guitarfish on the bottom, and a butterfly fish -- a double-sash butterfly fish, the South Africa diver told me later. Most of the fish I saw -- the strepie (which means "small stripe" in Afrikaans), the black musselcracker, the red Roman -- were new to me.

When one of the other two buddies ran short of air, Mike took him to the surface, pairing me with the other buddy; about 15 minutes later, we surfaced, and Jan quickly picked us up. Getting out was strenuous, since there is no ladder, but Jan grabbed me as I lunged up the side, and he unceremoniously dumped me in the bottom of the boat. This would be our only dive of the week.

By now, it was late afternoon, but Jan noticed some gannet action about a mile away. Mike moved the boat into position, and that's when everything came together -- sardines, dolphins, sharks, and gannets in a frenzy. It was the best ten minutes I've ever spent in the water. We didn't get back to the resort until well after dark, but all of us were still running on adrenaline after the day's encounter.

The View from Buccaneer'sBuccaneer's, where I stayed, calls itself a backpackers' hotel, and while it does feature budget accommodation, it has a wide range of rooms. Sal, the manager, had set me up in one of the two newer units, with enough room for a king bed, a comfortable sofa, a table and two chairs; it had a large deck with beach chairs overlooking the Indian Ocean. The décor was pleasing, with original contemporary paintings. The bathroom had a good shower, and Internet access was available in the reception area for a small fee.

The food, part of the package at Buccaneer's, was simple but satisfying, and the group meals were sociable. Each night Sal orchestrates a themed meal that's served buffet-style -- curry night, Mexican night (better than I had expected), spaghetti night. The best dinner was a braai (a South African barbecue) that included steak, chicken, and a local sausage. Breakfast included cereals, yogurts, toast, and a fresh fruit salad, as well as bacon, grilled tomatoes, baked beans, and eggs. Each morning Sal prepared a packed lunch -- sandwiches, sausages, fruit, cookies, chips and crackers. One day she made a "healthy lunch" -- dips and raw vegetables, which most people thought was the best lunch, but one carnivore detested.

One of my biggest regrets was that I didn't spend more time at Buccaneer's. Perched on a hillside overlooking a lagoon with the Indian Ocean beyond that, the resort's grounds are lush and extensive. Buccaneer's offers a range of activities, including surfing, ATV driving, yoga and massages. My wife, who doesn't dive (and wasn't even interested in going on the boat -- an option for nondivers -- once she learned it didn't have a head), rode horses on the beach. Pisces schedules a rest day midweek, so we visited a nearby game reserve with a breeding program for rare white lions, then went to a local brewpub for lunch and a tour, finishing the day with a hike on a headland at a beautiful beach town.

When we returned to the water after our day off, we ran south for a few hours, until Jan spotted gannets, and soon there were dolphins along side of us. I got into my snorkel gear and grabbed my GoPro, and when I slid into the water and looked down, there were dolphins everywhere in the best viz we had all week -- between 40 and 50 feet. Smalls schools of 20 or so garfish were spread out so there was little chance of them balling up. The dolphins were constantly moving, locating the small schools, and then quickly devouring them. I settled into a routine for the next couple of hours; I would spend 5-10 minutes in the water with the dolphins, and when they would move on, the boat would pick me up, motor for a few minutes, and dump me right back in the middle of another pod. I slept very well that night.

The next day was quiet again -- several people had napped on the floor of the boat. In the late afternoon, as we were getting ready to call it a day, we spotted birds a mile-and-a-half away. When the boat arrived, I saw lots of sardines in the water -- and lots of gannets and terns working them -- but no dolphins. I got some excellent bird photos -- including the Belgian hand-feeding crackers to a brown skua that was flying alongside the boat at about 15 knots.

On my last day, I was hoping for more action. When the boat left the harbor, humpbacks quickly became the order of the day -- I probably saw close to 20. After a couple of hours, we finally found a whale that was relaxed enough for us to get close. Once in the water, I swam as fast as I could, but no whale. After another minute, I heard the whale exhale behind me -- close -- and I saw it just as it went down nearby. I swam as fast as I could again, but the whale was gone. We had several other close encounters with whales, but each time I went into the water, the whale had disappeared. Time was running out. A group of three whales -- what appeared to be two adults, each more than 40 feet long, and a young one, about half the size of the adults -- allowed us to approach. When I kicked, they crossed right in front of me. Again, the experience lasted less than a minute, but it was electric -- like having a school bus swim by me underwater. Later, when I looked at my GoPro footage, I was disappointed to see how murky the images appeared. In my mind, though, the picture was perfect.

So would I do the Sardine Run again? Mike admitted that compared to the week before, my week had been slow (and I learned from him later, when he wrote to the group about a Dropbox for photographs, that the two weeks after us were also very good, an assessment confirmed by the photos I saw). The South African diver aboard had been coming every year for six years, and had already booked for next year, as had the Czechs from the week before. Mike and Jan are first-rate guides, excellent divers, and they are always in good spirits. When everything comes together, as it did that third day, the experience is overwhelming.

But it's a long way to go, and the days on the open boat are challenging. It's a bit like being in a combat zone -- long hours of waiting punctuated by brief bursts of intense adrenaline. It's definitely not for you if your idea of diving is a liveaboard with a hot tub and a five-star chef. But I loved the experience. However, with so many unvisited dives sites, the odds are long that I would do this one again.

-- UCD

Our undercover diver's bio: UCD says, "I took up diving and horse riding in my 40s (midlife crisis?), almost 20 years ago, and since then I've done almost 300 dives. I've been leading trips to South Africa for university students since 2003, each one culminating in a week-long safari. I have traveled extensively in Southern Africa, viewing animals on foot, from safari vehicles, even on horseback. I've been diving in False Bay to see sevengill sharks, and I've been to Gansbaai to see great white sharks -- from a cage."

Divers Compass: Pisces Divers charges about $1400 (21,000 rand) for its one-week Sardine Run trip, which includes five days on the water (though generally you will be offered a half-day on the last day if you haven't already had your fill), accommodation at Buccaneer's, three meals a day, as well as activities on the scheduled rest day. . . . Tanks and weights are included in the price, but no other gear, and you can rent your gear from Pisces (something I should have done, since I only used my diving gear once). . . . Generally, Pisces runs 4-5 one-week trips between early June and mid-July ( . . . Flying to South Africa is not only an ordeal, but it can be expensive, with connections through either Europe or Dubai. I paid $1650 for my round-trip on United, considerably less than the $2,400 I paid three years ago. You can fly into either Cape Town or Johannesburg, where several South Africa airlines connect to East London (between $100 and $200 for a round-trip ticket). Most carriers will allow you to arrive at Cape Town and depart from Johannesburg, or vice versa, at no extra charge . . . Consider adding a visit to Cape Town, as well as a safari in either Kruger National Park or one of the private reserves in the Eastern Cape, such as Shamwari Game Reserve or Addo Elephant National Park, where it's easier to see wildlife than it is in Kruger. . . .Jo'burg is a good place for a naive tourist to get robbed.

* * * *

We normally don't run two-piece on the same destination, but traveling to the Sardine Run, which is on the bucket list of many divers, is long and expensive. So, we want you to know that the snorkeling trips are uncomfortable and often unproductive, as one of our long-term travel writers discovered. Still, if it comes together, it can be a thrill of a lifetime.


Dear Fellow Diver,

Our RIB was stationed directly in the path of the oncoming humpback. We could see the small dorsal fin as it undulated toward us. A foaming tail slap brought shouts from the assembled snorkelers onboard. Then the great head rose from the sea, the spume from its exhalation forming a rainbow in the South African sun. It was heading right for us.

"Well, call me Ishmael," I thought. What if this thing comes up underneath us? No need to worry. A hundred feet out the whale dived deep, then swam beneath the boat and carried on in search of more sardines. I hope it found some, because in two days in Coffee Bay, Kwa Zulu Natal, we had seen no bait balls, no sardines, no billfish, and no sharks.

We were snorkeling (note -- not diving) with AfriDive, an operation with two sites on South Africa's wild coast on the Indian Ocean. The reef diving operation is run out of Shelly Beach and runs to the Protea Banks less than five miles off the coast, running 90 to 130 feet deep. It is a rich tuna habitat and host to many shark species, including copper, bull, tiger, sand tiger, black tips, scalloped hammerheads and the top of the pyramid, great whites. AfriDive can accommodate rebreather divers for what they call "Diving Protea Banks in Total Silence -- the Ultimate Shark Adventure."

But we were in Coffee Bay for the Sardine Run, and diving was only offered to those who insisted on it. We had been urged to limit ourselves to snorkeling, as the action occurs near the surface and there was little to be gained by diving beneath the expected bait balls. So we checked into the windswept and aging Ocean View Hotel on a cliff above the bay and loaded our brand-new 7mm wetsuits and warm cover-ups into mesh bags for the morning trip. After declining the large breakfast buffet (we could see the white caps), we hopped into an aging safari truck for a jarring trip to the inlet where the RIBs were stationed. The 27-foot Avatar had a center tank rack that held the gear from the four guests who had insisted on scuba (but it was never used), and dive bags from the rest of us, a congenial group of Swedes, Germans, and us two Yanks. After loading up, we pushed the boat off the rocky shore and clambered aboard, sitting on the edge of the boat and holding onto one of the two lines on the buoyancy tubes. Dive master Josh fired up the twin 85 HP Yamahas, and captain Spike directed us into the oncoming surf, timing his entry to keep us all onboard when we slammed into the waves.

The trip was planned for six hours, but could go longer if the action was hot. We motored out about a quarter-mile from shore and powered down, sitting in three-foot seas, watching for flocks of gannets hovering over bait balls or pods of dolphins herding the sardines into movable feasts. Nothing happening. After an hour or so, a couple dozen dolphins swam alongside the boat and leapt up to look at the strange rubber-clad amphibians. Spike powered up and we shot ahead of the pod, stopping about 200 yards from the leaders while we got our masks and fins on and on command, back rolled into the 68-degree water.

Rating for Sardine RunVisibility was about 20 feet. The dolphins caught up with us, smiled as if we were the butt of some cosmic joke, and zipped off. We hauled ourselves back onto the boat by the lines, falling to the deck in a tangle of legs and fins. Spike zoomed further seaward, passed the leaping bottlenoses, and positioned us in their path. The pod caught up to us, we had a frantic two minutes chasing groups of three or four individuals, and they were gone.

We sat on the water in the uncovered boat for another two hours before we headed farther out to sea to look for whales. The sea was rolling in 6- to 8-foot swells. The sun, sea, and jet lag were taking their toll on my buddy, who lay on the deck and rested her head on a tube, watching the shore and trying to keep the previous night's dinner firmly anchored.

And the whales showed up, about a dozen humpbacks lancing through the dark blue water. Since there were no sardines, the whales weren't stopping, and the crew decided they were moving too fast for us to get in the water with them. Then lunch was served. The Europeans hungrily dug into the ham and cheese, roast beef, and lord help us, tuna sandwiches while my buddy looked the other way.

After another hour of motoring to and fro while even the sea birds looked bored, we headed in. The tide was now out, and while the ladies waded to shore, the gents pulled and pushed the boat onto the trailer, sweating in our neoprene cocoons.

The next day was a repeat of the same. Although the sea was flat in the morning, the wind came up and the water soon heaved in 8- to 10-foot peaks, and again the sardines did not show. AfriDive sent up its microlight spotter plane, which flew 50 miles north, east, and south and encountered no bait balls. At this point, my buddy was done with the Run, and we scheduled ourselves out the following day to begin our safari early.

This is the Owner's log for that day, which, of course, we missed.

"Day of the Sardines. For over two hours, our guests of two boats were in the water with sardines. . . . Sardines everywhere. It didn't matter which direction one looked or swam. . . .Spike saw a bull shark he reckons was the size of the boat. . . .Besides the bull shark, they had dusky, bronze whaler and black tip sharks. . . .Dolphins again in silly numbers and even the elusive gannets made an appearance. . . .Most sardine bait balls the gannets missed this year. So it is a welcome sight to see these talented hunters dive bombing and shortly afterwards resurfacing with a sardine in their beak. Two hours nonstop is a long time...."

So there you have it. If you're going to do the Run, you need patience and a strong gut.

-- IN

Our undercover diver's bio: IN got his Open Water certification in New York in 1987, having failed a resort course in Jamaica due to a misunderstanding about the local flora. He added C-cards in Advanced OW, Rescue, Oxygen Management, Advanced EANx, while traveling to Caribbean, Mexico, Egypt, Hawaii, PNG, Australia, Bikini, and Fiji, where he had his appendix out after a memorable 12 hour trip from Taveuni to Nadi on New Year's Day 1988. He has dived the 200 foot deep Windjammer wreck in Bonaire on air six times, earning him the nickname "Old Twitchy."

Kosrae and Yap, MicronesiaDIVERS COMPASS - AfriDive's prices for the 2017 Run are 5 nights at the Ocean View Hotel (breakfast and dinner), 4 days on the boat with sandwiches, fruit, cookies, chocolate, fruit juice and water, air support by microlight plane, for 27,500 Rand, about $2,035 dollars per person. . . . .The Ocean View Hotel is...adequate. The rooms have an ocean view close to a cliff edge. Beds are a bit soft, a tile floor with thin throw rugs, bedside tables with lamps, a small TV, no Wi-Fi, a safe, and a bathroom that is...adequate unless you count the shower curtain being so short the room floods whenever you shower and you have to jiggle the handle every time you flush. . . . I highly recommend our travel agent, Above and Beyond Holidays, especially if you want to add a safari trip to your vacation.

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