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Jun 2012

Words by Mike Lillyman.  Pictures Mike Lillyman, Richard van Ryneveld and Mark Addison

The Sardine Run starts at the lighthouse at Port St Johns between 7 and 10 June each year. The South African historian and author T.V. Bulpin assured readers of his book, Natal and the Zulu Country, published over 55 years ago, that this was indeed the case – and, surprisingly, contemporary experts of the phenomenon agree that it still is.

Once the sardines have passed the lighthouse and moved up to Port Edward (around June 18) they behave in an elusive and unpredictable manner, appearing and disappearing and beaching in a random fashion that’s a problem for fishermen as well as those who simply want to observe them. What we do know is that pockets and shoals of them follow the cold water that creeps up the east coast close inshore during winter.

There are many theories as to why they do this, but, happily, it is what they do, and for a few weeks at that time of year when the nights are cool and the days balmy and beautiful, the South Coast becomes an arena of hectic activity, with news of where the shoals are and where they’re beaching being announced with an urgency contra to the region’s normally placid atmosphere.

A network of lookouts and spotters keeps fishermen updated on their whereabouts and ski boats are rushed to the various sites, followed by trucks piled high with plastic crates into which the catches can be loaded. For those few precious weeks the humble sardine is the master of the entire fishing fraternity.

Those who are successful in netting them can be found by the roadside next to crates filled with their shining silvery harvest. With extended arms they hold up unfortunate wiggling examples in an attempt to attract buyers. The fish sell fast and prices fluctuate wildly.

Anyone wishing to watch the action can phone a dedicated hotline (see number at end) for news on where the ‘sards’ are. The service provides up-to-the-minute information – and it is really worthwhile rushing down to witness the spectacle of the fish being netted.

The beach comes alive with 4x4 bakkies manoeuvring ski boats. Some of the bakkies are a little less than roadworthy but all have large white permits taped to side windows. They jockey to and fro as they hurry to get the boats into the water. Spotters boats are the first to go out. Their job is to locate and keep pockets of sardines together, and brave swimmers leap from them into the water and thrash their arms about to coerce the fish into staying put.

Boats carrying nets are launched and arc lazily around the pockets. Timing is critical to avoid the sardines making a last frantic lunge for freedom. The boats return to the beach and every available member of the team grabs hold of the lines attached to the nets and strains to haul them in. Bystanders lend a hand, sometimes helpfully, sometimes awkwardly. Orders are shouted, repeated and contradicted by men with faces lined from years of exposure to sun and seawater. As soon as possible, the lines are attached to waiting 4x4s and, with engines roaring, they haul the nets onto the beach.

If the catch is good the nets will be bulging, straining to contain their shimmering contents. The number of fish is truly staggering. Crates are brought down and the fish are loaded into them. Spectators dart around in the surf, snatching up sardines that have escaped. Everyone leaves with some sardines; there are enough to go around. Tomorrow, hopefully, the whole scenario will be repeated, beginning with the fishermen using every possible means to locate the fish again.

One of these is the seabirds, which can be observed flying in ever-increasing numbers towards any pocket they see. For them the Sardine Run is also a time of festivity. They make their way up the coast and fill the sky with swirling arcs of white. Cape Gannets, sporting their chorus-line facial make-up of yellow and blue, dive into the shoals, giving an aeronautical display that ends only when they’ve eaten so much that all they can do is float on the surface in rafts of contentment.

The sardines on their own are worthy Oscar nominees for their role in this great spectacle, but the entourage that follows them also delights with its exhibitions of power and grace. These are the dolphins, which arrive in their hundreds. Common and bottlenose, all come for the feast. It is a time of plenty and they have a well-developed strategy for making the most of it. This involves herding the sardines into tightly packed balls where they are easy to scoop up in great numbers. Joining the dolphins are scores of gamefish and sharks.

In recent years the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks board has improved its monitoring of the sardines’ progress up the coast and they now remove the shark nets off the beaches earlier than they used to in order to reduce the number of sharks and dolphins that are fatally trapped in them.

Humpback and Southern Right whales also prey on the sardines, providing displays of power and agility as they do so. The Humpbacks come relatively close inshore and put on spectacular shows with their breaching, sending spray flying high into the air.  The Southern Rights remain a little further out to sea.

A string of wonderful vantage points exists along the coast where one can sit and watch it all. For a small fee you can climb up to the viewing platform of the Port Edward lighthouse and see vast distances along the coast. Further north, at Southbroom, there’s a lovely wooden viewing deck just south of the main beach and above the tidal pool.

Local ski boat clubs extend invitations to visitors and host numerous events in conjunction with the Sardine Run. One of the largest takes place at the Shelly Beach Ski Boat Club and lasts four days – hopefully coinciding with the arrival of the sardines. The club is a friendly and welcoming venue from which to watch the run and listen to stories of previous runs and this year’s highlights.

The commodore, Anton Gets, together with the co-coordinator of the event, Jackie Pratt, leads a group of volunteers who happily provide information based on their long years of experience of the South Coast and its fish. Their affection for the region and its ecology is palpable and their Designated Protected Area on the Protea Banks is an attempt to ensure the sustainability of the resident fish species. There are also numerous small boat operations here that offer ‘joy rides’ out to see the sardines and associated activity.

Moving further up the coast, one of the lesser known lookout spots is the really beautiful and unspoilt Umdoni Point, just to the south of Pennington, where the enticing deck of the Umdoni Park Golf Club provides a splendid viewing platform.

The Sardine Run continues to beguile marine experts, who put forward divergent views on the phenomenon with passion and deep conviction. For the fragile balances of Nature deserve more than a passing interest if future generations are to share such wondrous spectacles in a world where, for the shortest of times, we can simply marvel at the beauty of it all.

Sardine Run Hotline +27 83 913 9495

Shelly Beach Ski Boat Club +27 39 315 1476,

South Coast Tourism +27 39 682 7944


Source: Country Life

Country Life