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Enter the Fray!

“Sardine Run is like in the army – 99 percent boredom and one percent action.”

Enter the Fray!

Every year in July the sea is cooking in front of the South African Coastline. Hundreds of dolphins, whales, and seabirds are following the biggest animal migration route on the planet – the Sardine Run. But the actual spectacle is happening under the surface. The sharks, dolphins, whales, and the snorkelers, everyone is up for the big jackpot – the baitball of Sardines.

Joy. Fear. Curiosity. Ambition. Courage. Awe. Humbleness.

The ones who have been in the middle of a bait ball before, know, how it feels to go through all these emotions within seconds. Emotional rollercoaster? A bait ball is like the Thunderdome – the mother of all rollercoasters. At first pure excitement dominates. You feel the joy to have finally found the sardine ball.

It has been such a long search. And an exhausting one, too. In the beginning, it seemed still funny, when the Skipper said: „You know, Sardine Run is like in the army – 99 percent boredom and one percent action.“ But then you start to understand: „It sounded like a joke, but the guy was serious.“ The phrase nails it. For hours you drove around out on the wild, rough ocean in a little rubberdeck boat without any shade. No fluffy cushions, no sunbeds in between the dives. Just waves. One after another. As far as you can see. And in between the waves, dolphins, hundreds of dolphins, always on the run. It seems like they are constantly traveling somewhere, but you can never really figure out where they are going.

But now, you are in the middle of the action.

Finally, the birds are shooting through the surface like bullets, and paddle for their lives to get a share of the big sardine cake. Finally they are there, the oceanic blacktip sharks, the silky sharks and the bronze sharks – and they are totally psyched. In full ecstasy they are rushing up and down, back and forth. Their gills are fluttering, while they are snapping for the little delicacies. Even the dolphins, just seconds ago they separated the ball of sardines from the swarm, formed the perfect round shape of it and pre-pared their meal right in front of their beaks, now they are backing off, bring themselves in a secure distance and wait until their turn has come. „Let the fierce predators go first“, they seem to think.

With all the excitement of the action, one can easily forget what it means when sharks are in their food lunacy. When they snap around as if there was no tomorrow or as if this was the only chance for a meal in the next months. Thats the moment when the fear slowly crawls up your back. The thought carousel of „what if…“-thoughts starts to spin. „What if it bites me by accident because it tries to snap for a sar-dine?“ „What if it bumps me because it didn’t see me with all the sardines and then starts to defend it-self?“ „What if a sailfish shoots through the ball and just massacres me with it’s sword?“ The pulse is pumping with 220, now the sound of your own shallow breath in the snorkel comes on top – louder and louder, faster and faster.

The ambition is stronger

You have a camera in your hand after all. And you didn’t sprint all the way over here with your fins for nothing. Ultimately, you went all the way down to South Africa to return home with the best photos you’ve ever taken under water. The chance you always dreamed of, now it is here, right in front of you. You just have to grab it. So you take all the courage you have. The dolphins give you space. The sharks don’t care about the new arrival at all. They are flying by, left and right – no matter what. Snap here. Snap there. The surface is boiling like in a giant cooking pot. Left and right you can hear the water splashing. The shutter of the camera is moving up and down, clicking with the rhythm of your heart beat. It must be incredible photos, you think.

But then the unexpected is happening. Something that no one, not even in the craziest phantasies would have imagined, nor hoped for. A giant high speed train is coming up from the depth – from the pitch black water under the sardine bait ball. It appears that quickly, that there is no time to react, no time to prepare, no time to swim aside, no time to beg for mercy and communicate that you are not a compe-titor for the little sardines. That you just wanted to take a photo. And that you are going home now and leave them all there. No mercy. With a wide open mouth the giant monster races towards the ball. It seems as if it wants to swallow the whole bait ball and if there is something in the way, well, then why not this too. It is a Bryde’s whale. Sardines are on top of his diet. The behemoth is continuing his race. Whoever can make it, get’s out of the way. You don’t. So you slide along the soft lower side of it’s jaw. The texture feels as if the whale rubbed soap on it’s jaw before sliding out for hunting. And as fast as this animal appeared from the darkness, as fast it swallows the sardines. Now the full dimension of this hungry giant get’s clear. While the locomotive disappeared in the dark water already, the rest of the wagons pass by. The trunk with the little fins on the side, the little eclipse shaped dorsal fin that sits way further down the back on the body, which is almost fourteen meter long.

Bryde’s whales are pronounced „Brooders“

They received their name after the Norwegian whale hunter Johan Bryde. The species lives stationary. Every year they are excited again, when the sardine friends pass by their habitat. Whoever get’s to meet them this close, has no other choice than to stare after them in awe, imaginatively make a bow and to appreciate, that here, around Port St.Johns, the life in the sea is just like we all wish it would still be everywhere: Raw, rough, wild, unforgivable.

The action party slowly comes to an end. Parts of the sardines could escape to the depths, follow up with the dark cloud that their fellow family members form. The boat picks up the happy snorkelers. They get sandwiches and hot chocolate, a warm oil jacket against the cold wind, a lollipop against the seasickness. Everyone is looking forward to the lodge, the warm socks after the hot shower, the beer at the fireplace. The fire for the barbecue gets started. Meat is the essence of all food in South Africa. Braai, that’s how you call barbecues around here. They are not only food, they are part of the culture, part of the social get-together. At the Braai, people share their stories. Stories from past bait balls. From dives with great white sharks. From dead whales which attracted seven great whites at once.

Here you feel like a real adventurer, but one who came with the whole family. No one is alone around here. They all came together. Once a year they turn into gipsies and bring their boats and their dive cen-ters. Because there is one thing unifying them all: it is the love for the sea and the constant drive to be part of all the nature spectactles happening out there day after day.

Dive Operator:
Sardine Run South Africa / Blue Ocean Dive
www.sardinerunsouthafrica.com
+27 (0) 39 9730456

Author:
Timo Dersch works as Underwater Photographer, Journalist, and Editor. His stories are about the sea, (scuba) diving and related travel destinations. He is ahuge South Africa fan and his favorite time of the year in the country is during the Sardine Run. He says: „The Sardine Run is the Champions League for every marine enthusiast.“

Timo Dersch

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