'Greatest shoal on Earth'? What seeing the Eastern Cape Sardine Run is really like
Scared to go into the water, newbie Thembalethu Zulu forgets all her fears in the face of the incredible action at this year’s Sardine Run
It’s 3am. And I’m awake. The fear of death will do that. I can already hear my sister: “Naye ubenzani?” (What was she doing?) At least my friends will defend me. “She was always so brave: lived a big life.”
How did I get here you might ask? Well, it all started with four simple words from our travel editor: “Ever seen a sardine?” To which I promptly replied: “Always wanted to!” Except I always assumed it would be from a boat.
And this is how finding out I’m about to go on the ultimate sea safari in a twin Yamaha inflatable boat has left me shook and awake in Port St Johns. The spirit of adventure has always been strong within me, so when the opportunity to join the annual Sardine Run came up, I jumped. No questions asked.
I assumed we’d head out into the open sea on a fishing boat, fully clothed in windbreakers and beanies to stave off the harsh winter elements. So my arrival at Offshore Africa, specialist operators for one of the world’s most magical climatic events, is a bit of a rude awakening. Not only are we not going to be on a fishing vessel, but I’m also going to be wearing a wetsuit (plus mask, snorkel and fins), which dive master Debbie Smith helps me fit so I’m ready for the next day.
As I lie in bed, I think of my newly acquired ocean skin and swimming accessories. How long will it take me to pour myself back into the thermal-control jumpsuit? Will faking an illness get me out of this bind? What is the meaning of life? At last, I pass out from what is likely a spell of fainting, then my alarm sounds, and I leap out of bed to grab a shower before our 7am pick-up from Port St John’s River Lodge.
I run to breakfast in my wetsuit (it’s acceptable among divers) but manage only three bites of a sausage before a mad dash back to the room to pack a bag for the sea: windbreaker, sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses and hope. I have been advised to leave my phone behind, though the boat does have a dry box.
Skipper Rob Nettleton is ready and waiting at the jetty. He is accompanied by two guides, Josh and Rogan, who will be taking us on the oceanic safari. I do my best to listen to the thorough safety briefing despite my thumping heart. Bright orange life jacket on, and the engines roar to a start as we head off towards the Umzimvubu River mouth, where we will traverse the swells during an African surf launch into the big watery wilderness.
I’ve been warned this part can be rough, but luckily Nettleton’s years of experience make it feel more like a thrilling ride at a water park. Our rubber duck flies through the air after hitting one swell particularly hard. I hold on to the ropes for dear life and make sure my feet are tucked in under the ropes on the floor to prevent me flying off. Amusement ride over, we head further into the open sea, where we will begin our search for the famed silver riders as they make their annual migration up to Mozambique.
AND THEN THERE WERE DOLPHINS
The Sardine Run is one of nature’s great mysteries, as no one seems to know exactly why it takes place. The run occurs when a cold current pushes the fish north from the Agulhas Bank. As “the greatest shoal on Earth”, as it has been dubbed, makes its way up north, it brings with it predatory birds such as gannets, and marine life, including big game fish and sharks hoping to feast on the ultimate surf buffet. The holy grail of the Sardine Run is seeing a bait ball — a gigantic school of fish swirling together in tight formation, a defence mechanism for when predators are near.
As we prepare for the day’s activities, our skipper explains how, as in the bush, there are no guarantees for what one will spot on any given day, but soon we are jetting off to where there looks to be action. Overhead sea birds are a good indicator as they tend to circle bait balls, periodically diving in like feathery missiles to grab some fish. We zoom over and, though we have missed the bait ball, everyone (guides and three guests) descends into the water to check out the other action. I’ve made peace with the idea that I’ll be keeping the skipper company up top, where (I’m told) there should be plenty to see, including dolphins, humpback whales and sharks.
But my staying “up top” is not to be. The dive guide who’s been unofficially assigned to me has been coaxing me for the greater part of the morning, assuring me that even though I’ve never even swum in the open sea (but can swim), that a dive into the water will be worthwhile. His bright orange stick for “dealing with excitable sharks” does little to inspire confidence, but eventually his charms work and I agree to follow him in. As if the greatest welcome by the ocean has been especially orchestrated for me, a huge pod of common dolphins swims right past us soon after I enter the water.
Their high-pitched sounds create an exciting soundtrack to one of the best experiences I have ever had. Hundreds of dolphins swim around and underneath us, playfully darting around the boat. Newly trained, I submerge my head and take it all in. Despite initially being petrified of getting into the ocean, the support that is offered means I am able to semi-snorkel with dolphins in what is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Seeing the action beneath the water is breathtaking, and we are lucky as the visibility on this day is good.
After our packed lunch of savoury bites, fruit and chocolate, we are rejuvenated to continue our great search. Luckily for us, we are rewarded as we spot breaching whales putting on what feels like a private show.
As we head back, I am already excited by what the next day will bring. Back at base camp, I hang my wetsuit up in the drying room — a standout feature of the lodge, apparently, as climbing into a cold wetsuit in the early morning is not a pleasant experience.
The second day is filled with more excitement than trepidation. I know now that the full day at sea (six to eight hours) actually goes by quickly. Unfortunately day two also brings no sardines but, along with some more of the previous day’s sightings, we get a visit from a dusky shark passing our boat, and witness some humpbacks from a distance.
After a collective decision to call it a day earlier than usual, I take the opportunity to see the action from a two-seater plane, which offers aerial support to the boats for increased chances of spotting the great migration.
Pilot Brad and I head out around 4pm, and scale the ocean looking for bait balls and whales. Our mission is accomplished as we do spot a bait ball from high above, offering not only massive action but also a different vantage point. The hour-long flight also offers the opportunity to take in the true glory of the Wild Coast with its colourful villages and a largely untouched landscape. As we head back in at sunset, we do some aerial donuts in celebration, closing off what has been a life-changing experience, and I cannot wait to go again.
GOOD TO KNOW
If you’re an experienced diver or snorkeller, the Sardine Run is likely already on your bucket list. If, like me, you didn’t even know such a thing existed (the opportunity to observe the phenomenon live), here’s what you need to know:
• The sardine action around Port St Johns typically takes place in June and July.
• You don’t have to be a diver. While this kind of experience is best suited for people who can dive, and can therefore truly enjoy the full experience by seeing the action that lies beneath, I managed to have an amazing time despite my limited abilities. The team on hand was very supportive and understanding. What you cannot compromise on is the ability to swim as you are out in the open sea.
• Nothing is guaranteed. As with any excursion into the wild, there are no guarantees in terms of what one can see on any given day. A typical tour lasts three days (I could only do two days of a three-day tour, and my group found the sardines on day three). Tours can be as long as 10 days, meaning you have more chances of seeing the sardines.
• You need a spirit of adventure. Sea safaris aren’t as common as bush safaris and the conditions are less predictable and controlled. You might choose not to immerse yourself in everything on offer, but whatever you choose to do, you will need to get out of your comfort zone to truly make the most of it.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
How to get there: You can fly to Mthatha from Johannesburg on Airlink and take a scenic drive (about 90km) to Port St Johns. Shuttle services are also available. If coming from Durban, it’s a five-hour drive along the N2 towards Port Edward.
Best time to go: The Sardine Run reaches Port St Johns from late June into August but visit offshoreportstjohns.com to find out more.
Rates: Tours start from R22,145 pps for three days, four nights (including accommodation and meals at Port St John’s River Lodge).
• Zulu was a guest of the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency. See visiteasterncape.co.za