The annual “Sardine Run” in South Africa is not for the faint-hearted. It was by far the most incredible, demanding, adrenaline-pumping, frustrating and difficult photographic trip I’ve done to date. And after 18 months shooting small, still macro critters in the calm, warm waters in Lembeh, Indonesia, the sardine run is a mighty slap in the face!
On the flight over there, you may be thinking positively: “Okay, I go there, see a gigantic baitball the size of the moon, jump in, and then fill your memory card with mind-blowing photos of dolphins, sharks, and birds all posing nicely with sardines in their mouths!” ??? Mwahahahaa! Wrong, so wrong. I knew it couldn’t be THAT easy, and it wasn’t :-)
The reality is: After the hair-raising launch through the surf while protecting your fragile camera like it was a newborn baby, you spend 7 hours a day in rough seas on a small RIB (inflatable), searching miles and miles of vast ocean for any sign of diving Cape gannets, and if you’re lucky to find a tiny bit of action you jump into the cold choppy murky water, and fight your way through the crowd of other snorkelers and photographers, arrogantly mumbling through your snorkel “get out of my f@$%ing way!”
Suddenly, a streak of sardines flashes past your eyes followed by some dolphins and a curtain of bubbles and fish scales, so you fire off a few photos only to realize they’re out of focus because of tiny bubbles all over your camera’s dome port, and anyway they had snorkelers fins and legs ruining them as another snorkeler flapping on the surface kicked you in the face (either accidentally or on purpose). Whatever! Anyway no time to think! It seems so stupid - but relentlessly, you try to swim and catch up with the dolphins and sardines. Then just as you’re out of breath from trying too hard, some more sardines and dolphins flash past you and you think you’re about to take “the world’s best underwater photo”, but a big wave breaks over your head and throws you around like a rag-doll, water goes down your snorkel and you choke and flap around like the helpless land-animal that you are. Then another speedboat full of divers bulldozers right into the middle of the action, the gannets take off and the dolphins and sardines disappear into the rest of the massive ocean. Game over…
So after failing “Level 1” you let out a scream of frustration on the surface to make yourself feel better. Exhausted, you feebly pull yourself back into the boat. Then one of your fellow team members hands you a cup of hot chocolate and a lollipop, you relax, catch your breath and think “aaahhh all’s better now, Hakuna matataaaa! (or more locally azikho izindaba-editor)” - and the search for sardine action starts all over again. Full speed ahead skipper!
Needless to say I ended up with a lot of messy images of reflective silver sardines, bubbles, scales, with a few dolphins here and there. The photo above being a classic example of the photographic chaos you have to endure. Fast-paced action, rough seas, poor visibility, reflective silver fish, and bubbles are just some of the challenges to overcome.
I’m totally in awe of (and outrageously jealous of) Alexander Safonov’s exceptional images of the sardine run over the last few years, and how difficult it really is to capture the action. If you haven’t seen his images, check them out.
So after my classically English and cynical review of the sardine run, you might ask “would you do it again?” – HELL YEAH!
About the author: Christian Loader is a full-time senior photographer for Scubazoo Images, based in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. He has worked extensively throughout SE Asia, and is currently shooting for Scubazoo’s upcoming books.