South Africa’s sardine run is starting soon

By Guest Writer

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Author: DIVE Staff

A bronze whaler shark swimming through a cloud of sardines
A bronze whaler swimming through a cloud of sardines (Photo: Shutterstock)

The annual KwaZulu-Natal sardine run, one of the most spectacular ocean events of the year – sometimes dubbed ‘The Greatest Shoal on Earth’ – is set to begin off the south-eastern coast of South Africa within the next few weeks.

For those who haven’t experienced the Sardine Run before, South Africa’s South Coast Tourism & Investment Enterprise (SCTIE) has put together a ‘Sardine Run Starter Pack’ to bring you all you need to know about where and why it happens.

What is the Sardine Run?

The sardine run is a global migration in which millions of Southern African pilchards (Sardinops sagax) – also known as sardines – move northward along the eastern coastline of South Africa from their spawning grounds of the Agulhas Bank.

The shoals are so massive they can stretch for miles, and represent one of the largest movements of biomass on the planet. Needless to say, it also attracts hungry marine predators by their thousands, including dolphins, sharks, whales, seabirds, and large species of predatory pelagic fish such as yellowfin tuna and king mackerel.

When is the Sardine Run?

A pod of common dolphins herding the sardines (Photo: Shutterstock)

The sardine run usually takes place during the southern hemisphere’s winter months of June and July, but – as with any natural phenomenon – there are a number of factors that can influence the start and end dates, especially the water temperature.

The spectacle starts when the water temperature drops, so it’s best to wait for the confirmed reports before heading out to sea.

Why does the Sardine Run happen?

Plenty of research has been done into the migration but there appears – at least from the surface – to be little reason for the fish to migrate. The shoal of sardines originates from South Africa’s cooler, temperate Atlantic coast, and heads along the coastline to the temporary cold-water upwelling off the southeast coast.

Scientists believe the Sardine Run happens because of the fishes’ reproductive cycle, possibly an evolutionary relic dating back to the last glacial period, when what is now the subtropical Indian Ocean was an important, cold-water nursery area for the sardines.

Does anybody monitor the Sardine Run?

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board monitors the Sardine Run so they can remove the shark nets installed at some locations to protect bathers and allow the sharks to move freely. SCTIE maintains contact with the KZN Sharks Board, with regular updates shared via its social media platforms.

Wayne Harrison, of the KZN Sharks Board, said there had been already been significant activity noted in the East London region: ‘There have been a lot of big game fish spotted, as well as Bryde’s whales, with bait balls in the north East London region.

‘So far, it looks as if this will be a good year for the Sardine Run which is heading this way, but we are certainly monitoring the activity and will keep the public updated.’

Cape gannets diving for their fill (Photo: Shutterstock)

How can you experience the Sardine Run?

‘The Sardine Run is best experienced on the KZN South Coast where tourism operators are ready to welcome visitors,’ says Deborah Ludick, acting CEO of SCTIE. ‘We’re fortunate that the Sardine Run migration gives visitors to the area front-row seats of this globally renowned phenomenon which has featured in several global documentaries. There are so many ways to experience it from land, sea, and sky, it just depends on your preference!’

  • From boats: There are many charter boats that will take guests out for a close-up experience of the annual Sardine Run. These include watching from the boat, snorkelling or scuba diving at Aliwal Shoal or Protea Banks, or deep-sea fishing.
  • From viewing decks: Catch the Sardine Run action and whale migration from the beaches or one of the many whale decks including Umtentweni Conservancy Whale Deck, Ramsgate Whale Deck, Impithi Beach Kiosk, and Umdoni Golf Club Whale Deck.
  • From the eateries: The KZN South Coast has many ocean-facing pubs, bars and restaurants that serve delicious seafood meals with great views. Take in the Sardine Run while enjoying a cocktail or a great dish.
  • From the skies: Get another perspective by checking out the Sardine Run from a microlight, helicopter, or light aircraft. There are experienced local pilots who organise flights over this ocean spectacle.

You can follow updates from the Sardine Run action through the KZN South Coast website; following South Coast Tourism on Facebook; South Coast Tourism and Investment Enterprise on YouTube; and @infosouthcoast on Twitter or Instagram.

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