Sliver of Silver

I have searched for sardines for some years.  A sliver of silver .  I wanted to be one of the “lucky” ones- to see the elusive Sardine Run.

a pod of common dolphins swim through a cloud of silver sardines

a pod of common dolphins swim through a cloud of silver sardines

I never glimpsed one sardine. I resigned myself to the idea that was just a plot to get passionate divers to pay bucket loads of money to spend long, lonely days on a wild and heaving ocean rather than seeing bucket loads of fish! As a massive cold front settled on South Africa, I arrived in East London proverbially ‘bright-eyed and bushy tailed’,ready to take on lurching waves and icy winds. With a 5.30 am wake-up call on the first day it was with a sense of anticipation and thus relative ease that I downed a caffeine laden coffee and squeezed myself into some cold neoprene. We were off on an adventure- eight people slipping silently down the Buffalo river on a rubber-ducky, wrapped not only in scarves; gloves and beanies- but also, each one deep in their own thoughts and wishes for the day to come. As we left the harbour mouth I noticed the rising sun gleaming off the curling white waves; a soft mist spraying out the back of each wave with a rainbow coursing through the droplets. I knew at that moment, that this was going to be a day to remember.I looked into the water as we settled in. The water looked a promising blue colour. This was another good sign. After an hour of searching our skipper spotted circling gannets ahead and off we sped towards the whirling white and yellow. As we approached there was a lot of squawking and jostling going on and gannets started folding their wings into their sides and darting into the water; looking exactly like fighter- planes with their characteristic black marked wings. As Marcus shouted “bait- ball” it was already too late, he turned to see eight expectant faces ready and waiting for the call to get into the water. “ Get in- what are you waiting for?” shouted Ryan, our guide ( and my hubby ), excitedly and as we rolled backwards into the water I relaxed into the dive. My co- adventurers and I lined up to watch the spectacle.

It is virtually impossible to describe the scene in words.  In front of us, two meters under the surface were approximately two thousand swirling sardines with a pod of twelve common dolphins circling and blowing a stream of bubbles to herd the fish into a tight ball. Once the sardines were bunched up tightly the dolphins rushed at them very fast with open mouths leaving the other side of the ball with a mouth full of shiny protuberances. As the dolphins began this dance again I looked down and could see sharks circling below us. The water was not as clean as it had looked from the surface but below me, in the murkiness, I could see the sinuous shapes of seven sharks waiting for their turn to feast. Here is an album with some of my photos of common dolphins:


I could hear a strange popping sound every ten seconds or so. I looked up into the rays of glinting sunlight and could make out that the noise was being made by Cape gannets that were dive-bombing above my head and into the water, wings curled tightly as they penetrated the water. I watched them unfold their wings underwater and swim towards the ball of sardines gulping down a few fish before powering up to the surface again. As I watched, the ball of sardines was diminishing and the water was becoming cloudy with oil and glittering scales from sardines that had been eaten. Then I heard an unmistakable high-pitched singing and although I could not see it in the murky water, I knew, from the sound waves vibrating hard through my chest that there was a whale very close to me.  If there was any place I wanted to be right then it was there- in the thick of a whirling bait ball with the predators around me- eating on the bounty. Finally, after many years I had seen a small part of this incredible phenomenon affectionately known as “the run”. All of my senses were alert and on fire- could life get any better than this moment? It’s not just dolphins that come to eat- here are some of the other predators you can see on the run:

I came to the surface exhausted as the few remaining sardines swirled in their last dance. I saw three humpback whales rolling and playing in the water. They came up to a few of us and two of them put their massive heads out of the water and made eye-contact. This was a moment none of us will ever forget. If I had the nerve I could have reached out and plucked a barnacle from one of their mouths.

The size and grunting sounds of three huge whales was rather daunting but they were so gentle as they greeted us and then slipped away into the increasingly dark and dirty water. I peered down to find them but all I could see were hundreds of glinting scales glittering as they floated and hung in the gloom, catching rays of sunlight in a last flicker of life extinguished. It was an exhausted but exhilarated group of adventurers that made their way back to port under a full moon rising in the faint glow of orange on the horizon. I realised that it was the 13th of June 2014; a Friday; and a full moon. I know that some say this day is bad luck. For this group there was a unanimous agreement that this had been the luckiest day of our lives- to have this adventure; on this day; on the Sardine Run.

Fiona Ayerst

14 June 2014


2 Comments on “Sliver of Silver

  1. Wow what an experience, I also would love to be able to experience this! Beautiful photos something I am sure you will cherish forever~!

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