One thing I learned about the Sardine Run, is that you never really know what to expect before you're on the boat, out in the ocean, and dropping on a bait ball. For those of you thinking about it, here are a few hints I picked up.
1. Lower your expectations.
The first thing our skipper said to us. Don't expect to see something all the time. Forget documentaries: you might see nothing. We frequently did. Some boats out on the water with us saw no sardines all week. Even if you do get a bait ball forming, you might not be the first boat there. You might get there and not get to dive it. There's an etiquette on the Run, and boats who get to the action second and third will wait for the first boat to come up – otherwise it becomes a mess, and potentially dangerous. If you're on a boat that doesn't obey the etiquette, then they're a wanker, and you're on the wrong boat.
2. Bring warm clothing
Bring a big waterproof and a fleece and a wooly hat. And another fleece. You will be cold. It's winter. You'll be in a wet wetsuit with cold winds for up to six hours a day.
And another thing; you might want to bring a shortie to go over your full length; no so much for the water temperature, but for on the boat when the wind picks up. I had a 6mm Northern Diver semi dry and a 6mm shortie over it, and managed to mostly stay warm out of the water, with my lightweight pac-a-mac jacket over it. And wooly hat. Others on the boat had less neoprene and more coat and got cold.
3. Bring gloves
Not because your hands will be cold necessarily, but to hold on to boat ropes. I had my 3mm gloves with me; I never dived with them, but I wore them for the boat launch. Holding on to a rope for that long can hurt, especially in rough seas.
4. Take seasick pills
Even if you don't get seasick. It's a long day and it's often very rough out there. A lot of the boat got seasick on day 1 – the cold certainly doesn't help either. And let's face, it you don't want to be chundering through your reg in the middle of a 50-shark bait ball, do you?
5. Learn how to get into a damp wetsuit at 6am.
It's a skill that will come in handy
6. This is not tourist diving.
It's challenging, no deeper than 15 meters, and you have to be quick to get kitted up, in the water and fin bloody hard to keep up with stuff. It's more like diving in the UK with slightly warmer water, than your average PADI dive. The Maldives, it is not.
7. Learn to get your kit off and on quickly in a moving boat.
This will come with time, of course, and cold water divers may be better than most at this already. However, one tip: All of those little dangly clip things on your BCD might be handy in Egypt, but when you're trying to pull your wet jacket on over 12mm of damp neoprene for the fourth time in the day, you'll be glad that you took off the stuff you don't need.
8. Know where everything is at all times on the boat.
You really don't want to be scrambling looking for your camera or mask while the bait ball is kicking off underneath you.
9. Expect to get a sore arse.
Yes, really. You're sitting on a wet wetsuit for 6 hours a day. Your backside will be raw. Bet you never thought you'd get nappy rash at your age, did you?
10. Trust your skipper and guide.
Most important. Do what they tell you and without question. After all, your life is in their hands (as I found out when a container ship nearly gate-crashed a dive). And if you don't trust them, well, then you're in the wrong boat.
I went on the Sardine Run with African Space and Pro Dive in July 2012, and would recommend both.