We have been privileged to be able to experience the marine extravaganza that is the Sardine Run now for 5 years, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and now recently in 2016. It is and has been one of the most exciting and exhilarating wildlife experiences of our lives but we have not really posted or commented on the overall experience before now. This web entry is going to make up for all of this by sharing some of the reasons why this still tops the bill for must do, must see, the ultimate bucket list entry and why we will continue to return again as often as time, circumstance and opportunity allows.
This year came as a pleasant surprise as it was not planned but early in June we were made aware of an opportunity to participate in a reality TV show called Baitball. Our favourite skipper, dive buddy and all round man of the sea, Greg de Valle (Google Greg!) clued us into this opportunity for which we owe him big time! We know the sardine run well from our previous years but this year there was an added value meeting new people (you were all awesome!) and learning and observing about a professional shoot on and under the water. Jason is a underwater photographer to inspire and admire and the camera and sound crews showed true grit and professionalism even in the face of sea sick days and wet pants! As for our skippers and crew, Jimmy, Craig, Greg, Beila, Carl and Kate, we will never cease to admire your skills, enthusiasm and sheer determination to succeed, travelling cold and wet miles in search of the holy grail of a bait ball (while we snooze on the pontoons!) and enjoying every aspect of the journey along the way. You rock! To find out more of the intrepid adventures you will need to tune in or search for Baitball on Facebook and look at the trailer. Our lips are sealed!
The oldest record of the sardine run is in a mention in the Natal Mercury newspaper of 1853 and it has been an iconic phenomenon of the Natal south coast for decades. This was previously centred on the fishing bonanza experienced when the shoals washed near the shore, conjuring familiar scenes as people rushed into the water to scoop baskets, nets and skirts full of wriggling silver fish for a generous boost to the family larder or coffers. This perspective has changed, or at least diversified, with the increase in, and popularity of, recreational diving spurred on by the footage captured by Peter Lamberti in his landmark documentary The Greatest Shoal on Earth in 2008 and the subsequent BBC and National geographic contributions.
By this time shark hysteria born out of the era of Jaws was being replaced by a more considered curiosity in the role and behaviour of sharks and increasing confidence in the relative safety of diving with them underwater. This has not been deterred by the reputation of shark attacks along the South African coast and specifically the gruesome reputation of Port St John's on the Wild Coast as having the beach with the most fatal shark attacks in South Africa!
And so it is Port St Johns where we start our story........
If anyone is old enough and sentimental enough to remember the movie with Gene Kelly called Bridagoon then maybe we can begin to paint the picture of Port St Johns, a truly unique little town on the crashing coast of the Transkei (now Eastern Cape) Wild Coast, where the rhythm of life, aided by a generous dose of ganja and lubricated by beer, appears frozen in time.
The Wild Coast is a place of remarkable natural beauty but at times bleak and dangerous with treacherous currents and crashing waves sculpting cliffs and gullies, deservedly viewed with great respect by any seafarer.
Access has long been something of a tortuous adventure by car on account of the poor state of the road network. We have broken down on the way to Port St Johns three times by my count but that may have more to do with The Beast than the roads. Ah well. The town is nestled at the mouth of the Umzimvubu river which runs into the sea through an impressive gorge known as the Gates of St John. Sandstone cliffs rise on both side of the gorge over 300m, the highest, Mount Thesiger, named after a British military officer, is the site of the famous, or infamous, air strip. A great spot for sundowners with killer views but a tricky runway with little room for error or overshoot!
The town hosts a population of just over 6500, predominantly Xhosa. This area has been historically disadvantaged and continues to battle the challenges of poverty. The majority are subsistence farmers and fishermen but there is a growing tourist industry around the fishing and diving activities. The town was named after a Portuguese shipwreck, the San Joao, which actually went down off Port Edward but the later seafarers mistakenly identified the mouth of the Umzimvubu as the site. If you needed something to prove the negative psychological effects of ganja then this may be it, mass inaccuracy!
The river mouth was in fact used as a port until the 1940's when the silting prevented access to the larger boats and trawlers. Interesting photos of this time are on dusty display in the town museum. You would be surprised at the size of the vessels that moored up to first beach back in the day.
The river mouth and gateway to the sea is in itself an adventure as the shifting sandbanks make the negotiation of the surf break tricky and exhilarating. A good skipper, preferably with surfing experience, is a must have if you want to survive the bigger swells with you and your gear intact !
We have been lucky to launch with some of the best in the business but we never cease to be amazed by the skills and patience that make an anxiety soaked event look effortless. Thank you Greg de Valle, our long time favourite skipper and kudos to Jimmy, Carl, Grant, Louis and AJ.
Accommodation is varied with guest houses lodges and camping available. A smattering of restaurants offer basic fare, big on pizza and burgers! The Fish Eagle pizza place is worth a mention for its incredibly good views and slow service (order early!), The Delicious Monster for its schwarmas and open fire overlooking second beach and The Wildcoast Kitchen, unfortunately 15 km outside Port St Johns, where we watched the world cup final and our friend Gumby fell off his chair just as he was asking the girl of his fancy if he could walk her home (15 km? Really? one too many zamaleks Gumball!)
The town is a noisy, congested and colourful chaos with taxis and street stalls vying for space.
KFC does a roaring trade and well worth the wait as the food is always fresh and hot on account of the huge turnover.
Perhaps the most well known public fact about Port St Johns is the reputation for shark attacks at one of the best known surfing beaches, second beach. Not only have there been more recorded shark attacks at second beach since 2007 than any other beach anywhere else in the world but also more fatal attacks.
It seems the bull shark or Zambezi is largely responsible and although surfers are at risk many victims have been local people fishing and foraging in the shallows.
The Umzimvubu river is a breeding ground for the Zambezi, indeed the fishermen on the river often see them, and second beach is just around the corner from the mouth. It is also speculated that the traditional practices of slaughtering animals and throwing the entrails into the river or sea may play a role. Whatever the reason it is reassuring to note that more people get killed by Christmas lights and selfie sticks than sharks so lets just keep it in perspective shall we!
In addition to the sea life and sardines there are many attractions around Port St Johns for land based excursions if the day is blown out.
In 2010 we drove along the northern cliffs towards Poonskop and were enchanted by this small stone church. Very scenic with a backdrop of the sea. Apparently it was built as part of a scene for the movie Winnie, (the life of Winnie Madekezela Mandela) some of which was filmed in Port St Johns.
The movie subsequently tanked although I really want to see it just for the scenery! Anyway the next year the little church was gone. Apparently the agreement with the filmmakers was that they remove the church when they finished and build a more utilitiatrian and bigger church across the road for the community. Why couldnt they have both I say! Beauty and purpose. Photography's loss.
The blow hole is an area of eroded rock at the base of the cliff at the Gap, beyond second beach heading south. A hole in the rock at the base of the cliff allows water to funnel up with the wave brake and creates a geyser like display.
You can walk down there by a rather precarious path and ladder to experience it up close and personal. Impressive in big seas.
South East of Lusikisiki is a tea farm with a beautiful natural waterfall and gorge. Beautiful picnic site with rainbow views.
Second beach, despite its scary reputation, is still a beautiful spot. Great for scoring crayfish and ganja (so I'm told!)
Coffee Bay and the Hole in the Wall are within driving distance and remain iconic destinations on this coast but in our case more likely to be spotted from the sea as they represent the southern reach of our fuel when sardine hunting.
Any commentary on the sardine run would be incomplete without remembering our friend Jeremy (Gumby) Brooke who tragically died fighting for his friends in an armed robbery at Xorha on the Wild Coast in 2014.
Gumby dived the sardine run with us in 2010, 2011, 2012. He was our DM and stick man and a huge part of what made this experience so phenomenally unforgettable. What I may not have mentioned before is that the sharks being sneaky and silent have a habit of drifting up behind you or on your fins and as they have no hands they may be tempted to feel you out with their mouths.
Understandable in the circumstances but probably should be discouraged. As a result we always dive with an experienced stick carrying DM who, apart from finding the bait ball, keeping the bait ball and all round making sure everyone is with the bait ball, discourages said shark behaviour by judicious use of the stick.
Anyway needless to say Gumby excelled in all roles but knowing him and diving with him went far beyond his competency. He truly was a unique and special individual who was loved and respected by all who knew him. He was pint sized but with a massive energy and appetite for life and a heart the size of a house. He had a tremendous connection with nature, plants and the sea. He was a talented guitarist and surfer.
On the down side he had an appalling track record with women, the worst feet I have ever seen and an apparently bottomless appetite for zamaleks. (which may have had something to do with his track record for women as evidenced in a previous reference... chair, Wildcoast Kitchen)
So for those 3 magical years we camped on the banks of the Umzimvubu river with Gumby and Greg for over 2 months all told and shared in Gumbys infectious laughter (loud and frequent) and explosive swearing, motherfucker was a term of endearment as I recall. We listened to him play his guitar by the river which, luck would have it, Dudley won in a drunken raffle at a music festival the month before. He was chuffed with that!
We collected rocks and driftwood together. Or maybe he collected drift wood and rocks and we all drank beer would be more accurate. We shared orchid and plant cuttings and he certainly kept me on the straight and narrow in terms of stealing cuttings from the gardens of Port St Johns. Strong moral fibre that boy.
It is no surprise we felt in touch with Gumby on the sardine run this year. It is likely that we will always feel Gumby with us on the sardines in any year to come as everywhere in Port St Johns we visit or eat is infused with fun filled memories of our times there with him. Getting up in the freezing dawn and cursing as we struggled into our wet wet suits, munching on KFC around the fire, jumping into the murky water and swearing at the sharks (and at Greg when he told him to get in again).
In this country blessed with such a wealth of natural beauty and potential we still have to remember the reality of poverty and violence. The loss of a young life with so much potential . Perhaps this played a role in our increased effort to spend more time living experiences like this and less slaving over the money machine. I am sure he would approve. Miss you Gumby.
So what is the sardine run and why do we rave about it?
The sardine is a South African pilchard, Sardinops sagax, which spawn in the cool waters off the Agulhas Bank and move northward along the South African coastline during winter months. Although initially termed a migration it is now considered more of an extension of range, ie the sardines do not leave the Agulhas banks but large populations extend up the KwaZulu Natal coast and into Mozambique between May and September when the conditions are conducive. The KwaZulu Natal coastline is dominated by the warm Agulhas current (average temperature 23C) which flows north to south and is strongest just off the continental shelf. Sardines prefer water 14-20C and in winter the coastal waters achieve these temperatures. This cooler coastal water flows south to north inshore of the Agulhas current as a result of coastal eddies , most notably the Durban Eddy, and is strongest where the continental shelf is narrowest.
This allows the sardines to extend their habitat. The continental shelf is wider in the North Coast section (>40km) compared to the South Coast section (15 km) and this, together with the prevailing winds, causes the sardines to come closer to shore in this area and explains the typical sites for the shoals annual beaching. In fact the North Coast of Kwa Zulu Natal is a more suitable habitat for the sardines with generally lower water temperatures and higher nutrient content than the South Coast but it is not known to what extent they use this as the range is far broader and deeper there. The sardine run is followed along the Wild Coast because of the proximity to shore and narrow constraints of the shoaling range allowing more predicable access as well as better visibility than that further south off East London and Port Elizabeth.
In terms of biomass, researchers have speculated that the sardine run could rival the wildebeest migration of East Africa The shoals may be more than 7 km long, 1.5 km wide and 30m thick. Certainly we have seen on the depth finder of the boats huge shoals of fish beneath the boat, often at depths of 30m and below, even when none were visible at the surface.
As amazing as these facts are it still does not explain the excitement and frenzy that greets these little fish. This is much more than a small fish movement, the sardines bring with them a caravan of predator fish and mammals and then predators of the predators which makes up an intense interspecies interaction which takes the breath away of even the most experienced wildlife enthusiast.
Dolphins, birds, whales, game fish, sharks all competing for the same food source, often in the picture together at the same time in a frenzy of organized and graceful chaos.
The sardine run may be quite variable and does not happen every year but this adds to the mystique. Also the wildlife spectacle is not confined to bait ball action. The bird life, general marine life and whales are a consistent finding bait ball or no. We have seen mantas, sunfish, seals, turtles, marlin, sailfish, short fin pilot whales often just passing by. Penguins, orcas and great white shark have all been documented in the mix. In 2003 the sardines failed to "run" for the third time in 23 years. In 2006 they were again notable by their absence. Water temperature, water clarity, wind, rainfall and swell all influence the run. In the non run years it is likely they still migrated but perhaps deeper and further out to sea. It is therefore difficult to make broad assumptions about the run based on how "good" or "bad" the years sightings were.
Comprehensive information is still in its infancy and variables are a certainty. There is a fear that the run may be under threat from over fishing and lax policing of the sardine fisheries in the Eastern Cape, with additional concern now about Chinese encroachment. Certainly the horizon off East London now boasts the presence of bigger and better fishing vessels and factory ships for longer and longer seasons and we are all anxious to know just how carefully these quotas have been calculated and controlled to preserve our unique and diverse ocean ecosystem. Trust in our regulatory systems is currently in short supply.
So what is a bait ball?
This is the holy grail of the sardine run in terms of the ultimate underwater experience. Bait fish, of which the humble sardine is one, travel in huge shoals. They believe in safety in numbers and they move in a coordinated silver sheet, turning and weaving in such perfect harmony they make synchronized swimmers look clumsy and gauche. The light flashes off the fish like fishy morse code. However they are also able by these tactics to evade the predators almost en mass and create a more difficult hunting environment.
As a response to this the dolphins have evolved a strategy of communal fishing which allows them to separate a group of fish from the shoal and drive them up towards the surface in a smaller more easily corralled group. This small group is then trapped between the dolphins underneath and the surface of the sea above . They ball up into a tight unit in response to the threat and they then present a nice snack sized target for the dolphins which swoop into and around the ball picking off the fish. This is the bait ball.
Once close to the surface birds, predominantly the Cape Gannet, dive to catch the fish adding a barrage of gunshots as they hit the water. This noise, together with the calling of the dolphin, signals the rest of the nearby predators that there is action and the sharks and other fish home in. If the fish try and escape the dolphins herd them back exactly like sheepdogs with a flock of sheep and together the predators work the ball until most , if not all , the fish are gone. There may be a Gary or two which get away but on the whole the hunting technique looks pretty effective.
There is additional speculation that when the shoals are very deep it is the sharks that bring them up into range of the dolphins and it certainly seems like there is a lot of interspecies cooperation in the final event. The predators do not seem to be hunting each other and share the ball without clear animosity but is is every man for himself. The only spoilsport at the party is the rare but exciting appearance of the Bryde whale, a sardine eating whale who is capable of swallowing the whole bait ball in one gulp, ending the party rather abruptly.
Although sardines are the fish we all come to seek on the eponymously named sardine run, there are lots of other bait fish along this coast pretty much all year round.
Notable are the mackerel, a slightly bigger and oilier fish which the sharks seem to like. We have seen balls with almost only shark on them and these are often mackerel bait balls.
Also the red eyed herring, named for the fact that they suffer conjunctival haemorrhage after being caught which turns the eyes red, are a common bait fish. They are a smaller more slender fish than the sardine and tend to form looser bait balls. Still the dolphin, while perhaps preferring the tighter packed sardine, don't seem to be too fussy. This year we also saw a small bait ball of needle fish or half beaks. They were being balled by pantropical dolphin which is also a less common species of dolphin here and a bit of a bonus.
Let me explain the Gary phenomenon. Gary is the pet starfish of Sponge Bob Square pants which for various reasons was the default program in skipper and ocean guru Gregs house at the time of our first sardine run. As a result any animal out of synch with his friends was nick named Gary.
The odd thing is the more you look at your pictures of the underwater feeding frenzy the more you will see that there is always one fish going the other way. The one that got away perhaps? Thats Gary! We have elevated the name to a descriptive noun for any out of sync behaviour!
Diving and snorkelling with the whales is a rare and precious experience. Usually they are very wary of any presence in the water and will change course well before they come into underwater vision. Occasionally a chance encounter will put them closer than expected, sometimes frighteningly so for a 40 ton creature delivers one heck of a bitchslap. Dudley surfaced from diving with dolphins on one occasion to hear us all screaming from the boat and looked up to see a whale breach right over his head. The bow wave lifted him up and put him straight in the path of a second whale but they both sank gracefully down without touching him.
On one occasion we spent the week diving with a French group and the air was rife with excited cries of "baleen" whenever a whale was spotted. One of the group, both eccentric and frankly a bit dangerous, was wont to try and get very close to the action and the animals never mind the danger, usually accompanied by much shouting and gesticulation from Greg , but all he ever said when he got back on the boat, in broken English and with a big grin, was " friendly whale!"
There is a serene gentleness about these giants which is humbling. This year we had amazing opportunities to swim with the whales as they appeared relaxed and curious. First time ever. They seemed to be juveniles which may explain the curiosity and playfulness. To see a whale glide lazily past under water while fixing you with a curious stare is just so huge it takes your breath away.
The humpback is not the only whale on the sardine route. As I have mentioned there is also a specialist whale in these parts, the Bryde whale. Although we have had tantalizing glimpses it is still on our wish list for things to see up close and personal. We will find it eventually and see it consume that baitball under our noses. Watch this space!
Killer whales are also on the wish list, although we have seen their close cousins the short finned pilot whale. Both of these are more closely related to dolphins than baleen whales They are spotted not infrequently, especially closer to East London and Port Elizabeth, and dolphins, juvenile whales and seals are on their menu.
Forget about Dancing with Wolves, we dance with dolphins. Kevin Costner eat your heart out! The dolphins following the sardine run are a true spectacle not only for the sheer numbers but also for the variety of species that may be seen.
To take advantage of this feeding bonanza pods of dolphins will join together to form super pods of maybe 1000 or more individuals which charge over the horizon in groups spanning up to 5 km, frolicking and jumping in the waves, small babies jumping in unison with their mothers en route to their first hunting class.
The dolphin star of the show is undoubtedly the small agile and beautifully marked common dolphin What sort of a name is that ? He is far from common and should be renamed the exceptional or uncommon dolphin. He is the master hunter and sheep dog of the sea. He is agile, vocal and coordinated and it is the common dolphin that has the skill to separate and form the biggest and the best bait balls. Many of the other species appear to be opportunistic to this especially the bigger slower bottle nosed dolphin, more like a goofy Labrador who has neither the speed nor the agility for the task but will follow on to take advantage of the commons hard work if he can.
To watch the common dolphin working a bait ball is a work of art. The sound of their clicks and whistles is all around and then it goes quiet The fish huddle together nervously and suddenly from below the dolphins charge in a tight knit group into and through the ball scattering the fish and then returning to chase them back together for the next onslaught. Their mouths curve like a laughing grin and there is no doubt they are enjoying every minute. It deserves a full orchestra for dramatic effect but then you could not hear the perfect sounds of the ocean.
On two years we have also seen the pan tropical dolphin, a rarer sighting. These are also strongly marked, a little like commons, but they have a Zoro mask marking across their eyes
This year they were in lovely clean water and balling needle fish close to the surface but as soon as we got in the water they abandoned their prize and raced off. Still they were easy to see charging past and below us for a few glorious minutes.
Previously we have seen spinner dolphins, the tiniest dolphin with boundless energy jumping and spinning in the air over the waves and this year we saw Frasiers dolphin for the first time. These are like bottle nosed dolphins but smaller, more agile and without the bottle, (pink tip), to their nose.
Swimming with dolphins unless they are habituated can be difficult at the best of times, but on the sardine run there are always many opportunities. Often they are so busy they forget about you and leave you as a fascinated and privileged observer.
Birding close to water and in rivers and estuaries is always rewarding but there are special and specialized birds to be seen following the sardine run and joining the spectacle. Chief amongst these is the beautiful Cape Gannet with its spectacular white plumage and steely blue eyes. It seems that these birds are more than just casual opportunists of the spectacle. We have seen that when there are few gannets, even with bait fish in the water, the marine life is harder to find. When the birds arrive the action begins. Of course they may just be a marker for the action but our theory is that they help to develop and advertise it, bringing the players together in the right place. The gannets have great eye sight and will spot the shoals close to the surface from far away. They position themselves above the shoal and then fold their wings and dive down into the water.
When there is a concentration of fish the birds congregate noisily diving in a small area rising and swooping to dive again They hit the water with a sound like pistol shots and in a frenzy it sounds like machine gun fire. They penetrate remarkably deeply, 10-15 m, and can swim to catch the fish once under water. It seems likely that the noise of the diving gannets is a strong message to any predators nearby that there is food in an accessible location and the speed, height and concentration of their diving refines the information for interested parties. So sometimes they drop on other peoples bait balls but sometimes, maybe usually, they set the scene and start the action up. Its a big ocean out there so everyone needs eyes on the water for a heads up, especially us!
Comical tussles develop as the birds try to rob each other of their catch under water and when rafting after the dive. The cormorants are particularly sneaky They are slower then the gannet and cannot dive as deep but they can hold their breath a lot longer so they duck dive and hang around until the gannet returns with the fish bursting for air and steal the fish out of their beaks and make a run or swim for it. The gannet is out of air and its game over!
Small turns and the white chinned, southern giant and storm petrels swoop and pick off surface fish The scua, also known as the brown chicken for obvious reasons, hangs around waiting for scraps to float up. If you drive into the wind with a fish in your hand he will clumsily chase the boat and take it from your fingers. Down wind he just doesn't have the lift.
Albatross especially the shy but also the wandering, indian, black browed are all frequent visitors, swooping without effort and floating on the ocean calmly waiting for something to happen, even if its only a peanut butter sandwich for lunch.
Scavengers have a field day with the broken bodies of diving birds who misjudged the angle of entry.
The ride down the river at dusk back to camp is accompanied by kingfishers, herons, thick knees and a pair of fish eagles swooping overhead with their iconic call.
Back at camp the cape parrot chatters in the trees while the woodland kingfisher, glossy starlings, fork tailed drongos and crowned hornbills jump, flutter and call. Bob and Dudley spent a happy afternoon stalking all the usual suspects with a pair of binoculars and the trusty Roberts under one arm
Sharks are a large part of what makes the sardine run such an adrenaline boost. We are lucky in South Africa to frequently see sharks underwater and have a large variety of species off our shores but to be able to see them congregated in such numbers (a shiver of sharks indeed! and yes this is a proper collective noun for sharks, how apt! ) is a rare treat. Usually the sharks we see are in and out of vision quickly and do not stay around unless the dive is baited. If you look in the wrong direction you miss them On the sardine run the water is naturally baited for hundreds of kilometers.
One year, which was slow for the actual sardines as I recall, we had the experience that whenever and wherever we jumped in the water there were sharks, which was mind blowing in respect to the number of sharks that implied in the area, its a big ocean out there. Also that year they behaved differently, more sinister and aggressive, so much so we had to leave the water frequently spooked by the fin posturing and toothy interested grins. Presumably these were hungry sharks who had not had their quota of sardines.
Other years the sharks have been more elusive but on a bait ball they can suddenly appear in their hundreds jumbled up with the dolphins and birds and fish. On our first run in 2010, on the way home from a long day, we caught a frenzy of activity just off the mouth of Port St Johns. Joe and Dudley were the only ones with air in their tanks and jumped in on scuba to find a rather pathetic little ball of frantic fish and more sharks than they had ever seen at one time, maybe 200. Of course dusk is not the preferred time for finding sharks as they are getting ready to feed but this bunch was so busy hunting and eating they took little note of the divers and we stayed until the sun went down on the spectacle.
In general the sharks tend to mosey around a bit deeper and so ,when they appear, it is often from the dark and bottomless depths (good for the sinister atmosphere). Also, in contradiction to the other players on the run, they are silent and so you cannot expect to get warning of their approach. They like to come and investigate you from behind or below and many a giggle has been shared as we watched large sharks come within a few inches of our unsuspecting fellow divers while they scanned the seas in the opposite direction. That would be you Trevor. Occasionally they will nudge fins or bump you (not a good sign) and hence the need for an experienced stick man to discourage too close an inspection. Gumby Beila, Craig Julian you guys are the best!
When we started the stick man carried a substantial stick with a serrated pointy end which looked quite fierce but nowadays its just a gopro. if you are going to get eaten you may as well capture it on film! Indeed when our friend Milan dived for the first day on his first sardine run it looked like we almost got that very footage but fortunately having a stick down your gullet is apparently an appetite suppressant for shark and the inquisitive fish swam away, no harm done. We are hoping Milan will be back for another run once he forgets that particular experience! In general the greatest danger from sharks occurs if you stray into the bait ball as the sharks swim through the ball with eyes closed and mouth open, they don't care what they catch in the moment. Moral of the tale, don't act like bait and we all get on just fine.
There are a wide variety of sharks to be encountered on the sardine run and we have seen ragged toothed, reef sharks , hammerheads, zambezis and tigers at various times. Even the apex predator, the great white, is reported not infrequently (but not by us I may add- I am ambivalent about meeting a great white under water!) However by far the most common sharks we see, and the ones most often involved in the bait balling, are the copper or bronze whaler sharks and the dusky sharks. Both these sharks are members of the requiem shark group, migratory sharks who are live bearing and prefer warm and temperate water. The copper shark is named for the golden sheen to his skin especially when the light reflects off him at shallower depths. He is a slender, rather pretty shark, with a pointed nose and generally the smaller of the two species, averaging 1-3 m in length. His cousin the dusky is another kettle of fish. He is a dull flat grey and generally bigger (2-4 m) and he looks much more menacing as he appears from the dark and gloomy depths. His nose is blunter and he is altogether more beefy in build, the weight lifter to the more slender bonzys running build. He looks like he could (and would) eat you if he gets a chance but I think that's being a bit unfair. After all he never has (yet). He has bumped us a couple of times.
It is right to be cautious I think, after all this is the shark reputed to have bitten the diver off Aliwal shoal a couple of years ago during the sardine season, although I think he was handling bait at the time. Overall, however, few attacks have been attributed to the dusky.
Both the dusky and the copper shark are on the ICUN red list as near threatened. Part of the problem is that they reach sexual maturity at 20 and 13 years respectively and so many are caught having not yet reached breeding potential, and the adult breeding stock severely depleted as a result. They are popular with fisheries and used for shark fin soup. Although the dusky has now been banned for recreational and commercial fishing it is estimated 750,000 may be fished out in a year. Now I feel sad.
Well I hope we have presented a very compelling argument for why the sardines hold us in such thrall, and for why you really should visit if you get the chance. And if that was not enough there are always surprising and unexpected encounters like little jewels to keep you on your toes.
I guess the run is like a huge concert that everyone wants to go to and so you see many people and some of them randomly will be unexpected or famous or friends. So over and above the bait ball action, each day can be additionally lifted by an unexpected encounter. Animals and fish we know and love or sometimes things we have never seen before entertain and excite us.
Manta on the surface of the water are not uncommon and loggerhead turtles with their square heads and thick necks.
All the game fish are around for obvious reasons but that means marlin and sail fish may actually be spotted underwater. We have seen a sailfish in a bait ball which was amazing but are told sometimes a sailfish bait ball may form. Imagine that.
In 2011 we had a particular treat. The day was quiet so Greg motored out to the deep blue to have a look around and there , basking on the surface, was an enormous sun fish. Quite common in colder climes but a first for us and one of the highlights of that particular year. He was just floating around sucking up coelenterates like spagetti.
Seals have been spotted frolicking in the bait fish and penguins sometimes follow the sardines although we have yet to spot them ourselves. There is always something new to look forward to.
If you are really struggling on any given day there is always a chance to have a man made background add a little extra twist. Like the whale waving at the ship and the dolphin riding the bow wave.
So last chance to see.........join us next year and see for yourselves.