Sardine Run, South Africa

Every year off the coast of South Africa, billions of sardine’s spawns in the cool waters of the Agulhas bank, and from there they usually split into thousands of shoals as they move northward along the east coast of South Africa. With this immense number of fish, it attracts the oceans top apex’s predators.
The Ultimate Migration

phenomenon that will thrill any ocean enthusiastI experienced the sardine run for the first time in 2021 and am completely addicted and counting down the days for the 2022 season. If this excites you, keep reading for what it enTALES (pun intended!) 

Sardine Run in South Africa

Why is the sardine run called the greatest shoal on Earth?

Due to its shear size or biomass of sardines and being one of the biggest underwater migrations it is therefore referred to as the greatest shoal on Earth. 

What does the sardine run action consist of? 

The typical and most talked about sardine run action consists of the shoals of sardine’whether by themselves or with some sort of predator feeding on the bait ball of sardines.

But the beauty of the sardine run to me is that you just never know what you are going to experience. Just being out on the boat for the day and taking in the beautiful Transkei coastline is completely under rated in my opinion.

Other sightings on the boat which are always incredible to witness are the whales breaching, whales tail / fin slapping the surface, the massive super pods of dolphins moving past the boat and birds diving into the water to get their share of fish.

This year there were multiple sightings of Orca’s / killer whales on the surface which was incredible. They don’t call this area the wild coast for nothing!  

The Wild Coast, Transkei

The apex’s predators of the Sardine Run

The predators work together to round up the sardines into a bait ball allowing them to all get their share of sardines. 

They each play a crucial role in keeping the sardines in a tight packed ball (referred to as the bait ball) and keeping that ball static for all to enjoy! (especially us divers :p  

The Sharks

The most commonly spotted sharks on the sardine run are the dusky sharks, bronze whaler and black tip sharks. 

These sharks play a very important role in pushing the bait ball of sardines up towards the surface, from there they feed by opening their mouths and swimming upwards into the ball to hopefully get a mouthful of yummy sardines.

Shark in Baitball during the Sardine Run

The Whales Of The Sardine Run

We get the opportunity of spotting three different kinds of whales;

Type of Whales during the Sardine Run

1. The Humpback whales:

These whales are definitely the performers of the sardine run, always putting on an incredible show by breaching out the water, slapping their tails or fins on the surface.

My personal favorite humpback sighting this year was one lying with her belly up on the surface with her fins sticking out the water towards the sky, almost like she was inviting us for a hug. 

2. The Southern right whales:

These gentle giants are a bit more rare to spot on the sardine run, and when spotted are usually very docile and slow moving (great for photographs!) 

3. The Brydes whales: 

Out of the three whales the Brydes whale is the most common to be spotted feeding on a bait ball and are known as the bait ball finishers, as they come from below, open their massive mouths and swim up through the bait ball to feed on the sardines.

Due to the size of their mouths, they can gobble up a whole bait ball with just one or two mouth full (hence the name bait ball finishers) 

Do you scuba dive on the sardine Run?

Majority of the sardine run occurs on snorkel due to how fast pace the shoals of sardines and action moves. That being said (rather written) if a static bait ball forms; meaning that the shoal of sardines have been rounded up into a ball that is no longer moving, which usually occurs with the help of our apex’s predators, then the skipper and dive master will give the okay for the group to get in on scuba.

The Dolphins

Both the common and bottlenose dolphins can be spotted on the sardine run and usually appear in bigger pods than the sharks.

They are responsible for rounding the sardine up into a tight static ball, working with the sharks to keep the bait ball close to the surface. 

One of the highlights of this year’s run was getting to freedive with a pod of around 60-80 very playful dolphins in a small bay for 40minutes. They circle swam in and around us and was an experience I will never forget!

The Cape Gannets

These birds work the top of the bait ball by diving at high speeds into the water to get their share of sardines. 

They are one of our first indications of the size of a bait ball as they swarm together (up to 30m above the water) in the sky over the bait ball and as soon as the ball gets close enough to the surface, they start diving headfirst into the water at such a speed it sounds like little bombs hitting the water.

The sound of them hitting the water mixed with their cackling call is really a heart racing experience to witness. A few facts that blew my mind was that the speed in which they hit the water is around 100 km/h and they can dive up to 10m deep. 

It is incredible to be on snorkel on a bait ball and see these birds diving into the water right before your eyes.

Sardine Run Cape Gannet Diving

The Orca / Killer Whale

The past few years there have been incredible sightings of the orcas (also called killer whales) on the sardine run. Most sightings have been of them moving on the surface and some lucky divers have had them popping up next to the boat. 

How long does the sardine run in South Africa last?

Each year is different, the past two years (2020 & 2021) there was an incredible number of sardines that spawned! It usually occurs between June and July each year. This past year action was spotted in early May and is still going on now in August 2021. 

A Typical Few Day On The Sardine Run

The above video is from our expedition trip in 2021. Don’t miss out on our 2022 expedition!!

The days are usually an early start with having a light breakfast and coffee around 7am with the plan to launch at 8am.

After coffee and breakfast its time to get into your wetsuits and head on down to the launch site! The boats that are used in South Africa are the zodiac (also known as the rubber duck) boats and have a nice comfy pontoon to sit on.  

Once through the surf the search for the action starts! From there you will be jumping in and out the boat mostly on snorkel experiencing the magic.

With the boats fully equipped with food and beverages, you can comfortably spend the day out on the water.

The Transkei cliff faces, and scenery are truly breathtaking, and some days if the action is a bit quiet the team will take you touring the area to site see some of the famous viewpoints.  

You will usually be on the boat for most of the day depending on conditions and the days action and usually get home around 3 / 4 pm for a relaxing afternoon of sorting through everyone’s epic footage taken. 

Want to experience the migration?

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Shannon Stewart
Shannon Stewart

I am co-owner/founder of Travel To Dive. Also a PADI Scuba instructor.

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