Sardine Run 2013
At the end of May I arrived back in East London, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, to embark on what would be my fifth attempt at filming the ‘greatest shoal on earth’ – one of ‘Nature’s Great Events’ – the sardine run. Out of my five attempts to film the run (2004, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013) ONLY 2010 was a success.
I will be the first to admit that the sardine run is most likely THE greatest diving experience on the planet. Being in the water at such close quarters with such an array of predators is like nothing else. You feel like a little worm on a big hook, but you get in the water anyway. Diving a bait-ball is like a drug; it’s the greatest adrenaline surge I’ve known.
Having said all of that, my patience is wearing thin with the sardine run. I’ve crunched some numbers, and worked out that over a five sardine runs, I have spent approximately 700 hours (that’s just short of a full month) at sea LOOKING for bait-balls, to approximately 130 minutes of footage gathered diving on good bait-balls. Thats not a healthy ratio.
Sardine run days begin early. Alarm set for 5AM. You load the boat with loads of heavy gear (that you know you’re probably not going to use). You wrap up warm; foul weather gear, gumboots, gloves, hats scarves and a thermos of coffee stashed on the boat. You go out to sea, and you look, and you wait. You eagerly hope for some positive news from your spotting aircraft – if you are lucky enough to have one. You phone other operators working in the area who are also looking for sardines. You wait some more. You drive up the coast, and you drive down the coast, all the time looking. When the time comes that you feel you’ve put in enough effort for the day, you go home again, and the next morning the process repeats itself. It’s like Groundhog Day. At the start of the run, you typically keep going and going long into the afternoon looking for action, but as the days draw on, your patience wears thin, and the days get shorter as despondency sets in.
This year on sardine run, we clocked up a total of 34 sea-days. I would estimate spending a total of around 250 hours at sea. In all that time, I think I got into my wetsuit a grand total of four times. You can recognise people who are inexperienced at sardine run – they sit in their wetsuits from daybreak, masks around their necks ready to jump in on a bait-ball as soon as they get clear of the harbour. I personally believe that any bait-ball that is going to be worth jumping in on is going to last the extra minute or so it takes you to get into your wetsuit. I’ll admit to spending some quality time in my wetsuit when I first attempted sardine run back in 2004 – I do not care to mention the intimate parts of myself that were afflicted with chafe as a result of eight hours or so a day in a thick wetsuit.
One of the occasions when it was worthwhile getting into my suit this year was to get into the water and photograph and unusually friendly albatross – this should start to give you an idea of the boredom levels we were at (although I must admit I did thoroughly enjoy this encounter).
And another occasion was to dive on quite an impressive bait-ball, albeit a bait-ball composed of anchovies, not sardines. This bait-ball was a pretty spectacular sight from the boat, with four Brydes whales smashing through it taking mouthfuls of the baitfish and quite regular intervals. The whales gave us a couple of nice close passes underwater (although I didn’t get a decent shot of one), but our presence on the bait-ball certainly did seem to slow their feeding. The bait-ball, around the size of two mini-buses I would estimate, was in very dirty water, so filming underwater was not particularly productive. It was however a good opportunity to dive with our new RED Epic cameras, that I still have little time in the water with.
As you can see, the visibility was absolutely terrible. And yes, I know I screwed up the one shot of the Bydes coming past me, and yes, it was the only opportunity I had to get such a shot this year - back off, alright? Go back here if you want to see some others. We had been diving on this, our only bait-ball of 2013, for around thirty minutes, when all of a sudden all the predators disappeared, and then immediately after the shoal sank down into the depths, and that was that. It was over.
Looking at an empty ocean for many hundreds of hours is at least quite a meditative way to spend your time. It gives you time to ponder in your head just why the sardine run has been occurring less and less in recent years. There will be many theories out there as to why the sardine run did not happen this year; a mild winter? Overfishing? Climate change, or rising sea temperatures? Sardine run has always been tricky and unpredictable, but the dismal results of the past few years speak of something else. To me, it is a stark and blatant message from nature that sardines are a drastically over-exploited resource; one simply must be on the verge of collapse. It leads me to ask the question. Have we witnessed in recent years, the end of the sardine run – at least for now??? Will people in the future talk of the days of diving bait-balls as distant memories, in the same way we now talk of once pristine diving locations. If stocks are given the chance to recover, I believe we will once again see shoals of fish many miles long, strewn along the coast, as well as a resurgence of bait-ball activity the likes of which has been all too rare in recent years.However, if stocks are not given the time to recover, I believe the sardine run will become a thing of the past.
As with many things in life, it is the people you spend time with or meet on your journeys that make turning up worthwhile, not the journey itself. Thanks to my fellow team members James Louden and Ryan Daly, for making it a memorable experience – if not for the action, then for the quality time spent putting the world to right over countless coffee breaks, bobbing up and down in a small boat some where off the coast of South Africa.
East London is a strange, depressed little city (sorry East Londoners, but you know it’s true), but for a few months of the year it attracts an interesting group of people from the wildlife film-making community, which this year included the venerable Mark Addison (my guide on all my previous sardine runs – sadly not this one), the esteemed veteran underwater cameraman Charles Maxwell and the one and only Andy BC – cameraman extraordinaire. I was also fortunate enough to meet an exciting group of people who work for GoPro, and who are in the enviable position of – as far as I can tell – just cruising around the planet filming cool stuff for GoPro. A group of very smart people with great filming ideas, who are high on life, and a lot of fun to be around.
Normally on sardine run you can busy yourself by filming large pods of dolphins, you can bait up some sharks, or other bits and pieces of sardine run-related activity, but this year was particularly quiet and I was given occasion to take cameras out of their waterproof cases on startlingly few occasions. That said, here is a selection of images from the 2013 sardine run;
And so, that was that. Sardine Run 2013.