Living in a wildlife documentary

In South Africa’s winter millions of sardines migrate up the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal coastline, with tens of thousands of sharks, dolphins and seabirds in hot pursuit. For six days of this migratory extravaganza I was aboard Animal Ocean’s boat, skippered by Steve Benjamin, and I felt like I was living in a wildlife documentary. Everyone on-board, like all the predators chasing the sardine run, wanted to see bait balls.

Common dolphin, off the Transkei coast. Photo: Steve Benjamin

Bait balls

When pods of dolphin successfully herd a school of fish towards the surface, the desperate fishes’ last-ditch instinctive defensive technique is to swarm in a tight bait ball. Their silvery bodies dazzle the eye, making it harder for predators to select a target individual. Bait balls resemble beautifully choreographed pulsating clouds of glitter. The coordinated movements of the fish rhythmically throb as they simultaneously seek to stay close to each other whilst moving away or around the predators attacking them. The dense gathering of prey lures many other species too, but they all have intentions far more carnivorous than those of us on the Animal Ocean boat.

On day five we thought we’d found a bait ball in water clean enough for us to join the melee. We waited anxiously for the all clear from Steve. After assessing the visibility and other factors he finally shouted “Go! Go! Go!” And we did. I swam frantically, excitedly and somewhat nervously towards the feeding frenzy. At first the vortex of thirty copper sharks circling below the bait ball was the most captivating sight but sharks were only a fraction of the aquatic pandemonium. There were innumerable dolphins, some patrolled to keep the bait ball together whilst others raced in, snatched a fish and left my view before I could even properly comprehended what each individual had done. Almost immediately after one dolphin left the scene he or she was replaced by another and another and then another. 

Gannets, having already plummeted from the air into the sea at a ferocious pace, used their wings as flippers to swim at the fish. I hyperventilated with excitement through my snorkel; I just didn’t know where to look. I thought being witness to something like this was reserved for BBC documentary filmmakers but I was actually there and it really was happening around me.

All too soon it was over. The sea went quiet and for a while even I was speechless, not a common event for me - as friends and family can attest.

This was a wildlife experience like no other. As Simon Hudson-Peacock, who joined me on the boat, said later “being underwater is as close as you or I will get to being in another world” and I knew what he meant. We were breathing through plastic tubes and moving torpidly in wetsuits whilst dolphins dashed elegantly in and out of the bait ball and sharks circled effortlessly below. I’ve been a passive observer from a vehicle of lion kills and other wildlife spectacles but being in the water with all this doesn’t feel like observing, it feels like participating.

Threats

I’ve written previously about the Great Springbok Migration, once South Africa’s largest land based migration. That migration was obliterated by human impacts just over a century ago (click here to read more). We shouldn't assume that the scale of the sardine run means it is immune from our impacts.

The sardine run is dependent on water temperature, among other things, with sardines preferring water no warmer than 19°C. It’s entirely plausible that human induced climate change could continue to alter sea temperatures and change or end the sardine run.

Humpback highlights

During our six day adventure we saw over a hundred humpback whales. Some were consummate showmen, performing their Fosbery Flops with the agility of 40 ton Olympians, just with a somewhat greater splash landing.  Simon captured one breach perfectly, take a look:

Simon was the only other non-professional or semi-professional photographer on board. “I have never ever taken a picture under water before” he told me a day later. Simon used, for the first time, a R4,500 (US$450 or £300) GoPro. Those videos of chance encounters, in just under a week, highlight how phenomenal this experience was.

The most special moment, for me, was after we’d been in the water for quite some time on our first day looking for sharks. Instead, a humpback whale swam by. Adults can reach up to 18 metres long and weigh close to 40 tons. They are curious creatures and whether it’s because I want it to be true, or because it was true, I’m convinced that at one point the whale changed the angle of his head and stared back. Fleeting moments like these motivate me to continue with this project focussing on human impacts more than anything else.  Simon captured that moment too.

A story for grandchildren

I’m left with indelible memories from this experience of the kind that in decades to come, were I to have them, I’d tell my grandchildren, but I’ve chosen not to have children so will miss out on that pleasure. 

It’s conceivable that the sardine run might not even take place by the time I’ll be of grandparent age. My choice not to have children (and therefore grandchildren) lessens the pressures placed on the sea in the best way any of us can, by reducing whole lifetimes of demand on the earth. To a small extent I’m increasing the odds of the sardine run still occurring when I’m 80. I’m convinced we’d be better off with a world where the sardines ran, rather than one where we all felt it essential to continue our own line of genes, adding increased pressures on the sea and everywhere else. I write this article weeks after my experiences. I can still feel the excitement. The sardine run generated memories worth every single sea sickness induced retch. The moment which is clearest of all is the jubilation of thinking “that whale is looking right at ME.”

If you want to go next year, I’d really recommend getting in touch with Steve (www.animalocean.co.za). Steve has captured the whole experience perfectly in his video which he has let me share with you (look out for me at 13 seconds)!