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SARDINE RUN

The “sardine run” is a mass “migration” of vast shoals of these small fish that annually move along South Africa’s east coast, usually between Port St Johns and Durban. As the sardines, each averaging about 20 – 25 centimetres in length, move along the coast they are pursued by large numbers of dolphins, sharks and game fish as well as Cape Gannets, cormorants and other sea birds. Sometimes Humpback whales participate in the feeding frenzy.

The entire area surrounding a sardine shoal erupts with life. Some shoals have been estimated as being seven kilometres long, two kilometres wide and 10 metres deep and as they progress along the coast, usually quite close to the shore, the predators swirl around, through and over the shoals as they feed on the tens of millions of small silvery fish.  Sharks and dolphins can be regularly seen as they power through the shoals, sometimes spinning metres into the air. Cape gannets, each with a wingspan of over a metre and a half wide, dive-bomb directly into the shoals, often plunging 10 metres below the surface to catch their prey. Watching these large birds plummet into the sea at high speed is a spectacular site in itself as gannet after gannet hit the water in a plume of spray.

Most of the action can be seen from tourist boats and sometimes even from the shore. Divers have the opportunity of seeing the frenzy from beneath the surface.  Sharks and dolphins sometimes “herd” thousands of sardines into “bait balls and devour their hapless victims while the main shoals, adopting for a “safety in numbers” policy rush northwards along the coast.

The sardine run usually takes place sometime between mid June and early August as the movement  of the fish is highly dependent on  the presence of cold water, usually below 20 C which is only present during the southern hemisphere winter.

In their attempts to escape predators the fish sometimes strand themselves in shallow water

against the beaches which open them up to a new threat – professional anglers with large seine nets capture hundreds of tons every year. And they are not the only human threat – “sardine fever”  grips coastal residents and people rush into the water carrying buckets, plastic bags or anything else they can find to scoop up the fish which some consider a delicacy and others feed to their pets. Sport anglers also follow the shoals in the hopes of hooking some of the many large game fish that feed on the sardines.

The tourism industry along the Wild Coast and the KwaZulu-Natal south coast is well geared to take visitors to see the sardine run, usually in small boats. Some companies even use spotter planes to locate the shoals. Specialist diving operators also follow the shoals with boatloads of divers. Although many sharks follow the shoals diving operators are careful to ensure the safety of tourists.

Although the run takes place most years, very occasionally the sardine fail to shoal, due to insufficient cold water currents. It is also difficult to predict the specific dates the shoals will move along the coast. In years when there is an early presence of cold water the run may start in early June but in other years it may not begin until sometime in July.

Scientists are not certain what happens to the fish once they head north past Durban although some believe they move into deep water before heading south.

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