Every year, between the months of May and July, many millions of silvery sardines travel north from the cold southern oceans off South Africa’s Cape Point, hugging the shore as they make their way up along the coastlines of the former Transkei (northern Eastern Cape) and KwaZulu-Natal in what is commonly known as the annual Sardine Run.
These small fish migrate from the colder waters of the Cape into the warm sub-tropical waters of the former Transkei (northern Eastern Cape) and KwaZulu-Natal in a northwards direction, coming close to shore in the South Coast area during autumn and winter, moving further offshore in the Durban area and finally, disappearing into the vast blue yonder.
Because of the cold currents along this stretch of coastline and their appetite for plankton, these fish converge close to the shoreline and to the surface, making ideal targets for hungry predators and perfect viewing for snorkellers and scuba divers.
Visible even by satellite, these famous sardine shoals travel in seething masses stretching for up to fifteen kilometres in length, three and a half kilometres wide and nearly forty metres deep.
THE FEEDING FRENZY
The sardines shoal closely together minimising their chances of being taken by predators. Picture tens of thousands of birds plunging from the sky, feeding on the fish, with larger game fish and numerous species of sharks all feasting on the wealth of food that is available. The numbers and variety of sharks is astounding: Bronze Whalers, Zambezies, Hammerheads, Coppers and Great Whites can be seen by the hundreds. Bottlenose and Common dolphins join in the excitement and employ a hunting strategy that works the shoals into what is referred to as a “baitball”. By working together, like sheepdogs in a field of sheep, the dolphins herd the sardines into a tight ball and push them towards the surface. The dolphins then pounce on them, gorging themselves on the tiny fish.
AN UNEXPLAINED PHENOMENON
In South Africa, the main spawning grounds for these fish are off the Southern Cape coast, where the adults gather for a prolonged breeding season through the spring and early summer. Their eggs are simply released into the water, fertilized and left to drift off in the open ocean. The ocean currents carry most of the developing larvae westwards and northwards into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean along the West Coast. Therefore, the migration of large shoals of sardines into the waters of southern KwaZulu-Natal during the winter months, remains an unexplained phenomenon!
This is an event for everyone to enjoy – be it bird watchers, marine-life enthusiasts, amateur or highly experienced divers or snorkellers. Experience the Sardine Run beneath the waves or above. Either way it has been described as one of the greatest marine spectacles on earth.