Coast KZN

27 Apr 2021

The Sardine Run- The Greatest Shoal on Earth

Vicky Wentzel: Southern Explorer (South Coast Herald) Picture: Justin Klusener. Crates of sardines can fetch prices that would surprise you.

The Sardine Run in South Africa is recognised as one of the world’s most spectacular marine events. Annually, from May to July, vast shoals of sardines migrate from their temperate-water home off South Africa’s southern coast and travel north-east into the sub-tropical coastal waters of the Wild Coast.

Following the shoals is an unparalleled concentration of marine predators including seabirds; sharks; game fish and marine mammals.

There’s nothing like the Sardine Run to create some excitement. Photo: Justin Klusener.

When predators meet prey, a feeding event of unmatched proportions begins. Thousands of common dolphins charge after the shoals, separating them into densely packed bait balls and driving them to the surface.

Watched by the omnipresent Cape gannets, an aerial assault on the sardines occurs when tens of thousands of gannets begin their spectacular plunge diving displays.

Below the birds, the bait balls are easy pickings not only for dolphins, but also for shivers of bronze-whaler, dusky and blacktip sharks.

Aerial view of whale activity. Photo: Justin Klusener.

The final player, is the behemoth Bryde’s whale. Its huge mouth can decimate an entire bait ball in a single lunge.

There’s a constant presence of dolphins and whales in the warm waters of the South Coast that can be spotted from decks located in Ramsgate, Margate and Umtentweni. This allows for a perfect opportunity to pack a picnic basket and watch the sun set over our glorious coast.

From July to September whales navigate north to their breeding grounds off the Mozambique coast, allowing for the curious to spot them from our sandy coastal shores. This is until they return from September to November to fulfill their natural cravings for the nutrient-rich waters of Antarctica.

The thrill of seeing such magnificent creatures in their natural habitat is a divine experience like no other that offers something truly special.

Humpback whale launches itself out of the ocean. Photo: Justin Klusener.

The annual while migration season finishes in December, giving visiting families the chance to view the ‘tail end’ of this incredible aquatic sighting from the Pennington Whale Deck, the Umtentweni Whale Deck, the Ramsgate Whale Deck or the Southbroom Whale Deck.

Alongside the humpback and southern right whales, dolphins can be spotted surfing the waves.

The warm Indian Ocean caresses the beaches of the South Coast, creating a familiar paradise for swimmers, surfers, and rock anglers. But just beyond the waves lies a whole new world of adventure for nature-loving visitors.

A growing interest in eco-tourism world-wide has prompted local entrepreneurs to set up dolphin and whale watching trips up and down the coastal waters, launching from Shelly Beach and Umkomaas.

Humpbacked and southern right whales can frequently be seen off the coast from July to November as they move north on their way to the breeding grounds off the Mozambique coast, and the return, heading for the nutrient-rich waters of Antarctica.

The thrill of seeing these magnificent creatures close up in their natural habitat is something special. Whales can also be seen from the shore – just keep an eye out for the telltale water spouts which indicate a pod of whales on the move.

Bottlenose dolphins are common residents off the South Coast, with pods of 30 to 50 dolphins patrolling up and down just beyond the breakers. They can be seen clearly from the beach on most days, sometimes surfing the waves and jumping clear from the water.

Bird life is spectacular as they dive for the silver fish.

Humpback whales sing and their songs are varied enough for individuals to be recognised. Whale sounds travel for hundreds of kilometres beneath the sea and are like long distance calls to each other.

Dolphins emit a number of clicks and squeaks, which serve as communication. Scientists are investigating the level of communication of these animals to see if it amounts to a language.

The whale watching season starts towards the end of May, peaking in late June with mammals still heading north to Mozambique in July/August. These months the weather is good with frequent sightings of whales breaching, spy hopping and tail slapping. August, September and October are the months that the whales are most commonly found heading back south to the Antarctic, especially mother and calf pairs.

They are a lot slower moving because the mother is nursing the calf on about 250 litres of milk per day.

The best time of the day for viewing whales is early in the morning when there is normally less wind but the whales become more active later on during the day when the wind starts to pick up. This makes for more spectacular viewing as the whales became boisterous, frequently leaping out of the water.

Humpback whales are easily identified by their blow, which rises about three metres above water level, and is pear shaped. Southern right whales have a V-shaped blow which rises about one metre above water level.

For more photographs, see online article.