Shark conservation organisation Shark Guardian gets up close and personal with one of the oceans’ most dramatic migrations – South Africa’s annual sardine run (Text by Brendon and Liz Ward-Sing, Shark Guardian. Images by Steve Woods)
Port St. Johns, South Africa. There’s a reason why it’s called “The Wild Coast”. This year Shark Guardian and a team of diving enthusiasts, explorers and photographers travelled from around the world to be in this place, at this particular time in June. Each year from June to July a large migration of sardines make their way up north along the eastern coastline of South Africa, bringing with them several species of sharks, dolphins, whales, birds and so much more, all at the same time. This is the greatest diving event anywhere in the world!
After arriving in Durban international airport, we made our way one hour south to a town called Scottburgh. We spent the first three days diving the famous local reef, Aliwal Shoal. This was planned for the team to get accustomed to local diving procedures, including the white-knuckle launches through the surf – an integral part of the African diving adventure.
Aliwal Shoal lies within a marine protected area on the inner edge of the Mozambican current. The shoal is one-and-a-half kilometres wide, five kilometres long and approximately four kilometres offshore from Scottburgh. It was formed when sand and other deposits were washed into the ocean from sand dunes in the area; over time they formed a compound that laid the foundation of this sandstone reef. This dune rock structure was later submerged and was colonised by a variety of different types of coral.
The highlight of diving Aliwal shoal was many close encounters with grey nurse sharks also know locally as “raggies”. As many as 15 raggies can be seen hanging around Aliwal’s caves and overhangs. The reef is also home to other sharks such as blacktips, hammerheads, tiger and bull sharks, as well as many other types of marine life from large to small. Diving Aliwal is not just a warm up to the sardine run; it’s a great introduction to the awesome diving South Africa has to offer. It’s a must!
On the fourth day we made the five-hour road trip further south to Port St. John, the gateway to the Wild Coast and home of the famous sardine run. Our base for the next six days was located on the banks of the Mzimvubu River with beautiful rocky cliffs leaving no question that you are indeed in Africa.
Day one of the run – it’s early and still dark. We head for breakfast and then march down to the riverbank to gear up and get ready to launch the boat from the river. A short ride from the lodge and we exit the canyon with the sunrise welcoming us to the Wild Coast and immediately the skipper shouts, “Whales!” In the distance, humpbacks. What a start!
Shortly we are surrounded by hundreds of dolphins, from the boat to the horizon; it is impossible to count them. During the six days, three different dolphin species were seen along with numerous species of birds including albatross and gannets. Several species of sharks were always found hanging around the end of these dolphin schools just waiting for the possible baitball action. The highlight was snorkelling just a few metres from a juvenile humpback whale as her mother swam somewhere in the mysterious waters below.
The statistical possibility of actually being in the water and witnessing the baitball with dolphins and sharks, as seen on the amazing BBC footage, is only around 30 percent according to the dive operators in the area. Not bad odds considering this is Nature and you take what you can get. Even if you don’t get to see the full baitball show of sharks and dolphins, you will still see all these amazing animals one way or another. The baitball action is happening, but you have to be in the right place at the right time along the 50 kilometres plus of coastline. Some days we definitely had dolphins in their thousands. We had baitballs with birds enjoying a feeding frenzy; the dolphins were just not there at that time! But we had such a range of animal life every single day both above and below the water that this really was an ocean wildlife safari that everyone needs to witness.
Following this expedition, global eShark project from eOceans, led by scientist Dr Christine Ward Paige, is now live in South Africa. Shark Guardian implemented the project with Shark Guardian Dive Center Crystal Dive in Scottburgh and Pro Dive, which led the group for the sardine run. Christine is excited to have her project spread to yet another country by the team and looks forward to the data that can now be collected to help the management of shark and other marine life populations.
The sardine run will become an annual expedition for Shark Guardian, linking shark diving with research and educational opportunities for groups to learn more about sharks and marine life.
Find out more about all Shark Guardian expeditions at www.sharkguardian.org. SDAA