Every year, between June and September, huge numbers of silvery sardines travel north from the cold southern oceans off Cape Point in South Africa, moving inshore up the Transkei and the Kwazulu Natal coastlines in what is commonly known as the annual sardine run – resulting ultimately in ‘Sardine Fever’.
This mass migration occurs in June when the sardines head north from the Cape. Miles upon miles of shoals of sardines meet about 40km south of the Kwazulu Natal Border. These shoals eventually break out and travel north, hugging the Natal coastline. Right on the tails of these shoals are the predators; Humpback Whales, Bottlenose and Common Dolphins, Sharks, Turtles, Game fish, and a host of marine birds: White Chinned Petrels, Cape Gannets, Storm Petrels and Albatross to name a few.
This incredible natural phenomenon of millions of fish brings with it another creature – kindly referred to as the tourist!
Why do Sardines go north?
Some say it is an annual migration but Geremy Cliff, Chief Scientist of the Natal Sharks Board prefers to call it a ‘range extension’ as only a small percentage of the fish in the Western Cape actually move northwards. From June through to September, the southern cold waters stretch northwards with the currents hugging the coastline and the sardines simply move with them. Once they have outrun their food source and reach warmer waters they head for home sometimes following the cold currents out into the Indian Ocean and back around to the Cape.
We went diving with Aliwal Dive Charters who have been in the diving industry for almost 15 years. Grant Swinford-Meyer (known as Swinny) is the owner. They are situated in Umkomaas. They offer scuba diving to the famous Aliwalshoal as well as Rocky Bay. The Rocky Bay dive shop is situated at Ellingham Estate.
They take trips to the Transkei to see the sardines. It is obviously very difficult to predict when the big shoal comes through, any of the last three weeks of June. It is obviously a gamble that one has to take, but normally proofs to be a phenominal experience. For the people who do not wish to go all the way to the Transkei, Aliwal Dive Charters also offers sardine viewing when the small pockets come by Aliwal.
They arrange accommodation for clients, depending on their requirements. There is accommodation with selfcatering, bed and breakfast, hotel, youthhostels and camp sites you can choose from. They work with various places around Umkomaas and Scottburgh.
They offer transport and airport pick ups and arrange tours to many places around the Kwazulu-natal area.
Even if you are waiting for the sardines to show, the marine life around this coastline during the Sardine Run is enough to keep anyone occupied for long boat rides. In our search for the ‘Bait Ball’, we frequently came across pod’s of 1,000 or more common dolphins charging around the ocean in search of food. Humpback Whales were often seen in pairs or trios, breaching (jumping out of the water), and lobtailing (slapping the tail repeatedly on the surface.
Not Easy to Find
Diving with what is known as a sardine ‘bait ball’ is a mind blowing experience. Finding this bait ball is very difficult. No matter what people may say, it can easily take several weeks of scouring the coastline before you come across this phenomenon. Film crews and photographers spend lots of money and time searching the Transkei and Kwazulu Natal coastline to capture the rare and fascinating images of sharks, dolphins and gannets engaged in a chaotic feeding frenzy. The Bait Ball occurs when the sharks and dolphins herd them towards the surface and force them into a tight ball in order to permit easy pickings. The water turns black in front of you and before you know it there are several hundred birds raining down on the bubbling feast.
When to Visit Kwazulu Natal
Due to the Sardine Run, there are no sharks on Protea Banks or Aliwal Shoal during June. The Ragged Tooth Sharks begin to arrive July time and by August and September there are sometimes hundreds of them. Late September sees the arrival of Scalloped Hammerheads and by October/ November, they are schooling in their hundreds. Little Zambezi sharks can also be seen around this time of year. The large shoals of gamefish come in January and from then on the life is abundant, including big Zambezis, until May. Aliwal Shoal gets incredibly busy at weekends so go mid-week if you want to avoid bumping into other dive groups underwater. Best time for Raggies is August to November.
A 5mm 2 piece was adequate, with hood if you feel the cold. The water temperature isaround 21-22C. From Mid October the water temperture will be around 23-26C.
Getting to Kwazulu Natal
It’s best to fly into Johannesburgh, as Cape Town is further away from Aliwal Shoal. Flying from Johannesburgh to Durban would be the quickest way, around a 50 minute flight.
Aliwal Dive Charters can help you book your flights within South Africa as flights are cheaper to book there in comparison to what you would pay from overseas.
A good domestic airline is Kulula, they have affordable, no frills flights available.