Sardine Run Day 6: Into the Bait Ball!

It finally happened today. What I’d come to South Africa for. And it was stunning.

It certainly felt different wheni got up this morning. The air was a lot colder as we kitted up, and I made a point of bringing two jackets, and my sexy red beanie hat. And gloves. It was cold.

As soon as you come around to the river mouth, you can feel the sun from behind the cliffs, and that warmed us a little, but the wind was still biting, more than before. And the wind makes for big surf. The waves coming in to the river mouth were foamy and violent. We were told to hold on tight today. It was going to be a big one.

Harvey did a great job; we circled a few times, as the waves weren’t quite right, but then the engines roared, and we flew – at one point we were out of the sea and in mid air… We came down with a bump. It was exhilarating.

Bird Action

As soon as we got through the surf, and took life jackets off, we could see loads of bird action up ahead in the distance; more than we’d seen in the past three days. So we set course towards it. There were dolphins working when we arrived, but the birds calmed down almost as soon as we got there, which was, admittedly, a little disappointing. We followed the dolphins, but sometimes they would look like they were working, other times, not. Scouting the horizon for birds gathering, we went towards a few, only to get there and find nothing was happening, or it had finished and moved on.

Dolphin playground

After a while, we jumped in and found some playful dolphins, and snorkelled a while. The second pod we found had a tiny baby (is there ANYTHING cuter than a baby dolphin??), and we happily spent half an hour or so snorkelling and chasing the obviously full dolphins. At one point when we dropped in the were a load of small silvery scales in the water – the scene of a prior feast. We’d missed it. The dolphins were playing and not hunting. So we made the most of it instead.


Sharp exit

After a while we found some promising action, and dropped down on scuba to about 10 meters. A few dolphins looked at us, but nothing much was going on, in honesty. Then, suddenly, we heard the boat engine revving quite hard and purposefully, and Mia signalled everyone out. I looks at my computer, it was telling me I had mandatory safety stop. Had I come up to quickly from 10m to 5? Looking up, Snorkellers on the surface were signalling to me to come up immediately, so given I’d only been down for 4 minutes, I ignored my computer and surfaced. It was a good call.

On the horizon was a massive ship, heading right for us at some speed. We all got back in the rib with haste. There’d be no turning this thing, and at 10m below the surface, we’d be sucked into the propellor. Scary prospects.

The massive thing gained on us quickly and motored past us. We ran along side it for a while; it was a big empty container ship. She did a fair rate of knots and was probably on auto pilot.

Our stroke of luck

We turned around and headed back south, stopped and had lunch. On full stomachs, we settled down to chill for a bit, but then Harvey and Mia spotted something in the distance. Birds suddenly taking off from the surface, and lots of them by the looks of things. We sped over, getting our scuba tanks on in the meantime. It looked like a fair bit of action from the surface and I was itching to get in.

Mia dropped in, and two minutes later a couple of tugs on her buoy line signalled us to low her. We did, to 10m again.

The Cauldron

We were immediately greeted by a wall of sharks. 40, 50, 100? Who knows? Wow. Where were the dolphins? Why were the sharks here? I decided to keep close to Mia as she had a big stick. They circled us, but left us alone, mainly. They had another focus.

The suddenly, the bait ball was there. Above us, beside us, dolphins, sharks, all corralling it, so quickly, while gannets rained down from above. We were the first divers on it. The only divers on it. It was perfect. I tried to remember to breathe.

There were sharks everywhere. 360 degrees, bronze whalers mostly, but others that looked like black tips. There were tuna in the mix too. One huge fat barrel of a shark cruised past me, it looked different from the rest, bigger, wider, I thought it was a bull shark. It ignored us. We didn’t look like sardines.

Sharks and stuff…

The sardines were dancing rapidly, the few dolphins that were there, chasing and shepherding. You could see dolphins with open mouths, grabbing fish, and the sharks cruising, and darting into the bait ball. There was so much going on, it was difficult to know where to look. Sharks, dolphins, gannets, sardines. All darting around, above us, behind us, below us. Where to look? The bait ball was above us and the sun was behind it, casting shark and dolphin silhouettes. The gannets were coming down thick and fast too. They look so sleek when they dive into the water, and when they’re in, you hardly realise they’re actually birds.

Bait ball…

We stayed for 30 minutes. Other divers joined us and caught the end of the show, but we were there from the start. We saw it all, until we practically sucked the tanks dry. the safety stop was interesting, with hundreds of sharks around, and when we surfaced, we got an even bigger shock. It was raining gannets; we could see nothing but white bullets flying down into the water around us. How they missed us I have no idea; they came down like arrows, sounding like gunshots and making hardly any splash as they dropped down. Sharks below us, gannets hailing down around us – we were in the middle of the bait ball and we struggled to keep out of the way.

We finally got back on the boat with huge grins, high fives and “fuck yeah!”s all round. No one could stop smiling. We’d all just experienced what we came here for. After three days of worrying if we’d see so much as a fish, we got a bait ball. And an awesome one at that. Perfect. Bucket list: check!

Happy home

We headed back to the lodge after that. There was no topping it, anyway. After showers and dinner, there were celebratory beers, shots, some more lucky shisha, and lots of photo sharing.

Tomorrow’s our last day of diving. Even if we get nothing, I’ll still go home happy regardless. I’ve dived a bait ball. With 40 odd sharks. And dolphins, and gannets and tuna.

Oh, and it turns out that wasn’t a bull shark. Someone said it might have been a Great White.

4 thoughts on “Sardine Run Day 6: Into the Bait Ball!

  1. That must have bee a thrilling experience! I have watched some documentaries of the annual Sardine run and since then I have been longing to see it. But I don’t think I’m brave enough to dive among the feeding frenzy! Kudos to you! 🙂

      1. I’m a big fan of all sea creatures, but I did rather watch them from the boat. Guess I’ll let my hubby know about this dive; he’s the one who makes it a point to do at least one dive a year. Thanks for the detailed post and tips. 🙂

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