Sardine run in full swing: Diving with the greatest shoal on earth

Posted by David Henning on 12 July 2021

Every year, there is a craze when the sardine run is in full swing along South Africa’s shore. Sean Schimper from Plan D Scuba shared some video footage of the recent mass migration on the Wild Coast, about 20km from the Kei River mouth.

Their daily routine of getting out near a shoal involves getting up at 6 am to be out in the ocean by sunrise. The search for the shoal includes observing the movement of birds and dolphins along with the weather forecasts, scouring up or down the coast.

During their recent outing, the team found themselves in the middle of a huge pod of dolphins. Sean estimates that it must have been a pod of about 20 000 dolphins swimming on either side of their boat. He managed to film this sight that you can watch in the snippet below.


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With luck, the divers find a baitball, a phenomenon that occurs when fish swarm in a tight formation. This is usually signalled by birds circling and plunging into the water. The video below showcases this phenomenon while a pod of dolphins also indulges in the shoal.


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After observing the shoal, the divers slowly edge closer to the boat, being careful to stay away from the dolphins and whales. If the visibility is good (3-4m), the guide enters with a snorkel and moves closer to the event, carefully evaluating the surroundings to deduce if it is possible for others to enter.

There are things to consider such as the size of the baitball because if it is too small, it will be eaten too quickly, and if the fish are surrounded by dolphins, they move far too quickly for humans to keep up with.

If all looks good, the other divers are signalled to come and join. When snorkelling, the divers get the unique double perspective of watching the seals and dolphins from below and getting a peek of the birds plunging in from above. When the ball moves slightly below the surface, the scuba gear comes out and the group goes deeper.

This presents a variety of other challenges, as sharks are also feasting on the shoal, frantically snapping at the copious` amounts of fish. Divers have to be sure they do not get in their way.

Very often, there will be a few sharks coming from below to grab a mouthful, such as dusky sharks, bronze whalers, and silky sharks.

Because this proposes greater risks, such as becoming part of the baitball, divers always stick together. Very often, sharks come pushing past and birds are striking the water above your head, and with dolphins swimming everywhere, Sean says it sounds like there are machine guns going off around you. These animals are incredibly agile and are often only an arm’s length away and don’t seem fussed by the presence of divers as they scoot past them.

Returning to the beach around 4 pm, everyone relaxes after a hot shower where they meet in the bar and review the videos taken. Because of the eventful day, everyone is in bed by eight dreaming of sardines.

Picture: Flickr Commons

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