Every year in winter, vast shoals of sardines that have spawned in the waters of Antarctica travel the cold-water currents south of the East Coast of South Africa. Sometimes a combination of wind and current will allow a tongue of cold water to intrude into the warm waters of the Indian Ocean – and then millions upon millions of sardines come close enough to be seen from shore or even washed up on the beach. This phenomenon, which occurs no-where else on earth, can be witnessed from the beaches of the Wild Coast – if you are lucky enough to be there at the right time.
This little-understood migration starts when the first winter gales blow, and continues for about a month. Millions of sardines (Sardinops sagax) grouped into schools often kilometres long, which are thought to originate in the cold waters of the Antarctic, move northwards, eventually being spotted between East London and Port St Johns. They pass the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, where they often beach themselves, and then disappear until the following year when the cycle repeats itself.
Predators of every description feed on these fish. Birds not usually seen in the area come in huge numbers. Many different species of shark also appear. But what really brings the sightseers to the area is the incredible sight of thousands of dolphins feeding on the sardines.
Whales are also more common during the Sardine Run. Humpback whales are spotted during this time, as the Sardine Run coincides with their migration to give birth and mate in the northern waters of KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique. Southern Right Whales are also believed not to feed, being on their way to give birth and mate in these warmer waters.
The Sardine Run has now been shown to the outside world through documentaries filmed by the BBC and National Geographic, and divers come to Port St Johns every year to experience this natural migration, which is the marine version of the Masai Mara migration in East Africa.