South African Sardine run 2019 in a Nutshell
Humpback Whales, a strangely friendly Brydes Whale, super-pods of Common and Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, Spinner Sharks and Duskies on our baited dives, great bird activity, fleeting bait balls that left us wondering if we would ever have our ‘BBC moment’ and then the best bait ball action I have ever seen!
Overall, the run went well. We only lost one day to weather and cut a couple of days short when it became too windy for the birds to show us where the action was. Other than that, we had great days at sea – a bit warmer than usual – and a decent amount of pelagic activity that kept us busy while we were waiting for our special encounter.
Humpbacks did what humpbacks do on the run, i.e. swam slowly north-eastward towards Mozambique where they mate and have their young. We managed to slip in with them a few times which led to some fun underwater fly-bys.
I didn’t see as many breaches this year but there were still opportunities to snap some images of humpbacks reaching for the sky. Why they breach is a matter of conjecture. It is probably a combination of them advertising their presence to other humpbacks by the big splashes they make, removing parasites, or simply just leaping for joy. I’ve noticed that humpies breach more when it is windy. I suspect they like the feeling of the wind rushing over their skin and whistling through their baleen plates, but who knows what goes through the minds of these gentle giants!
The most surprising encounter we had this year was with a curious brydes whale. Brydes are generally very shy and elusive; showing up only when there is an opportunity to engulf an entire bait ball. Strangely, one surfaced next to our RIB while there was no feeding activity nearby at all. I thought it was just a close pass and the whale hadn’t seen us but the whale circled in the distance and returned for a second slow pass.
Of course, we slipped in; hoping to get a few images of a rarely photographed whale. And sure enough it returned again, affording us some great views as it finned past below us. Viz could have been better but still an amazing encounter.
The brydes whale did not seem phased by our appearance and actually returned maybe a dozen more times until it eventually it got bored of the tiny primates in its territory and slipped away. Unforgettable!
There were plenty of common dolphins in the area but another highlight this year was a massive pod of Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins that we followed for an hour or so, shooting topside leaps and then slipping in for underwater images. This species does not normally let snorkelers get close but I speak dolphin. Ok, I don’t really speak dolphin but I tried mimicking their sounds and it worked rather well. One dolphin in particular came very close, swimming circles around me for about ten minutes.
He then swum back to the pod, slow enough for me to follow, so I got pretty close to about 50 members of his extended family. The ocean delivers gifts when you least expect them!
On a couple of slow afternoons we laid out a chum slick to attract sharks to snorkel with. Each time, we got dusky sharks and spinner sharks. I was surprised to see spinners on a chum slick but it was a strange year all around. The spinners stayed quite deep and were hard to shoot but the duskies were as bold as ever.
We did see a few scrappy bait balls during the week but the bait ball action was relatively slow. That is, until the last day when we encountered the mother of all bait balls!
When the action kicked off, we were the only boat in the area. We jumped on a section of the main ball that had splintered off. It was already great action but after 10 minutes on that small ball, we could see even more intense activity close by, so we called everyone back to the boat and raced into the centre of the action where hundreds of gannets were raining down like missiles.
Below the birds, scores of dolphins were ripping through the ball, deftly snatching fish after fish. Between the cavitation trails of the birds and the bubble curtains that the dolphins were creating to keep the ball together, visibility degenerated into a misty sardine soup fill with predators. Below the ball, an endless parade of spinner sharks munched feverishly on bait fish. It was a primal scene straight from a documentary – the moment we had all been hoping for!
The action lasted for a few hours albeit with progressively smaller bait balls each time we jumped in. By early afternoon, it was all over so we called it a day and made our way back to the river mouth. After six years on the Sardine Run, this was definitely my best encounter.
Of course, we are returning next year and in 2021 onwards. At the moment next year is full but please email us if you’re keen to join because sometimes we get cancellations. If you are a big animal fan, it doesn’t get much better than this!