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Wild Coast Ocean Safari 2011


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#1 jtresfon

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Posted 23 November 2011 - 07:52 AM

JH Tresfon, Sardine Run Diary, 2011

Strangely enough the best analogy I have for the Sardine Run is to compare the experience to a drug habit. Both are seriously addictive and will keep you coming back for more. Both will see you spending more and more time and money in chasing the total high of the first time experience. Both can result in bad judgment and silly behaviour. And both can result in injury or death if you are not careful.

Having done the Sardine Run twice before, both in 2009 and 2010, I was determined to go again this year. The difference was that this time I had booked 14 days as opposed to the 7 days booked for each of my previous attempts. I had also decided to combine it with a trip to Durban to compete in the Surfski World Cup race. I planned to drive up from Cape Town to Durban for the race and then down to Port St. Johns for the Sardine Run. The most challenging part was getting the leave application for a month away from the family past my wife. To those who complain about the cost of a trip on the Sardine Run, it is nothing compared to the cost of simply being allowed to go!

Arriving in Durban for the race, the sea was standing on its head. As I passed Port Shepstone I could finally get a view of the coast and was not very comforted by what I saw. All the way up to Durban I was filled with trepidation as massive waves smashed into the coast. The big wave surfers were tow-in surfing the Mound (A reef in the middle of Durban Bay that only breaks in huge seas). The race was a whole story in its own right, but on that same day sardines started to arrive at Addington beach. Immediately I wondered if I had left things too late and worried that the sardines had already passed Port St Johns.

Driving back down to Port St. Johns I was in view of the coast for a lot of the journey and could see clouds of gannets raining out of the sky into huge baitballs not far from shore. Arriving at Port St. Johns I found out that all the operators had been unable to go to sea for the past four days because of the giant seas. It should be remembered that these self-same operators are the Durban skippers famed for their surf-launch abilities. It has to be truly intimidating before these guys decide to can the launch.

The rest of our crew arrived the next day and we were all kept busy preparing our kit and the boat. It was good to catch up with some familiar faces from the previous year and the following morning found us on the beach bright and early, eagerly anticipating our first day out. There were more than a few nervous passengers as Steve warmed his boat engines up in the channel. The surf at the mouth of the Umzimvubu River was still plenty big, but our skilled skipper negotiated the break with ease, showing off the skills of a consummate professional. Our first day out was a taste of reality… no instant gratification to be had here! All the baitball action was happening off the river mouth in the dirty water. Jumping in is not advisable in these conditions, not only is it unsafe but there is really no point as the photos generally turn out poorly. We managed a swim in cleaner water with some bottlenose dolphins and ended the day offshore Laputhana watching the massive waves colliding with the rocky shelf and sending bursts of spray thundering skywards. Dolphins were playing in the big waves and we managed a few nice images.

Port St. Johns is a curious town in many respects, one of which is that it has an abundance of excellent restaurants out of all proportion to the size of its population. The evening (as were most to follow) was spent at one of the many fine dining establishments, and then it was early to bed for the tired divers.

Overnight the seas had moderated and day two started with some small baitfish action, but it was not sardines. The fish were red-eye herring and the baitballs were anything but static. We managed to do several jumps near the common dolphins as they smashed up the baitfish, but the action was fast and fleeting. Grant provided the amusing moment of the day as a skua sat almost on top of his lens as he approached unseen from under the water. The dirty water moved further offshore with the wind and signaled the end of the day’s diving, but we followed the dolphins and spent the afternoon shooting the topside action on the baitballs. The speed at which the gannets dive (usually around 100kph) is incredible and never fails to impress. Then it was home, shower, wash kit and track down the next gastronomic gem.

Day three saw us up early and running north to Waterfall Bluff after having received reports of action there the previous day. Arriving there we found the Earth Touch crew already in the water on the only baitball. We waited patiently next to their boat and on surfacing they gave us the go ahead to jump. There is a definite etiquette to the Sardine Run and most operators abide by the unwritten rules. As we prepared to enter the water the action just disappeared. And that was that for the underwater portion of the day as the dirty water moved up the coast. The rest of the day offered many wonderful opportunities to capture whales and dolphins with their topside behaviour as they joined the gannets in chasing down the perpetually doomed baitfish. Over the course of the day the seas steadily increased in size and the wind started to freshen. We arrived back in the river mouth through a fairly substantial wave break and started the evening routine; nobody was destined to lose weight on this trip, despite the rigorous physical regime of spending all day at sea.

Steve decided against launching due to the dangerous conditions and day four saw us heading up the coast by road to Laputhana to watch the giant seas smashing into the shore. Ever keen to provide his clients with an interesting shot, Steve and his boatman, Marc, dressed in some brightly coloured oilskins and stood right on the rocks where the spray was falling. After much amusement, we hiked down the coast to Waterfall Bluff, guided by Mr. Port St. Johns, John Costello. Guesthouse owner, NSRI station commander, pilot, archaeologist, geologist, photographer, diver, you name it; John is a master of many trades and generously gave us some of his time to show us the wonders of the Wild Coast.

About this time some doubts were starting to appear and questions were being asked whether or not the sardines had already passed us by during one of the storms. Steve had already been on site for a month by this time and despite a few good days no one had seen any real action yet. Most of us have seen some fantastic images from the run, and almost all of us have seen the BBC footage that took over two years to acquire. The only problem with this is that people do tend to arrive with some very high expectations. It really does need to be understood that the sardines migrate at their own pace, and there are so many environmental and oceanographic factors that have to fall into place to make things happen. The cold water has to spread up the coast. The dolphins have to herd the sardines into baitballs. The weather has to be good enough to launch. The skipper has to find the action. The water needs to be clean enough to photograph the action. The action has to remain stationary and consistent for long enough to be captured. The divers have to cooperate so as not to scare off the predators. But when it all comes together it is as spectacular as can be imagined.

A lot of potential visitors are put off at the prospect of paying large amounts of cash with no guarantee of sardine action. This is the gamble that must be taken. A lot depends on when you go, where you go, and for how long you can afford to stay. There have been some years where nothing happened at all, and some where the action has been incredible. Prior to the trip I had thought that I understood the gamble, but having done it a few times now I can say that the gamble is far more uncertain that I had originally anticipated.

Day five started with a bang. The seas were still big and Steve had his surf launching skills properly tested, but after a fifteen minute wait in the channel a gap appeared on the verge of us cancelling for the day and out we went. We sped straight offshore looking for clean water and found a small baitball with attendant marine life in full predation. Quickly kitting up I found myself in the water first. The visibility was excellent and the action unbelievable. Right on the surface a bronze whaler shark was thrashing into a shoal of red-eye herring as the common dolphins swarmed at the edges keeping the baitball intact. The gannets and a few cormorants where hammering the fish from the surface when Mark, Grant and Jean-Marie arrived in the water and the baitball descended a few metres. Finally it was on! We had arrived at the Sardine Run’s holy grail, a static baitball with predators in action, all in clean water. But it as it turned out it really was too good to be true. Suddenly the birds disappeared and looking up I saw a snorkeler right on top of the baitball. Severely annoyed, I was about to surface and “educate” the errant diver when another fifteen divers arrived in the water, surrounded the baitball and completely cut the predators out of the loop. In disgust I called our crew and we surfaced. Two other boats had arrived and with a complete disregard to the etiquette of the run they disgorged all their divers onto “our” baitball. Action that could have lasted for hours had now disappeared in seconds. Within minutes all the other divers surfaced, surprised that there was no longer anything happening. I suggested to Steve that he give the other skippers a tongue lashing, but ever the professional he declined to get involved in recriminations.

By this time there were now nearly ten boats around us and to say it was a dog show would be understatement. Steve suggested we get as far away as possible and we routed south for Brazen Head. There we were, watching the huge swells breaking against the cliffs, when a pod of around forty dolphins jumped out of the back of the wave in perfect synchronization and Mark and I nailed the shot. That is still one of my favourite shots of the trip, a completely unexpected bonus. The rest of the day passed slowly and we headed inshore.

Overnight the sea state worsened and day six was reserved for another land based adventure. We headed off to the Magwa Tea Plantation to view the magnificent Magwa Falls, a 144m high waterfall in the middle of nowhere. This was a real highlight of the trip. The falls are spectacular, and were they located anywhere closer to civilization they would be a major tourist attraction.

Day seven was an exercise in frustration and energy expenditure. Heading out early we found a baitball of red-eye herring in very average visibility. As soon as we jumped in the baitfish sped off and we swam after them as fast as we could. Eventually the fish escaped and we climbed back on the boat and repeated the procedure. Steve and I ended up swimming over 1.8km before the fish co-operated and we could have a dive on a static baitball. The visibility deteriorated steadily and photography became a pointless exercise, but the diving gannets were awesome to watch as they chased down their prey. Later in the day we jumped on a second baitball after Drew and his crew graciously allowed us in on their action, but found the visibility no better. Eventually the water became really murky and I should have known better than to stay, but I was desperate and broke one of my own golden rules about not diving on a baitball in dirty water. I had a moment of distraction fiddling with my camera and as I looked up a brute of a dusky shark was inches from my face and it looked like a nibble on my head was his intention. I brought my camera up quickly and pushed it into his underside. The dusky accelerated over my shoulder and then started to harass Jean-Marie. We quickly decided it was time to get out.

The next morning the sea was monstrous, but Steve was determined to get out and we eventually found ourselves a few kilometers out to sea in a maelstrom of lashing winds, rain and heaving seas. After an few attempts to photograph feeding petrels from the water we called it a day and headed back ashore as the weather became progressively worse.

On day nine the weather gods had still more ammunition in their weather arsenal and another day of terrestrial activities was on the cards. John Costello offered to take us up into the Majola Mountains on a cultural tour to see how the Pondo people lived. A fascinating day was to follow with Jean-Marie in his element as the eminent portrait photographer among us.

The seas were still wild on the morning of day ten, but we launched and headed out. There was no diving to be had however, and it was a slow day on a rough sea. We headed up to the airstrip for a sundowners and a stunning view over the Umzimvubu valley. That night I chatted to Drew Wong and Barry Skinstad, who have done nearly thirty sardine runs between them, and they both offered the opinion that this was the worst year they have had, both in terms of lack of sardines and in terms of bad weather. We still had yet to see a sardine, with almost all the baitballs consisting of red-eye herring. Steve asked us to make a special effort to be early the next morning as he wanted to be the first out. He puts a lot of pressure on himself to get results for his clients and was clearly feeling like he needed to get us on the money shot.

Day eleven dawned brisk (it was two degrees centigrade on the river) and early. We were one of the first boats out and headed straight for the clean water. We found Morne from Shark Explorers on a baitball and jumped on another close by. The water was crystal clean and the action intense. After a while we surfaced and found another baitball, and jumped in again. This was it! Gannets rained down out of the sky and tussled underwater with cormorants trying to steal a meal. Dolphins streaked into the baitball and a few sharks cruised underneath, wary of the divers. The water was the cleanest I have ever had on the sardine run and we were floating in the middle of an “actual” reality BBC documentary… I could almost hear David Attenborough’s voice as the predators threw caution to the wind and charged in. It was impossible to stay out of the baitball as the baitfish tried in vain to use the divers for shelter. I drained my strobe batteries, filled my memory card and sucked a tank dry. We surfaced in jubilation and found that all the other boats were on scene, but this time had played by the rules and were all waiting their turn. Several boats all had a chance to give their divers the experience of a lifetime and then we jumped in again for another go. This time around I had calmed down to a mild panic, knowing that I already had several keepers banked. I took time to frame my shots carefully and looked for unusual action sequences. I tried some wide angle and some tight shots. I played with natural light and strobe lit shots. As with all good things eventually my second and last tank ran dry and time was up. We climbed back on the boat and called it a day.

The following few days were quiet, the sea having calmed down dramatically. All the action was once again in the dirty water and the clean water was like a big blue desert. After the events of day eleven nobody was keen to go back to trying to eke out a few shots in dirty water so it was back to concentrating on the topside shots. We did find a dead gannet floating on the surface with a head injury, most likely from a dive gone wrong. Examining the bird close up, it was suprising how big and heavy these birds are. On the final day with not much happening I had a chance to dive and explore the wreck of the Melliskerk, a world war two casualty that we had found by accident. I brought a few shell casings back for the local museum and that marked the end of Sardine Run 2011.

Although it will not be remembered as one of the better years in the annals of Sardine Run lore, it was for me a more complete experience than that of previous years as I was able to see more of the countryside and people that would have otherwise been possible had the weather been good. We did not see any sardines, we spent quite a few days out of the water, but yet had a phenomenal two weeks and even managed some good images. At the start of this article I likened the Sardine Run to a drug, and said it was addictive. But it’s not the run itself; it’s the place, the people, the whole experience. And come what may I’ll be back next year, I’ve already booked… have you?

Pictures were already posted in the WETPIXEL Photo Gallery Forum

Regards
Jean.

#2 Drew

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Posted 23 November 2011 - 05:28 PM

Nice write up Jean. I wrote something halfway and just gave up. Too lazy with the reviews and all.

One errata: Barry said it was the worst year on his record. But he doesn't count 2003 cos he got the big baitball. I still say 2003 was the worst in terms of activity. Virtually empty seas for 3 weeks, even the commons called to complain!
The conditions were the worst in my experience this year, but the action was there, just spread out and difficult to reach because of the big waves. The herring were all over the place and then the mackerel came. Walter's group and we were on a ball of sardines (albeit VERY small!) about NNE of Mtafufu.
I've always said when conditions are bad, some people will take risks to get in on the action. I thought one of you guys were going to get chowed that day. 1-2m viz? The chances are pretty low still but why take the risk when the pics will stink anyways. Sardine fever is hard to resist since there are only a handful of people who've seen the results of shark bites there, I'm very sober about this.

That day 9 on your trip, there were 10 boats sharing that ball. It was a relief that every one was so nice that day... even the snorkel boats! I've realized the skippers will not intervene with other skippers over action. It's up to the organizers to work it out. The nice thing about knowing most of the guys is there's a respect. And when one of them come through and break the peace, they get fired! You know who I'm talking about.

So wait... so you guys never saw a sardine?!? So what was Steve on about that pic you had of ONE sardine in that ball of herring? :)

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#3 davichin

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Posted 24 November 2011 - 08:46 AM

Great report!

What is the difference between a sardine and a red herring bait ball? Everytime I read about this place people seem to prefer sardines over herring dives :)
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#4 jtresfon

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Posted 24 November 2011 - 10:26 AM

Great report!

What is the difference between a sardine and a red herring bait ball? Everytime I read about this place people seem to prefer sardines over herring dives :)


Well one is made up of sardines and the other of herrings :) ...

The sardine baitballs tend to be more static and the predators seem to prefer them so usually more action. The red-eye can move very quickly if the predation behaviour is not intense. It can be very frustrating to jump, get 30 secs on the baitball, climb back in and repeat over and over.

Jean.

#5 Drew

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Posted 25 November 2011 - 12:38 AM

Sardines (sardinops sagax) pack tighter and the evasive strategy is altogether tighter. Herring tend to hang looser in smaller numbers and scatter faster. They also move faster and handle warmer water better than sardines. Sardines are preferred because of how they pack tighter, so the chances of getting shark predation is higher.

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#6 Steve Williams

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Posted 25 November 2011 - 06:06 AM

Thanks for the great report Jean!

Cheers,
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#7 davichin

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Posted 28 November 2011 - 03:49 PM

Thank you both Jean and Drew!
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#8 Steve Douglas

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Posted 06 December 2011 - 02:15 PM

One of the best and most interesting reports I have read. Been to S. Africa for the Great Whites but never the sardine run...a bucket list item to be sure. Smart move regarding extending your stay from 1 week to 2. You're correct, it is a gamble going there but the payoff can be huge. I'm waiting for Steve Williams to take me on his companion ticket.
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#9 Drew

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Posted 06 December 2011 - 11:11 PM

Oh yes, I've been reminded by the mad scientists friends who analyzed video from over the years, including some of mine, that the herring baitballs move approx. 30% faster.
My own much less scientific estimate is that about 70% of the pictures out from the phenomena since 2005 have been herring baitballs. Only scientists really care and most operators use the word "sardine" for both species. Only the fishermen skippers (who are never in the water) and scientists really care and of course, pedantic types like myself. :D The other issue with identification is that sardines and herring do travel together. So you often find mixed balls, but usually a few sardines in a herring school.

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