The Greatest Shoal On Earth

October/November, 2005

text and images by Tobi Bernhard

greatestshoal_main2Every year a gigantic animal migration takes place on the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa. From June to August vast shoals of sardines move up the coast from the Agulhas banks south of the cape of Good Hope as far North as Durban, where they seem to move offshore and find their way back to southern waters. On the Wild Coast of the Transkei these shoals move close inshore within easy reach for small craft. Scientists are still trying to figure out the extent and reason for this event. It does not appear to be related to spawning or a particular abundance of food. At least not for the sardines. The sardines, in turn, drag along an entourage of predators: dolphins, sharks, seals, tuna, gannets and whales all take part in the feeding bonanza. The nature event is known as the sardine run. This spectacle has been made accessible by the likes of Walter Bernardis of African Watersports, who trailers his two RIBs down the Wild Coast of the Transkei every year where he roams the sea in search of the holy grail of underwater nature lovers and photographers, the bait ball (they are still talking about the legendary bait ball of 2003 documented by Doug Perrine). The mechanics of a bait ball are difficult to prove in a scientific way but it seems that dolphins are instrumental, maybe with bubble netting, to herd sardines into a tight formation, so they swim in circles. Like a giant fish burger all the predators have to do is charge in, mouth agape. Not quite as easy as it sounds because as the predator charges the burger becomes a doughnut and the dolphin or shark frequently finds himself in the hole.

Looking for the bait ball is a bit like soldiering: long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of frantic excitement. Not recommended for the modern ‘homus instant-gratificiensis’ because the timing and exact location of the event is as unpredictable as the weather. To maximize the odds of finding the most dense action, Walter employs a spotter ultra-light. The tell-tale sign to spot increased feeding activity from a distance is the density and activity of the Cape gannets. Over a bait ball you would typically see a virtual funnel of diving birds approaching the target at an ever steeper angle until well aligned, then they fold their wings to become a deadly missile. When they pop up from a dive they instantly take off away from the centre of the action to join the landing queue once again. Not surprisingly you see casualties ranging from broken necks to shark bites.

I am used to seeing diving gannets and pods of common dolphins here in New Zealand but the super pods on the Wild Coast during the annual sardine migration are impressive. The water appears to be boiling for miles with the fast moving common dolphins. Humpback whales and Cape fur seals are a common sight every day.

For the first nine days the sardines seemed to be too spread out for the dolphins to be able to herd them into balls. Or maybe they were able to feed comfortably anyway. Feeding was obviously going on, evidenced by the diving birds. The sharks kept everyone excited even in the absence of workable bait ball action. For a few days it seemed like the ocean was teeming with them and excuses like: too cold, no light, bad viz, no sards … were becoming more frequent as everyone was starting to drag their heels to jump in the water. Literally the minute you get in the water and splash with your fins, the first Dusky shark would zoom in at you. Within five minutes you’d have many sharks buzzing you. These sharks were the same size as the tiger sharks I had seen earlier on the Aliwal shoal, only more agitated. The bronze whaler sharks didn’t worry me half as much, being hardly more then seven feet long, although no less frisky. As quick as they appeared they vanished again and when the bait balls finally started to happen on day 10, there were hardly any sharks feeding in them. It is difficult to say how many sharks were hanging out in the parameter because to have a chance of catching any of the fast moving action on film you need your eye glued to the viewfinder. I have to admit, I was a bit slow off the mark with the first bait ball that only lasted a couple of minutes (no light, bad viz). I’ll never live that down with Walter, but I did get the hang of it eventually. The following day the bait balls went off everywhere and I spent five hours in the water and shot as many rolls. Just as well, because the low viz pushed my hit-rate down considerably. Personally I like the soft green look, but competition judges and editors are unimpressed. I even got my dream shot of a gannet catching a sardine under water (soft and green). One of the most unique underwater experiences is feeling the impact of the diving birds. It’s like someone punching you in the ribs when a bird hits the water close to you at 100km/s. When 20+ birds rain into the bait ball at the same time it sounds like a gun battle. The birds only start hitting the water when the top of the bait ball gets in range at three metres. That gives them the momentum to hit a sardine deep in the ball which often was as deep as 15 metres. The RIBs need to keep a good distance from the action too for the birds to start diving. On one occasion I saw a ragged tooth shark eyeing a bait ball from underneath, unsure or unable to do anything about it. It released some air from its stomach and sank out of sightt – the first and only time I have seen a shark blowing bubbles. The dolphins blow bubbles and scream (in dolphin click) during their group attacks on the sardines which gives you a good warning as they shoot into the shoal from behind you. Even when they come from the other side of the ball you can’t see them coming through the sardines until the last second. The first offensive was often followed by a quick second rush, retreat and regroup. The seals seemed to hunt as individuals but with their rubber-like dexterity were no less successful. In my 20 years of diving I can count on two hands the amount of times I’ve ever seen animals feeding naturally under water. On a bait ball you run out of fingers the moment you hit the water. At one stage it even looked like the divers were forming a bubble net around a bait ball, helping to prolong the feeding opportunities.

According to Walter’s sources, what we had seen were only pilot shoals and when I had to leave at the end of June, the main shoals were still reported to be south waiting for the big push.
Would I do it again? It’s addictive. The key to success is to be there as long as your time and wallet allows to maximise the odds. All I need is a sponsor.

Diving exotic locations and getting interesting animals or scenes in front of your lens is one thing. Seeing one of nature’s great dramas played out in front of you is an experience at a whole new level that cannot be measured in value for money terms.
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