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Sardine Run 2011 with Animal Ocean

Updated: Feb 28

For this year's Sardine Run, Animal Ocean headed to Port St Johns at the beginning of June to intercept the expected moving mass of sardines. We spend 206 hours over 36 days on the water and traveled a total distance of 2099km. We stayed in Port St Johns until the 21st of July, allowing the maximum amount of time to capture whatever action happened on that part of the coastline this year. Click through to a short video clip here

The hours spent ducking-and-diving through silvery baitballs in azure water, dodging determined cormorants battling bright-eyed gannets for baitfish, made this year’s sardine run a memorable one. We struggled with bad weather and a relative scarcity of those shimmering sardine shoals along the Wild Coast. It seemed the sardines had stubbornly chosen to head around the coastline or into deeper waters, emerging in their thousands on the Kwa-Zulu Natal coast. Still, there was no shortage of heart-stopping moments with some of the ocean’s greatest predators. We dived with elegant sailfish and cheered the gannets on as they choked down enormous mackerel, willing them to dodge the sharks who tried to snatch their hard-won meals.  Graceful humpback whales played out a behemoth-ballet as they arrived on our coastline and held us spellbound. All-in-all, a challenging run that made the special moments truly awe-inspiring.


The sms I received on the 5th of July captures it all: “Lightning, hail, horizontal rain and gusting more than 30 knots”. Shortly after we arrived in Port St John’s, the Wild Coast was buffeted by consecutive cold fronts, gale-force winds, heavy rain and huge swells. Luckily, our spot on the coast was less affected, but we were forced to hide away from the wild weather occasionally. Some were saying that this year’s sardine run had some of the most severe weather events in recent memory. Despite the rough conditions, there were only two days on which we couldn’t surf launch. Great luck with clients arriving and leaving ensured that we didn’t cancel any more days; on three occasions clients left just as the bad weather hit, or arrived just as the Wild Coast calmed a little.


We had some fantastic experiences diving on baitballs this year, but it was not easy going. We had heard of great baitball activity around  East London whilst we were travelling up to Port St John’s: it lasted about 4 days, cut short by foul weather. We found the remnants of this pulse of fish 60km south of Port St John’s on the 12th and 13th of June.

The balls of sardines were in 6-8m visibility and comprised about one hundred fish.  Luckily, these low numbers of fish didn’t deter the hundreds of gannets raining out of the sky to catch them. Everyone saw their fill and we took turns to slip into the water, two at a time, so as to not disturb the predators and prolong the activity for as long as possible.

Dolphins descend into the dark waters to snatch a sardine – Pic by Geoff Spiby

It was on one of these small baitballs that I came upon a pair of sailfish preying on the sardines. The largest fish was battling with a broken bill, whilst the smaller sailfish lit up the waters with its shimmering, disco-style scales. It was amazing to see them slash into the bait ball with deadly accuracy and phenomenal skill.

Dolphins descend into the dark waters to snatch a sardine – Pic by Geoff Spiby

We found three bait balls on the 22nd and 23rd of June, but these were in quite poor visibility. We  free dived with these sardines as dolphins rushed through and got their fill. The 4th of July had us stumble upon two bait balls – no sardines this time, but  redeye round herring (Etrumeus whitheadi).

Redeyes are closely related to sardines but are permanent residents on the inshore areas of the Wild Coast. They don’t have 6 – 10 spots running down their lateral line like sardines, and feed on larger zooplankton whilst  sardines  feed on  the  smaller primary producers, phytoplankton. Aside from being a different species, they also form different types of bait balls. These shoals of fish tend to be less tightly packed and move quickly, often making a dash for safety as soon as the predation activity stops. To prove the point, on one occasion I swam after one of these redeye bait balls for 1.8km! Each time I approached, the dolphins would slow down their feeding routine and the fish would shoot off, swimming about 4m below the surface. The dolphins would catch up and begin feeding again. This continued for about an hour, until the dolphins maintained the shoal’s position, allowing the SCUBA divers to enter the water.

Sharks didn’t feature highly for us this year. But on several occasion they did make an appearance and were part of the action. Here a copper shark snaps a fish on the surface

The 8th of July gave us the best bait ball of the trip. As we left the river mouth that morning, hundreds of dive-bombing gannets gave away the location of several bait balls.  We were looking for clean water and hoping that the gannets and dolphins had isolated a shoal of fish in great visibility water. We spotted another boat, with its clients already diving with a good ball of fish in clean water. I headed over and noticed that about 100m away was a second bait ball. We quickly got in. The water was blue and clear with 10-15m visibility and the dolphins and gannets were feeding  unperturbed by our presence. On close examination of the photographers' images it can be seem that this shoals was mostly redeye with a few sardines thrown in the mix. The predators didn’t seem to care and were consuming all that they could. Each photographer emptied two SCUBA tanks over the next three hours:  the bait ball continued unabated and 6 other operators brought their clients to dive with it. The dolphins and gannets had kept up a feeding frenzy all this time, but the highlight for me was definitely the plucky cormorants weaving their way in and out of the shoaling fish.

In total we encountered bait balls on 7 of the 37 days that we were on the water, which equates to 18.9% of our total time there. It goes to show that getting that once-in-a-lifetime bait ball is a very difficult thing to do.  It requires the correct team, patience, dedication, a good dose of optimism and a healthy bit of luck.  As I always tell the divers that join me for the epic adventure: “You have to  appreciate the Sardine Run in its entirety, from the dolphins riding the bow wave to the scattered diving  gannets. It’s all part of the story”


Sardines and Red eye round herring are not the only fish being targeted by the army of predators. In fact, just about any small fish is likely to find itself inside a gannet,  dolphin or shark if it isn’t quick. There is, however, another species that is readily snapped up (albeit with more difficulty): the mackerel. This year there was a four to five day period where these fish were tagreted by the predators with some interesting results. The main predators driving the action were the bottle nose dolphins. This is interesting as these dolphins don’t feed on or create bait balls out of the small baitfish species. These  larger (+- 500g) fish were clearly on their menu. Most of this action happened in the surface waters off Mgazi and was captured topside by the photographers. The dolphins would chase the fish, which triggered off  the gannets. They plummeted from the sky en masse, and if they did seize a huge fish, would fight amongst themselves to swallow it. There was certainly no cooperation or sharing going on here! Gannets would fight ruthlessly, seizing  fish and pushing them underwater.  There could be four or five gannets all hanging doggedly  on to one fish, heads underwater and wings splayed out on the surface. The bird that held its breath the longest usually won the prize.

A couple of sharks always wanted in on the action, of course, so the risks were serious. We noticed that if the gannets stayed on the surface fighting the big mackerel for too long, the sharks (usually copper or dusky sharks)  would hone in on the scuffle and snap at the cluster of birds to try stealing the fish. We saw a number of birds fatally wounded as the sharks exploded at the surface. This was a spectacular display of interaction between species, and it was a privilege to witness the struggle for life on the oceans.


The first signs that the South African coastline would soon begin to heave with the presence of these enormous mammals came around the 12th of June, with the arrival of single, young whales. We continued to see between one and five animals a day, until we were seeing between twenty and thirty whales a day! When I left Port St John’s on the 22nd of July, the whales were streaming in towards the coast. During the 206  hours we spent at sea, we saw  224  whales  – a phenomenal privilege and excellent sign as far as whale conservation goes.

The ocean was alive with Humpback whales. Breaching splashes could be seen all over the ocean on some days

All the whales were heading up the coast to warmer waters off Mozambique and Madagascar where they mate and give birth, treating us all the while to aerial feats that took our breath away. Although it seemed a little early to be returning to the Southern Ocean, we spotted six humpbacks leading a tiny calf, wrinkled and grey, southwards. There were several occasions where we watched bottlenose dolphins cruising along the  bow-wave made by pods of Humpbacks . During the first week of July, we heard reports of a sick young whale off the Port St John’s river. A week later, it was found near Waterfall Bluff. We went to investigate and found it to be a 5m young Humpback, still alive and breathing, but floating motionless. It appeared pink in colour, which on closer inspection turned out to be the result of a thick, living cover of lice crawling over its skin. We took images, and brought back samples of the lice to show the Marine Mammal Research Institute at the Isiko Museum and parasitologists at UCT.


Pan-Tropical Spotted dolphins

On the 14th of June we were told about a pod of dolphins 10km off shore of Port St John’s. We headed over to have a look and found that  they were not the expected Long-beaked common dolphins, but a pod of  two-to-three hundred smaller pan-tropical spotted dolphins. We jumped into the crystal clear water and watched as they swam 25m below.

Bullsharks Towards the middle of July, a small Bullshark was found stranded on a sandbank at the mouth of the Umzimvubu River. It was spotted by the team from Shark Explorers and set free. Sailfish There were seven sightings of sailfish during our time at sea. We saw two underwater on a baitball, and on two occasions we watched from the boat as they fed on the surface. The other three records were of sailfish jumping out of the wake of moving SCUBA boats.


Neat accommodation, a relaxed environment and the close proximity to the ocean made the Outspan Inn a great HQ for our operations again this year. Warm hospitality on the part of John and Kathryn Costello, owners of the establishment, made the stay enjoyable and the divers loved to hear them impart their considerable knowledge about the Wild Coast.


The spectacular Wild Coast ensured that, even when we couldn’t go to sea, there was plenty to explore. The heart-pounding Magwa Falls had us mesmerized as its foaming waters plummeted 144m into a gorge below. On the 8th of June, this river flooded and a torrent of brown water coursed its way to the precipitous drop. Frazer Falls and Angel Falls added to our waterfall-enchantment, and John Costello generously offered to lead us along little-known 4X4 trails to Waterfall Bluff. Here, powerful ocean swells crash against flat-faced sandstone and sent plumes of white water rocketing to the sky. In a fit of excitement, the Animal Ocean staff donned duck-yellow oilskins and got up-close to these walls of water to add perspective to the photographer’s images. it was quite an experience! After crawling under the northern waterfall on the Bluff, we emerged surprisingly dry and watched as this stream of freshwater tossed its flow straight into the churning ocean below.  The little-explored regions of this landscape, scattered as it is with the flaming heads of red-hot pokers and characterized by plunging ravines, slackflanked cattle  that graze near the beaches and a colourful nation of people ensured we were never bored on days when the ocean raged at us with her biggest swells.


This year's Sardine Run proved to be a very busy one for all the operators in Port St John’s, with most  operations starting around the middle of June. At the height of the season, there were between thirteen and fifteen boats launching each day. This could lead to conflict as boats rushed to get their divers to any bait ball activity that came up. I was generally impressed with how all the operators behaved on the water. On one particular occasion, we had three boats waiting to dive on a bait ball that we had discovered, and everyone was patient and all got their turn. In fact, that bait ball lasted all day and five to eight boats dropped their divers in - and all got to see it. One great thing about having so many eyes on the ocean, looking for sardines, is that information does get transferred.


16 July  - Wahoo!! Another day on the Sardine Run. The baseline animal activity is actually ridiculous, I feel so privileged to get to see it. This media-platform proved to be a great way to spread up-to-date information: I was planning to post more images than what I did, but the weak signal at sea didn’t allow that to happen. Getaway Magazine was instrumental in re-tweeting my posts, and it was always great to see the responses from those following the adventure. Taking another look at some of my tweets, I’ve realized how great it was to convey our excitement to everyone keeping tabs! 10 July  - Just had a sailfish feeding next to the boat. The fish was fully lit up and sail extended, what a sight! 8 July  - Epic red eye baitballs in clean water and predators going crazy. Saw gannets and cormorants fighting over fish. What a day on the Sardine Run. 4 July - Epic day in a hellishly rough sea with baitballs lasting hours !!!!! Predators tearing them apart. 14 June  -Sardines from yest are eaten! Water filthy inshore. Went offshore, found 30m vis and pantripical spotted dolphins, epic!

COMMENTS FROM SARDINE RUN 2011Ed Scott – Director / AVIVA Volunteering

When I first heard that a short notice slot was available for a week on the Sardine Run with Steve Benjamin and Animal Ocean, little prompting was needed. A few nanoseconds later I chatted with a very good friend, she quoted Nike, so I just did it.

That week launching through the surf from Port St Johns turned out to be the best of my life, and one I will repeat often. I will never forget our first bait ball.kitted up and ready to slip into the water, trying to remember breathing routines, willing my pulse to slow down, and finally giving in as my heart threatened to beat its way out of my chest with excitement. Finning towards the bait ball was an adventure in itself, with glimpses of common dolphins torpedoing past, and numerous dusky sharks gliding purposefully below, then finally a thousand flashes of silver up ahead as the real stars of the show tried in vain to escape their fate. The ocean quickly worked its calming magic, and before long our pulses were back in the safe zone, with everyone watching in awe as one of nature’s most amazing spectacles unfolded before us. So began a week of unforgettable memories, searching for diving gannets on the high seas, untold hours below the waves in a state of complete bliss, and the incredible gains in bladder control that come from living in an open cell wetsuit for nine hours each day. With so much happening around you, the reality of what you’re seeing takes time to sink in, and even now I have to remind myself it wasn’t a dream. Freediving below a bait ball with the sardines silhouetted above, dusky and copper sharks circling around you, gannets sounding like mini explosions as they hit the water, and dolphins smashing into the sardines within a few feet of’s a little like meditating, just more interesting. And as the maelstrom of whirling dolphins and sharks clears, a few hardy sardines band together in a cloud of glittering confetti, a million floating fish scales being the only evidence that the sardines were there at all.

As with all things in nature, timing is everything. During our five days at sea we were fortunate to freedive with three species of dolphin, four species of shark, a graceful humpback whale, and on one bait ball, a surprise visit from two stunning sailfish that proceeded to put on a dazzling display as they sliced through the sardines with rapid turns and incredible bursts of speed. As fortunate as we were, none of this would have been possible without a skilled and knowledgeable skipper, a boat equal to the task, and sandwiches that somehow taste much better at sea than they do ashore. As if that wasn’t good enough, a boat full of virgins that got on well together was a real bonus, as are the friendships that were made during this incredible week. If you’re not tempted already, try imagining what it’s like to be pinged by a dolphin, and feeling those clicks vibrate in your lungs as they swim up to investigate Steve would say.'Epic!'

Vanessa Randon – Adventure Consultant / Volunteer Adventure Corperation 
In June this year, I had the immense privileged of taking 12 young foreign students for a week's adventure along the Transkei coast. We spent 3 glorious days in Port St Johns with Animal Ocean searching for the front runners of the Sardine run. Unfortunately we were a little early for the thousands of sardines what enjoy that coastline, however that did not stop Steve and Justin from helping us enjoy EVERYTHING that Port St Johns had to offer. Not only were we blessed with 24 degree water and a good 20m visibility on each day but we had the opportunity to swim with pods of up to 100 common dolphins and enjoy some incredible shark action. When that wasn't enough, we snorkeled and watched Steve and Justin catch dinner, and they even pulled out some rods, for us to try our hands at fishing. For some of my group this was not only their first time in a wetsuit, but first time swimming in the sea as well. It’s an incredible thing to be in a situation like that with 2 knowledgeable guides, who not only made every single minute  on the water fun and exciting, but who shared their deep passion and knowledge of the sea with a group of people who hung on to their every word. The guys made our days fun, exciting and interesting. We felt 100% safe, and could not have chosen more reliable and interesting guides. We will be coming back every year to enjoy Animal Ocean, and the incredible guys that made our trip possible. From all of us at VACorps, thank you to Steve and Justin, for being so exceptional!


This year  has just ended and I’m already  planning for next year. The  trip and the way we ran it  have proven successful and I plan to continue this. We will once again be staying at the Outspan Inn from the 10th of June onwards and using Port St John’s as the base for our access to the sardine run. If you are interested in booking onto a trip with me please let me know. It is a trip you wont forget. Information soon coming to the Animal Ocean website


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