Spectacular Sardine Run!

Lesley Rochat Photography - Sardine run
“Ok, on the count of 3: 1, 2, 3!!” shouts our skipper, Grant. We hit the surface, grab our cameras and prepare to descend as fast as possible. My heart is pounding; I’m nervous, anxious with anticipation. I’ve read a lot about the run and this is my first time in the middle of the feeding frenzy. The surface of the water is boiling with activity, everywhere common dolphins are breaking the surface, and then disappearing again, gannets are popping up from the depths while others are plunging at a phenomenal speed into the ocean like kamikaze pilots. I look overhead, it’s raining birds.

Lesley Rochat Photography - Sardine run with Dolphins
Beneath the surface the viz is poor, 4 metres max, which doesn’t help calm the adrenaline rushing through my heart. I follow the dive guide, Franseau Le Roux’s yellow fins to the small bait ball. It’s manic down here, the silence I’m familiar with underwater is filled with the high pitch sounds of the dolphins, and overhead countless explosions are going off, it’s the gannets breaking the surface, defying Nature as they fly through the water down to 8 metres to snatch up a sardine before heading back up again. Dolphins are speeding past me from all directions; they corral the sardines, driving them to the surface. I’m surrounded by predators who are ignoring each other, focused solely on the helpless little sardines that are instinctively glued to each other in a defensive baitball formation, which is shattered repeatedly by predators feeding on them. They sway and flow, forming and reforming, like visual music. I’m feeling somewhat like a sardine myself, vulnerable, especially when the sharks suddenly appear out of the poor viz, coming way too close for comfort causing me to squeal through my DV despite knowing they’ve only one thing on their minds, sardines! I fire a few shots but there’s just too much to take in for a first timer. I’m privileged to be part of one of Nature’s most magnificent phenomena, a dramatic underwater performance, the great dance of the sardine run.  And then all too soon the ball is gone and so have all the predators. Everything is quiet and still, as though it was all an illusion.

Lesley Rochat Photography - Sardine run with Sharks
This was my introduction to the sardine run, and the squealing through my DV, which was heard by dive buddies, reason for my Shark Warrior nickname to be humorously questioned. But that brief experience was all I needed, I was hooked and wanting more of the same, much more. It was my third attempt of the sardine run. The previous two, spaced by 5 years, were totally uneventful due to timing and conditions – I never saw a single sardine. This third time lucky I had joined Walter Bernardis of African Watersports, who has been leading sardine run expeditions for over 10 years and definitely runs one of the most professional operations around. I also joined good friend and famous underwater photographer, Michael Aw, who has been diving the run for six years in a row with Walter.

Lesley Rochat Photography - Sardine run with Dolphins
That the run is referred to as the Greatest Shoal and Show on Earth, rivaling the wildebeest migration, is for good reason, it is the greatest gathering of predators known. Over 20 000 common dolphins, 2000 bottlenose dolphins, thousands of sharks: bronze whaler sharks, dusky sharks, blacktip sharks, spinner sharks, zambezi sharks, even the odd raggie; various game fish, seals and birds such as the Cape gannet, cormorants, terns, including the Brydes whale who can swallow 10 000 fish in a single mouthful, all feast on the sardines. The run occurs during May to late July each year when a current of cold water heads north from the Agulhas Bank up to Mozambique, and still further east into the Indian Ocean bringing with it the sardines.

Lesley Rochat Photography - Sardine ball with sharks
That small little bait ball I first experienced was my initiation for greater things to come which they certainly did with a 10m x 10m bait ball, which we hopped on early morning, and which was still going off till after sunset. Having sucked my air dry till literally the last breath, I was snorkeling and photographing at the surface when suddenly I heard someone yell “WHALE!!” I spun around to see a mammoth Brydes whale skimming past me, its tail propelling it, moving toward me: “This is tickets Lesley, you’re about to be whacked to oblivion by a whale’s tail!” were my thoughts as I continued to hold my trigger down, determined to go out in style with photos to prove it. The Sea Gods were with me and I live to tell the tale, fortunately not the whale tail version! And my photos? Well even with my lens set at 14mm the whale is so close, the shots reveal sections of its body and markings in detail. My only regret was that my boat took me back to shore early and I missed the opportunity to photograph the whale going through the bait ball repeatedly. Next time…

Lesley Rochat Photography - Sardine run
Photographically the run is a massive challenge in many respects and many of the awesome photos one sees have been a touch of luck and loads of skill and planning. Having gone with inferior strobes and arms which have since gone to the dustbin, and having no idea what to expect, I am happy with what I achieved, but hankering after the shots I missed, and the ones I never thought of focusing on at the time. But again, next time…(I will be sharing more of images next week in a slide show.)

Apart from Walters’s great sense of humor, invaluable sardine run experience, great boats, skippers, dive guides, and supporting microlight spotter, he runs his trips from the picturesque Mbotyi River Lodge, a beautiful lodge overlooking the river and bay, with great food even for vegetarians like myself.  Overall my two weeks spent on the run are filled with truly special places and moments, some a little hair-raising like when Walter and I were the last in the water on a very small ball consisting of a handful of fish, which had attracted little interest until the common dolphins arrived, along with some sharks. At that point the fish decided the best place to hide was right next to us, and though the sharks had no interest in us they had a great deal of interest in these little stragglers hanging around us. “It’s like having bits of biltong hanging off you while in a game park!” Walter exclaimed after we flew out the water to the safety of the boat, leaving the fish to their fate. Fond memories include the special moments with great people who travelled from all corners of the world to experience this magnificent spectacle, sharing stories, photos and videos in the Mbotyi pub, a good laugh and a feeling of being passionately alive. That’s what the sardine run does for one.

Lesley Rochat Photography - Beautiful Dolphins
The sardine run is a must, but it’s not for the faint hearted nor the unfit – it’s hard work, early mornings, long days at sea on small boats, mostly rubber ducks, and in and out the water countless time. It’s also only for the experienced diver with a thirst for adventure, which it is sure to quench. As Franseau said: “ I measure my life in sardine run increments!” I relate and already planning my next trip in 2011. A big thanks to Mbotyi River Lodge and a very special thanks to Walter and Sandy Bernardis who I can’t thank enough for giving me one of the greatest gifts ever, the sardine run experience. To find out more about Walter’s trips go to African Watersports (the site is heading for a revamp soon) and book early as space is limited. Walter also does the tiger sharks and blacktips at Aliwal Shoal, which I have shared on my blog previously. Those
who would like to join me next year and share the boat I am on, email me directly at lrochat@iafrica.com

Watch my space!

  1. Kevin AndersonKevin Anderson08-20-2010

    Totally awesome article and impressive shots! Your photography is world class and gives certain SA based underwater photographers some serious competition. look forward to seeing the slide show. I am keen to do the sardine run trip. I have a Ikelite set up and ok nikon – would you be prepared to share photo tips to help get shots like yours or closeish?

  2. TerryTerry08-21-2010

    Les, Not only do your stunning images accompanied by wonderful writing capture this awesome adventure; they show us how everything is in balance and intricately connected and what we all stand to lose if we do not change our ways. Without these images we would never know what lies below the oceans surface. We are priviledged to be able to share Sardine Run 2010 with you.

  3. Lesley RochatLesley Rochat08-22-2010

    Thanks guys, appreciate! It is wonderful to share the run through the images, to show people the beauty and in so doing an understanding of what it is we must preserve and why. And yes, of course I would love to help other underwater photographers get the best they can. In fact, for the group that comes with me, that will be part of the boat sharing, sharing what I have learnt, the do's and don't I learnt, plus tips I picked up which really help, so please feel free to contact me should you wish to join me for the 2011 trip. I will advertise closer to the time too.

  4. A supporterA supporter08-23-2010

    I have long since admired your skills, dedication and commitment to the cause. I have had business to do with the organisation you were once associated with. I wondered how long it would take you to break away as any direct association with them was tarnishing your excellent reputation. I have been away out of contact with the world for a while and recently heard what they did to you. It must have been hard but I could have told you it would have come to that – they like to own and control and anyone who does not fit the mold, a strong, successful, talented individual such as you, with strong values, would never fit in with those who lack all these qualities – they are not a nice bunch and certainly have little care for the cause you believe in. I watched them hold you back and claim glory for all your successes, but now you are free! Wishing you well as I watch you fly from a distance. With great respect, one of your many supporters.

  5. Lesley RochatLesley Rochat08-24-2010

    Hello Supporter, thank you for your kind words and support, which I have read with interest. I invite you to contact me directly on lrochat@iafrica.com. I hope to hear from you… Kind regards, Lesley

  6. Adam CarnegieAdam Carnegie09-04-2010

    Scheesh! What a breath taking article and imagery! Truly spectacular! Your photographs are inspirational and I yearn to be out there. This trap, behind the computer! Thanks for getting out there and showing me what I am missing! Thrilling energy packed adventure.

  7. AlexAlex09-22-2010

    Hey Lesley,
    Awesome pix! Send me your address so that I can send you a copy of 'Man & Shark'…

  8. Lesley RochatLesley Rochat10-12-2010

    My blog is posted on the divesite.co.za website, here are some other comments:
    Chris Fraser on 20 August 2010
    wow what an epic story. been thinking of doing the run for some time and this article has inspired me to plan and book for next year! awesome!!
    Brian on 27 August 2010
    What stunning photogaphy !!!……World class. Brilliant Lesley look forward to seeing more.
    Lesley Rochat on 29 August 2010
    Thanks Brian, that's kind of you 🙂 I've held a few of my favorites back and look forward to sharing soon. Underwater/conservation photography is a powerful tool in raising awareness about our oceans. It is my hope that these images promote awe and appreciation.
    Colleen Neth on 9 September 2010
    Blown out of my mind and SO very excited to try the sardine run again. We went a few years ago and didn't see a single sardine – we had fun though. The comaraderie even during a sardineless sardine run is good fun. Keep up the great work. I wish you lot & lots more spectacular sardine run and at least 1 for me 🙂
    yvette on 17 September 2010
    im blown away. your writing style and pics….. wow!! speechless

  9. Katrien VandeveldeKatrien Vandevelde06-23-2011

    These breathtaking pictures and and the well described story almost make me feel like I experienced it for myself. What an incredible spectacle. Like the greatest show on earth!

  10. Sandro LonardiSandro Lonardi05-05-2013

    Great pictures Lesley!

    We enjoyed the Sardine Run in 2010 and we will go again this year.

    Really looking forward!

Leave a Reply