Photo: Douglas David Seifert
Photo: Douglas David Seifert
Photo: Douglas David Seifert
Photo: Douglas David Seifert
Along with a group of other divers, I’m heading for the Mkambati Game Reserve, straddled between the Msikaba and Mtentu Rivers on the Pondoland Plateau, 100 miles south of Port Edward. This stretch, called ‘The Wild Coast’, is made up of sheer rock faces, with river estuaries providing the only places for boat launching. It is also the place where deep and shallow-water predators converge – all coming to feast on the glut of sardines.
Arriving from the south, the sardines converge at the Cape and then head north in vast shoals towards Durban. The fish then head out to the Indian Ocean where the shoals disperse. As far as the diver is concerned the ‘Sardine run’ takes place in the area between the Cape and Durban, where there are the largest congregations of fish.
Dolphins, sharks, gannets, seals and whales all arrive in great numbers, and follow the sardines in their relentless move north. Extra inducements for cameramen are the ‘bait balls’ created by the common dolphins when they split large numbers of sardines away from the main shoal, driving them up to the surface and providing a writhing feast. Other predators join in the feeding frenzy as the dolphins circle the sardines, ensuring a tight ball of prey, ranging from 2m to 10m in size.
It’s still dark when we wake on the first morning of our trip, but strong coffee and breakfast soon sharpen our senses and, kitted out in our wetsuits, we go down to the beach. Rob Allen, our ‘Eye in the sky’, buzzes overhead in his microlite. Our skipper, Kevin, intones his launch mantra, ‘Hard, fast, deep and long’, as we push the boat out by hand. We leap in when the water reaches chest height, clip our feet under the straps and cling on while Kevin casually powers his way through the screaming surf, out into the blue wilderness beyond.
Day one starts quietly. We spot large schools of common and bottlenose dolphin in the water and marvel at the sporadic diving of the gannets. Three humpback whales nose in close, just out of diving range. Eventually Rob comes on the radio. Action is starting inshore, with several bait balls forming. Kevin fires up the two 85hp outboards and we storm off in hot pursuit. The huge numbers of gannets circling and diving tell us where the action is, as they wheel and plunge into the ocean. Dolphins are jumping out of the water, with more arriving by the minute as we scramble to get our kit sorted. The water is cloudy with visibility of only 4m. We jump in with snorkels and follow the dolphins that zoom past, deafening us with their whistles and clicks. Suddenly the bait ball looms ahead of us. It fizzes and boils out of the water, fleeing from the dolphins, reshaping and reforming constantly. All the while sharks are gathering, not wanting to be left out of this feeding frenzy, several of them banging against my arms and into my camera. Tuna and garrick flash past and smash through the bait ball as the visibility decreases. The sea is turning into sardine soup, awash with scales, blood and guts. I surface almost in the bait ball and see a copper shark, feet away, thrashing on the surface, chomping ceaselessly. One more dive and visibility is down to inches. I decide to back off, still snapping away with my camera, but with little hope of success. The action is so wild, I click the shutter automatically, just in case.
Then I hear a scream behind me – caught in the middle of the bait ball, Tony has been bitten by a shark. We manage to get him on board the boat and soon we are all back on dry land awaiting a Natal Sharks Board plane complete with paramedic. The bite is deep and ragged along his arm, but after the plane has taken him away for treatment we learn later that he has had surgery and things look promising. We open the whisky – stiff drinks all round. End of Day One.
As the days pass, more humpbacks, dolphins and seabirds gather. But where are the sardines? Theories abound. Water too warm? Sardines too deep? A cold southwesterly is needed… However, we continue to dive, witnessing exquisite jellyfish playing host to brittlestars and juvenile fish, creating the illusion of floating planets in an alien world. Some jellyfish even have the odd hitchhiking crab nestling in their folds. Devil rays also come to feed in the soupy section on the current line. Despite the elusive nature of the sardine run, there is still plenty to marvel at. We receive the news that Tony continues to improve – our spirits lift and hope is restored.
Finally, on the eighth day, reports come in of huge pods of common dolphins 10km from shore. They are moving fast, hunting Japanese mackerel. We set off in pursuit. They surround us, jumping, diving and playing in our bow wave or leaping through our wake. Over the next few days we follow pods of 5,000 or more. Even Rob, in his microlite, has never seen anything like this.
The plan is to chase to the front of the pod, drop into the water and wait for rush hour. We are assailed by wave after wave of common dolphins, some curious, some discerning. They seem to be able to swim at you, stop and stare, while never losing momentum or speed. Have they have seen The Matrix I wonder, as they rush onwards. I find myself caught up in a huge swell – 3m below the surface – when around 500 dolp
hins pass me within a minute. They fizz past at incredible speed, some only inches away, their clicks and whistles fading off long after they disappear from view. But still there are no sardines. The days are rapidly passing us by. The boats are launched as early as is safe because the only action seems to be early in the morning. Our persistence pays off, as a big bait ball is sighted 5km to the north and all the boats blast off at full tilt. Again the massed gannets give away the location as we near the scene and we watch their full-blooded attack. There are two bait balls and Kevin decides to drop us on the smaller one, away from all the other boats. Great call, as it turns out.
We try scuba to give us the best chance of some photography. The noise levels as we approach are incredible: it sounds like the Blitz. Over the racket made by the dolphins is a relentless, syncopated boom, boom, boom, boom, boom as the gannets hit the water. The leave a thick trail of bubbles and then they stare into the ball with their beady, ice-blue eyes, before flying up to the surface, plucking sardines as they go. I have a perfect view from beneath the ball, which splits into a perfect doughnut to expose a gannet bombing through the centre. The bird stops feet from my face, before darting off to search out more sardines. I try to capture a similar moment on film, but it doesn’t happen. The image is forever etched on my brain. The dolphins continue to circle, releasing their bubble bombs from below, swooping in to pick off the hapless fish.
Too quickly, the dolphins tire of our unnatural presence and they disappear, followed soon by the dissolving bait ball. We return to the boat elated. At last we have witnessed a bait ball in reasonable visibility. The conditions are improving by the day. Although more bait balls are sighted, the dolphins quickly move away to hunt elsewhere when we enter the water. It’s a respite for the sardines but frustrating for all of us.
The last day arrives and the chances of seeing the main migration are now very slim. But there is one more surprise in store. Rob radios in that there are three killer whales playing in the water nearby. We head off and at first sight it appears that all the boats in the ocean are already there – in fact there are only seven. Kevin decides to keep his distance, correctly recognising that the whales will move away from the crowd. Sure enough, they turn and head in our direction and dive under the boat, rocking it alarmingly. We were so busy taking photographs from the boat, and they pass by so quickly that we do not even think to get in to the water. The following stampede of boats chases them further off and we have missed our opportunity. I am furious with myself. Brent Addison, who was on the first boat on the scene, did manage a few moments of video underwater. He captured the whales playing with a dead dolphin and we were treated to some precious footage later on the TV.
Our last night barbecue party was replete with tall stories and wet tales. My thanks go to Mark and Gail Addison of Blue Wilderness Dive Expeditions for bringing together such a superb group of people. The levels of professionalism were exceptional.
Flying back up the coast to Durban, we see huge schools of sardines all along the coast and lots of action from the plane. We hear on the radio that visibility at Mkambati has improved dramatically, to more than 20m, and that the bait balls are in full swing. Humpback whales are joining in the frenzy right in front of the cameras. We missed it by one day. Damn! There’s a repeat performance every year. I’ve already pencilled the dates in my calendar for 2003.