The “Sardine Run” 2 July 1999

A great opportunity for getting close to thousands of sharks is the annual Sardine run from the Eastern Cape up towards Durban. Billions of tiny baitfish migrate up the coast and hence a massive population of predators follow them from as far as the Cape. Every year Graeme is on stand-by to dive into the massive shoal to capture shark footage on film.

Bronze Whaler Clip (281KB)"You can see the Sardines from the air. One “pocket” can stretch for 20km. June is the month when the run is in full swing, so I’m on stand by any time from then. I get progress information from various pilot friends who fly down the coast and when the shoals get to the right area, I pack my stuff and go...

The trigger for the run seems to be a drop in water temperature; if the water is too warm, say above 20ºC, they hang around in one area until it gets colder (hence it corresponds with winter). First prize is catching them in this “holding pattern” because they’ll be getting heavily nailed by thousands of sharks. If you took a flight over the sea during the run, you’d swear that the Natal coast is completely shark infested. For every square kilometre you'll see about five sharks. So it must be many thousands that follow.

The prime objective is to film the sharks, mainly big Bronze Whalers and Ragged-Tooth, actually eating the Sardines - swimming through with their mouths open, guzzling anything in the way.

Ragged ToothI took a flight down the Transkei coast in a micro light aircraft to try and spot where the Sardines were. I saw packs of Bronze Whaler sharks heading north almost in formation, like an army. The biggest was perhaps three or four metres in size. Every now and then, one or two would charge into a dense shoal of Sardines and start swallowing anything in their path - a large shark can take between 10 and 20 in one mouthful.

Having worked out the best place to intercept the shoals, I prepared my boat for filming. You have to use a small, manoeuvrable boat for two reasons: firstly to be able to launch it quickly without getting stuck on the beach, and secondly so that you can dodge the really big waves that break along the Transkei coast in winter.

Having driven down to Mnyameni on the most horrendous roads imaginable, I launched into two metre surf, just made it out (having taken a couple of hundred litres of water into the boat from a wave) and set off south to the main Sardine grounds.

One can spot a large shoal from miles away, as thousands of Gannets plunge headfirst into them from above. Hundreds of Common and Bottle-nose dolphins were under the boat. As quickly as possible I rigged my camera and jumped over board. The visibility was about six or seven metres and immediately a three-metre Bronze whaler charged at me from the shoal of Sardines. I swam forward to hit it on the nose and it gave way a foot from the lens. A couple more sharks came in - it’s hard to relax with all the shark and dolphin activity around.

DolphinI free dived to the bottom (with scuba you don’t see much and it’s too slow on and off the boat), 22m down and the visibility deteriorated. On the bottom seven Ragged-Tooth sharks, all inquisitive, surrounded me. As soon as you turn to confront one, another rushes up and turns behind you, bumping into you. My nerves got a little frayed and my bottom-time dropped (too nervous to hold my breath - my heart going too fast...).

An amazing thing about the Sardine run is that it’s total chaos, every predator in the book is out to get a meal - you see sharks so fat that they can hardly swim!

copyright ©2001 Graeme Duane