Diving South Africa’s Sardine Run

The Sardine Run is a truly incredible spectacle, attracting dolphins, whales, sharks – and divers including Tony Baskeyfield.

© Tony Baskeyfield
© Tony Baskeyfield

Every year, between May and July, the greatest migration on Earth takes place off South Africa’s eastern coast.

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Billions of sardines leave their cold-water home in South Africa’s temperate seas and travel north into subtropical waters.

Following the shoals are dolphins, game fish, sharks and birds, and this super-army corrals them into catchable bait balls, where a feeding frenzy takes place.

And in pursuit of the predators are TV crews, divers and photographers who are all hoping for the thrill of a lifetime – and last year, I was one of them.

We set off from East London, on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, and quickly spotted some killer whales, which we followed for about 30 minutes. But the orcas weren’t after sardines, so we left them in search of the real thing.

After a few false starts, a couple of days later we found a giant pod of more than 1,000 dolphins and then a large flock of cape gannets diving into the water. Sharks were cruising close by, their fins breaking the surface. This 
was it – the Sardine Run.

Making a splash

We changed into our diving gear and dropped into the water. Once submerged, I heard the thuds of gannets hitting the surface and watched their bubble trails as they plunged to a depth of about 5m to catch fish.

Though they were swerving to avoid me, I was still hit on the head and hand in quick succession. This was starting to become unpleasant.

Next, a dusky shark moved in. It turned on its side, opened its mouth and grabbed a swathe of sardines. After it had finished, all that was left were thousands of shimmering scales.

We had to be careful – the species is known for harassing divers. One swam straight into me and bumped my camera, and while I whooped with excitement, visibility was less than 4m. 
I didn’t want a shark to mistake me for 
a sardine shoal and sink its teeth in.

One dusky, in particular, was getting frustrated. It started biting at another diver’s fins and got tangled up in his camera lanyard. No one was hurt, 
but we definitely got the message.

It wasn’t just sharks that we had to be wary of. These sardine gatherings attract whales, too, with Bryde’s whales the most likely visitors. They don’t carry the menace of a shark, but their mouths are big enough to swallow a diver whole. And I wasn’t 
keen on becoming a 21st-century Jonah.

No whales showed up that afternoon, but a few days later we came across a group of humpbacks and soon they were everywhere.

After assessing the situation, we got into the water. But despite the care we were taking, I still had a near miss.

Out of nowhere I saw a bulge on the surface and felt the huge pressure wave 
in front of an approaching whale. The animal swept 
past, and I had to duck my head to 
avoid being hit by its tail.

Some humpbacks had groups of common dolphins riding these pressure waves and getting a free lift. Another one came incredibly close to us, and a different group of divers narrowly avoided being swatted by its huge fluke.

Getting into the water when a feeding frenzy is underway is the most exciting 
and terrifying thing I’ve ever done. So 
I’ll definitely be going again in 2014.

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See more amazing photographs by Tony Baskeyfield.