Now, as I sit in front of my computer, attempting to put the experiences of the past week into writing, I know that I will fail dismally in capturing the crazy excitement of being part of one of nature’s most impressive climatic events.
After a frustrating June working out of the port of East London, with only a few pockets of fast moving action and some huge seas, I admitted defeat and returned to my home in Cape Town. A few days later I received an excited call from Mark Addison of Blue Wilderness Diving Expeditions to say that he had done a recce in the Port St Johns area, to the north of East London, and had picked up a good baitball that included feeding brydes whales. Mark is the pioneer when it comes to diving with the sardine run so, when he gets excited, its time to get on the next available plane and that is exactly what I did.
Early the next morning we surf launched from Port Edward on the Kwa-Zulu Natal south coast and headed south by sea. Being a perfect sea day, we made good time. We decided to travel by sea rather than by road so that we could pick up any action en route. The coastline in this area is mostly untouched with the seabed quickly rising up to a rocky coast so, in spite of the low swell height that day, the waves were breaking heavily on the rocks, sending plumes of white spray high into the air. It was easy to see why this is named the “Wild Coast”. As we passed a pod of bottlenose dolphins, out for an early morning surf, I marvelled at the beauty and grace of nature.
Gannets can dive to over 20 metres
While we were enjoying the scenery, the lack of bird and dolphin action was of concern. Eventually, as we neared Port St Johns, we began to see common dolphins and Cape gannets swooping over the sea. These are the vital baitball indicators. The dolphins, operating in co-operative groups, work the sardines up from the deeper, cooler water, using a combination of their charging action and blowing bubbles. The gannets, their pure white plumage easily spotted from afar, are a vital tool for guiding us to the action. The gannets, along with a variety of other predators, take advantage of the common dolphin’s herding skills.
Suddenly we were on the action. Gannets flew over the baitball and the air was alive with their excited squawking. Others reigned down from above, hitting the water at an incredible 160 Km / hour with a loud thud. Once their impact velocity decreases, the gannets have the ability to use their wings and feet to continue chasing sardines to a depth of over 20 metres. Common dolphins were charging in from all sides. We could see sharks cruising near the water surface. One can only describe the scene as organised chaos. This is what I had waited for: it was time to get into the water.
Underwater, baitballs can be very noisy affairs, with the sound of plunging gannets mixed with dolphin clicks and distant humpback whale songs. These sounds add to the intense atmosphere. The predation on the baitball will sometimes go quiet for a short period, during which time the sardines regroup to form the classic round ball: thousands of little fish moving as if one entity. Then suddenly the dolphins charge in from below, exploding through the sardines in a curtain of bubbles. The sharks, hovering below, then come in for the attack. Once the baitball is sufficiently shallow, the gannets come into play.
Blacktip Sharks Fight over the Last Few Sardines
Looking towards the surface, I could see the birds flying overhead and plunging into the water, leaving a long line of silver bubbles behind them. It is impossible to describe the noise of the gannet’s aerial bombardment, being so intense that you can feel each of the thousands of thuds. It is like being in a war zone, adding to the feeling of exhilaration of being so close up to one of the planet’s greatest natural events.
From the second day we left for sea each morning at first light through the Port St Johns river estuary. The village looks up at a deep and imposing river gorge. Once at sea, looking back revealed the gorge shrouded in mist, and the flashing lighthouse perched on the sea cliffs. Bracing against the early morning winter chill we would immediately begin looking for action. An unforgettable sight is the sun, rising over the sea as a large red ball, with swooping gannets silhouetted against its brightness. The gannets, like us, were waited expectantly for sufficient light to start working. Once it was light enough to film we would enter the water. The 20 degree water temperature felt warm by comparison to that of the air.
It appears that this sardine run differed from those of previous years in that the biomass was far lower and did not penetrate as far as the Kwa-Zulu Natal south coast. This resulted in mostly small baitballs and a lot of very hungry and frustrated predators. The sharks became very aggressive on these small baitballs, perhaps seeing the divers as feeding competition.
From what I personally saw, the predators included common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, Cape gannets, Cape cormorants, blacktip, copper, bull and dusky sharks, brydes whales and small tuna. During this time, humpback whales on their northern migrating, pass this area, entertaining us with huge breaches and underwater songs. Other sardine run predators, absent from this run, can include Cape fur seals, African penguins and even orca whales. This is a true meeting place of marine animals.
It was interesting to observe the different hunting strategies of the gannets and cormorants. The former use a combination of a high impact dive and wing action underwater whereas the cormorants rely on their webbed feet to propel them down from a floating position on the water surface. To my unscientific eye it appeared that the cormorants were the more successful of the two hunters.
Another striking difference in hunting techniques is found between the common and bottlenose dolphins. I have described how the common dolphins do the hard work in creating the shallow water baitballs. They are sleek, fast and serious predators. By comparison, the bottlenose dolphins are far more relaxed, swimming slowly through the sardines. When not feeding they spend time playing, jumping out of the water and even surfing, so you can’t fault their lifestyle.
Without doubt, the brydes whales were the highlight of this sardine run. While I have seen them on previous runs, this time they were on most baitballs. Normally timid, they were lunging past me at high speed, at times so close that the wash from their bodies would push my camera off frame. While not large by whale standards, having a 25 ton animal charge past you, mouth agape, is an unnerving experience. “Bryde”, pronounced “brooda”, is named after the Norwegian consul to South Africa, Johan Bryde, who helped set up the first whaling station in Durban, South Africa in 1908 (closed in the 1960’s). These whales are interesting in that the northern hemisphere population feed mostly on krill whereas the southern hemisphere whales feed on small shoaling fish, including sardines.
A Brydes Whale Storms the Baitball
The last day was particularly eventful. The sea water had become very dirty due to river water that had been pushed to the north by the prevailing current. After a slow start we found some action and jumped in. We found a tiny baitball with every predator competing for a mouthful. The sharks were charging through the fish, snapping at everything, there were gannets everywhere and the dolphins were not to be found lacking in enthusiasm either. This intense predation was putting fish scales, blood and guts into the water, thereby contributing to the poor visibility. As the size of the baitball diminished before our eyes, the aggression became more intense. I was hit hard in the leg and stomach, nearly loosing my camera. In the meantime, Mark was fending off sharks that were attacking me from all sides. The dusky sharks were the most aggressive and also the largest.
As I tried to fend off a large dusky, my hand was scratched on its razor sharp teeth and, when I saw blood streaming from it, I decided to get away from the carnage as quickly as possible. As I swam away from the baitball, I noticed that the dolphins and sharks were swimming past me tightly packed and gannets continued to dive close to me. I thought this unusual as the predators are normally only this concentrated when close to the action. On turning around I realised that the sardines were following closely behind me, seeking the only refuge in this orgy of feeding.
In underwater visibility that had, by now, deteriorated to only about 4 metres, Mark and I made for the surface where I was relieved to see our diving boat close at hand. I climbed aboard, leaving a rather unimpressive trail of blood in my wake. I have often marvelled at how one can dive with potentially dangerous sharks and mostly get away unscathed or with minor injuries. As the aeroplane approached Cape Town, I looked out of the window. Below me was the Cape Flats, covered by a thin mantle of mist, with a cloudless winter sky above. Further to the south lay False Bay with the iconic Table Mountain, reaching out to The Cape of Good Hope. I caught sight of Seal Island, famous for white shark breaches and the location for my next filming adventure with my towcam. At that moment I felt eternally grateful that I had not chosen accountancy as my profession.