The Greatest Shoal on Earth

The Sardine Run

The onset of winter in South Africa causes the cold Atlantic water to push up along the coastline made possible by the southbound warm benguela current losing some of its thrust towards the cape. And it is this cool water channel that nudges the warmer water further offshore and beyond the continental shelf, which will ultimately entice the greatest shoal on earth to make its way toward, what for many will be, a dead end.

During the summer month’s sardines live in deeper cooler water off the coastline, and in smaller shoals, making life more difficult for gannets, dolphins, sharks, whales and number of other predatory fish, which must cover vast distances in search of one of their favourite staples. It is believed that sardines will not move into water above 21 degrees celcius, and not a great deal is understood as to why they gather in the cape in huge numbers, a single shoal can easily number between 500 million and 1 billion individuals, and move in pulses northward along the Eastern Cape coast line.

It is believed that just under half the sardines will return to the cape in spring, and will do so in the cooler water further offshore, as the warm current pushes the cold Atlantic water south again. And at depths which make it nearly impossible to witness.

As we know, nothing in nature happens just by chance and every event has a benefit for something at some time, even if it is at the cost of something else, it is nature’s ability to maintain the balance and ensure the continuance that leaves conservationists and admirers in awe. Some of the beneficiaries of the run are gannets and dolphins, both of which require this abundance of food for their young. In the case of the gannet, the largest population, which number in excess of 200,000 birds live on Bird Island along the Eastern Cape coastline, and 3 months after birth, with enough fat reserves to last 10 days, must learn to fly and fish for themselves. Dolphin calves having suckled for 6 months must also now learn how to fish for themselves, and unlike the gannets, they will enjoy some coaching from the adults in their pod.

Whilst the reasons for the run may be poorly understood, the result is clearly evident and extremely impressive and causes the greatest concentration of predators on the planet. A shoal or pulse can measure 7km long 3km wide and 30m deep, and in pursuit, dolphins numbering in excess of 20,000 and many thousand sharks amongst others feed on the sardines. The aerial assault from the gannets is made possible by the dolphins who work together to isolate splinter shoals, called bait balls, which they heard to the surface before feeding.

Spotters are positioned along the high ground of the wild coast, and they direct skippers to the heart of the shoal, and it is from here that guests are invited to drop off with mask and snorkel and immerse themselves for the greatest feeding frenzy on the planet.

Chiefs Luxury Tented Camps secured a magnificent site along the wild coast during the sardine run to provide accommodation for visitors wishing to witness this natural miracle.

Wayne Pritchard

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