Each year between May and July, countless millions of sardines begin their annual migration, dubbed the “sardine run.” The sardines, also called pilchards, spawn in the cool waters off of South Africa and then migrate northward along South Africa’s east coast. The run is sparked by a cold current that travels from the Agulhas Bank northward to Mozambique, where it veers away from the coast and east to the Indian Ocean. Visible even by satellite, researchers estimate that the sheer biomass of the sardine run easily rivals the East African wildebeest migration. This seething mass of sardines can be up to 15 km in length, 3 ½ km wide, as well as nearly 40 m deep and it sparks a feeding frenzy all along the coast.
As if the spectacle of the sardine run isn’t enough, predators arrive en masse to dine on the sardines and the result is an extravaganza that rivals any of Africa’s great migrations. The sardines shoal together tightly to minimize their risk of being eaten by predators. Birds by the tens of thousands plunge from above to feed on the fish while larger game fish as well as numerous shark species feed on them from below. The sheer numbers and variety of sharks is amazing. Zambezies, coppers, hammerheads, and great whites are all seen in great numbers. As the sharks and other fish feed below, gannets and other sea birds arrive by the thousands to plummet from the sky and get their share of the sardine run’s bounty.
Bottlenose as well as common dolphins also make their appearance to take part in the activities. One amazing sight is watching them employ a unique hunting strategy where they corral the shoals into what is known as a “baitball.” Cooperating much like sheepdogs, the dolphins circle the sardines and herd them into a tight group. The “baitball” is then pushed upward toward the surface and the dolphins gorge themselves on these tiny fish.
Tourists come by the thousands to see schools that number as high as 500 dolphins frolic and play while they dine on the migrating sardines. This event is something that everyone can enjoy, whether birdwatchers, experienced divers and snorkelers, or simply marine life enthusiasts. One of the premier places to view the birds and sea life is the main beach headland of Southbroom.The sardine run is amazing whether experienced from beneath the waves r above and is truly one of the most amazing marine spectacles in the world.