A Big Fish Expeditions Trip Report
By BFE Trip Leader Simon Spear
South African Sardine Run Diving Expedition 2022
Each year in June and July hundreds of millions of sardines travel up the east coast of South Africa from their spawning grounds on the Agulhas Banks off the Cape. While scientists still don’t fully understand the phenomenon, predators gather in their tens of thousands to feast on the abundant gift that the ocean brings. We’d come to witness this wildlife spectacle for ourselves.
Waiting for Baitballs
After arriving in Durban our group travelled by minibus down to our base at Port St John’s on South Africa’s beautiful and remote Wild Coast. This made an ideal location from which we could travel up and down the coast looking for sardines. Our first couple of days were fairly quiet. We saw plenty of sardines, dolphins, and Cape gannets while out on the water and managed to get into the water with them numerous times, but we were waiting for that special encounter.
Baitballs are created by Common Dolphins who herd the sardines into a tight ball from which they then feed. Whenever this happens all the other predators can turn up to benefit from the dolphin’s hard work, so it is possible to see sharks, diving gannets, tuna and in rare cases Bryde’s whales also feeding.
A dive on the reef with 20+ Raggedtooth Sharks.
One afternoon when there was a lull in the action we did a dive known for its large concentrations of Raggies (Ragged Tooth Sharks). This pinnacle can be difficult to dive due to visibility and currents, but we’d hit the sweet spot – 10m visibility and no current! The Raggies were everywhere, probably between 20-30 of these fearsome looking, but very docile sharks who will tolerate divers getting really close. What a dive!
We also saw lots of Humpback whales in the first few days, but they were not there to feed on the sardines as they are on their own migration up the coast to give birth and to mate. They were often in groups of males where they could be seen showing off breaching, tail and fin slapping, but we did also find some quieter individuals and smaller groups. With these, if you time it right, it is possible to get into the water ahead of them and see them swim past and we were blessed with some very close encounters, including a mother and newborn calf!
Bait Balls and Brydes Whales!
Each morning we set out from our base on the Umzimvubu River before light to ensure that we got out onto the water ready for the morning’s action and by day 4 things had really started to heat up. Almost immediately we found dolphins feeding over a large area with numerous baitballs formed. While these were not static allowing us to dive on them, it was possible to get into the water snorkelling and to try to keep up with the action. Common Dolphins, Dusky Sharks and gannets were all bombarding the bailballs and then we were graced by a Bryde’s whale who turned up to join in the party. At least one of our boats got to witness the Bryde’s lunge feeding through a baitball and swimming around in the area.
More Epic Action
We’d had a great day the previous day, but day 5 on the water somehow managed to top it when we came across a static baitball. We immediately kitted up and between our two boats were able to dive on it for almost 2 hours. Due to space limitations, we were only able to fit 1 tank per diver on the boats, but this baitball was going nowhere fast, so after our dives we all jumped back in and snorkelled with the baitball for another 2-3 hours. Normally if you get too close to the baitball then the dolphins feeding normally back off, but these ones were super chilled out and allowed us to get a front row seat to the action. Incredible!
Days 6-9 were very similar to our first few days. All the ingredients were present, but the action just didn’t kick off in the same ways as the previous couple of days. Our microlight reported shoals of sardines everywhere, but nothing was eating them. They must have been full up from the previous days of activity!
Join the Sardine Run 2023
All too soon our time had come to depart. We’d had a fantastic 9 days out on the water and got to experience the Sardine Run in all its glory. It truly is one of the most incredible wildlife experiences and should definitely be right at the top of everyone’s bucket list!