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South African Sardine Run by Walter Bernardis

CREDIT: DEPTH Magazine - https://depth-magazine.com/magazine/sept_2021_insert/sept_2021.html & Walter Bernardis

The Sardine Run On The South African Wild Coast

I’m Walter Bernardis, and I was bullied into writing this article by Jill Holloway. We have known each other since 1996, when I introduced her to the Giant Brindles on the Produce Wreck, but that’s another story in itself.

I have dived all over the world with giant Great Whites in Guadalupe, Tiger sharks on Aliwal Shoal in South Africa, Bulls and Whites feeding on a dead whale and Crocs in the Okavango Delta feeding on a dead cow’s carcass, but nothing has challenged my will to get in the water like the Sardine Run.

Imagine this: it’s a beautiful day and the sea is all calm, flat and clean. The ocean looks empty, nothing going on. Then the radio crackles to life: “Valdez, Valdez, come in for Sparrow.” All our boats are named after maritime disasters, mine being abbreviated from the Exxon Valdez.

The voice sounds excited. I quickly push the send button; “Sparrow Sparrow, Valdez go.” Sparrow is our micro light pilot, and the value of having him in the air spotting for us has just hit home.

“Valdez, we got a bait ball off Suez, looking really big. What’s your position? Over.” All our locations are given by code so that any opposition listening in on their scanners doesn’t benefit from our info.

“Sparrow I’m off Normans; will be in your location in 15 minutes”. Everybody puts their gear in front of them: fins, mask and weight belt all ready for quick deployment. Having fixed the coordinates, given by Sparrow…the race is on!

In the distance, I can see Sparrow circling in his micro light; “Valdez Valdez, it looks like a massive bait ball; the predators are radiating into it from everywhere, hundreds of dolphins, sharks and three Bryde’s whales in the action.”

The more I hear, the faster I go! As we arrive, it’s difficult to describe the spectacle that is unfolding before our eyes.

Imagine a tornado, but instead of sucking up, it’s blowing down. It’s literally raining birds, Cape Gannets to be exact, and thousands of them. The sound they are making is deafening; their aeronautical prowess and display leaves you awestruck. Your vision is forced to the focal point where these thousands of birds are hitting the water, which looks like a white bull’s-eye mark.

On the surface, the sardines are shaking like they’re in a giant frying pan, being forced up by the fish below them and those below them again. Sharks are sweeping through them, jaws wide and mouthes open, snapping and swallowing mouthfuls of sardines. Dolphins are putting on an aerial display, flying into the air and then diving back into the fray. Suddenly, like a mini submarine, a Bryde’s whale breaks the surface through the bait ball, its huge mouth open and trapping thousands of sardines in one swallow. We’ve taken all this in with a quick glance. Sparrow keeps us updated with reports from the air; “Valdez there are hundreds of sharks, birds and dolphins

moving in from everywhere and they are big.” Some of these sharks have a diameter of more than 1.2 meters, add on a meter for the pectoral fin on each side and it starts looking like an airplane. Time to get in…..

The boat is quiet; everybody anticipating what is going to happen when we get into the water. Will we be accepted as another predator or seen as competition, or worse, as food? These are tense moments. There are final checks on our gear and down we go. What an unbelievable show unfolds right in front of us. The sardines are being bunched together to form a bait ball, mainly due to the dolphins hard at work using their sonar pings, bubbles and body positions to keep them in a tight ball formation.

The dolphins mount coordinated attack after attack on the bait ball, with the sharks joining in haphazardly. Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I catch this huge shadow, and as I turn towards it, I see it is one of the huge Bryde’s whales cruising past me, like the Starship Enterprise, mouth open and scooping up a large part of the bait ball. I’m awestruck and I don’t know where to look; there’s so much going on, I’m part of it, you can hear it, you can feel it and this must be one of the most exhilarating feelings there is.

Cylinders almost empty we, make our way back to the surface, get on the boat and ponder what just happened, what we were so privileged to be accepted into and be a part of, a feeling that is difficult to describe but one of the most intense I’ve ever had. It’s moments like this when you feel alive and privileged to be one of the few that have experienced raw nature in real life.

We base ourselves in a quaint rural town called Mbotyi. A more beautiful setting you won’t find. There are at least six different waterfalls within easy reach of our base, Mbotyi River Lodge, which also hosts the largest subtropical coastal forest, forming a border between the Cape Mediterranean climate and the subtropical climate of Kwazulu Natal.

The Sardine Run happens every year between June and July, and of course, it’s not always like that. Some years, the sea life does not form bait balls, but the food is there, and the dolphins, whales and sea birds are there. If you have never dived this amazing event, it’s worth a visit any time between June and July. Take a look at this video by Mark Gottleib, who came in a bad year.
The Sardine Run depends on the water temperatures: the availability of food; and whether the cold water wells up from the deep at all, bringing the plankton-rich nutrients into the Agulhas current. This in turn determines how many sardines will storm up the coast from the Southern Ocean in the great migration up the East Coast of Africa.

It happens at the same time as the humpback migration, and we have recently had individual humpbacks stopping to interact with divers, anything from five minutes to five hours. Southern rights, pilot whales and a huge influx of dolphins, sometimes in the thousands, move into this area in anticipation of the feast that’s on its way. Due to the large numbers of whales and dolphins that move into this area, we also have orca that feed on dolphin and juvenile humpbacks during this period.

Birds abound, from cape gannets, petrels, skua and albatross and we can see from the different hunting techniques the birds employ what bait fish they are hunting. There are not only sardines in the ocean. The bait fish species include mackerel, red eye and a host of other bait fish that are moving up the coast at the same time as the sardines. We modify our diving accordingly; for a small bait ball, we drop only a few divers so that we do not frighten off the predators. If we interfere, the bait disperses and so do the sharks, dolphins and whales. We try not to interrupt the way these animals act together to frighten the bait fish into bait balls.

If the action is mobile, then the ocean is moving and there is a lot of jumping in and out, so a bit of gym training is not a bad idea before you come.

During the Sardine Run, most of the diving centers on the East Coast pack up their boats, leave their operations and travel down to the Wild Coast, where the demand for boats is at its highest. My show, “African Watersports,” is based in Mbotyi for the run, and we have done this dive for the last 30 years.

This is the South African winter, so you should bring a warm jacket and a 5- to 7-millimeter wetsuit with a hoodie. Please do not come if you are not a strong swimmer no matter what your grade. Do not come if you are a nervous diver, or if you are scared of sharks. You cannot dive with us without your C Cards, and Advanced Divers qualification is recommended. Make sure you have done more than 100 dives. Bring your own dive gear, meaning no brightly-colored gear (fins especially should not be white or silver). Black gloves are also recommended, as are a good mask, snorkel and windbreaker (jacket).

We supply a 10-, 12- or 15-liter cylinder and weights.

Book for at least two weeks and either spend both on the Sardine Run or a week on the Run and a week in one of our famous safari lodges photographing our big five lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo - to round your African experience off.

Fly to King Shaka airport in Durban and then transfer by car to Mbotyi 5- to 6-Hours’ Drive. Air travel is possible for those with the budget.

We can book you into Mbotyi River Lodge, where most of our divers stay.

africanwatersports.co.za

Cost: +/- $2500 US All 7-day packages Arrive on day one, spend five days (minimum five hours per day) at sea and leave on day seven.

Typical day:

• 6.30 breakfast
• 7:00 return to room to get into wetsuit and walk down to beach
• 7:30-8:00 launch boats, lunch pack included; look for action
• 13:00 return to base (beach)
• 15:00 afternoon excursion

What’s included in your package:

• Cylinder and weight belt
• Dedicated micro light spotter plane and pilot
• Paramedic on site 24 hours
• Boat, skipper and divemaster
• All meals and accommodation
• Excursions to waterfalls

Mark Gottlieb, Entrepreneur

Mark Gottlieb has been an entrepreneur most of his life. His first major company was DesignTech International, which produced more than $125 million in consumer electronic products. Mostly automotive and telephone accessories. His last company was LogicMark, LLC, which produced a line of personal emergency response systems for the home healthcare market. This company received the honor of making the INC 500/5000 awards the last two years for its record growth before Gottlieb sold the company in 2011.

Gottlieb has earned two masters’ degrees from Stanford University: one in Engineering Management (IE) and the other in Product Design (ME). After graduate school, Gottlieb worked as a consultant for SRI International and taught as an associate professor at George Washington University. He has been awarded 29 U.S. patents. Gottlieb is active in the angel investing area, supporting and mentoring several startups. He has several other board positions and is also active in the community. Gottlieb lives in Fairfax Station, Virginia with his wife Sharon. They have four children and eight grandchildren.

Allen D. Walker, Photographer

I believe images of beauty and creativity will have a far better impact on the drive for conservation than ones showing human destruction.

Behind the scenes, I work hard to ensure that conservation issues close to the heart are supported in the best way I can, be this through assistance, imagery, sponsorship or direct involvement. I do, however, believe that it is important to address issues on our doorstep first! In this way we learn, and we can then help others address conservation issues in their spheres.

I try to highlight the beauty of the ocean and the need for its conservation by using my photography skills to show the animals that people fear and kill in a different light, to create beauty, to create compassion and, most importantly, to show human interaction with these magnificent animals so that there is a sense of connection to the viewer. It is not just in humanity’s interest to protect, conserve and find more efficient ways to use the limited resources on our planet entrusted upon us, but it is the key to our future survival!
WHY DO DIVERS JOIN DAN?

DAN members have a passion for the water, a quest for knowledge and love of community. They love being part of something bigger. You can join nearly 500,000 divers worldwide and experience valuable benefits to make you a safer, smarter diver.

Divers Alert Network (DAN) is the world’s most recognised and respected dive safety organisation comprised of dive professionals and medical experts dedicated to supporting divers. Through research, medical services, educational programs and global response initiatives

For over 20-years, DAN has created an extensive network capable of providing divers around the world with vital services. Everyday divers rely upon DAN for dive safety information and health guidance. They know that in event of emergency, we’ll be there for them - no matter where adventure takes them.

For over 20-years DAN has been helping divers and we will continue to cultivate a culture of dive safety! Join DAN today and be part of the largest dive safety community.

THREE REASONS WHY PEOPLE JOIN DAN?

CALL & ASSIST


Most divers realise that diving is an adventure sport that may result in injuries as such they want the peace of mind that, in case of a diving emergency, there is a 24-hour hotline to call with membership benefits for the medical services they will need.

COST SAVING

DAN membership is not expensive by most standards. Diving medical advice is offered free of charge and is available 24/7/365. Membership benefits are secondary to any primary medical insurance and include diving medical and travel related cover that are also extremely affordable and very competitive. DAN members also have access to discounts on safety and educational materials.

CULTURE OF CARE

Many divers like being part of an organisation that is so obviously committed towards their safety. Apart from being available as a diving emergency and diving-medical-information line, DAN is always actively campaigning for safety, initiating and supporting safety initiatives, and finding practical ways to make diving safer and more enjoyable.

DAN is a very personal organisation. Callers quickly learn that DAN is not an “institution”; it is a living and vibrant organisation. In many ways, DAN members feel that they are becoming part of a “family” who look out for one another “divers helping divers” as we always like to say.

So, many divers just seem to like the idea of being part of something worthwhile and they are willing to give up some of their discretionary income to be a part of it.

That being said, it is also common knowledge that DAN offers top-rated services and has an exceptional network of experienced diving medical professionals. One call to the DAN hotline and divers find themselves talking to a professional diving doctor who “speaks their language”. This is truly something special. With access to so many likeminded people, DAN is able to arrange evacuation by land, sea or sky if required and help injured divers gain access to specialised medical treatment facilities such as recompression chambers.

In a nutshell! DAN members help support a 24-hour hotline. This hotline offers access to specialists trained in diving medicine and is freely available to members with a diving-related query. The DAN hotline can be called 24/7/365 by a member worldwide in the event of a dive emergency. DAN membership subscription contributes towards the 24-hour emergency and information line. The emergency and diving-medical-information line is freely available to DAN members. So members can call for medical advice on any topic to do with diving or ask to be referred to a health professional knowledgeable in diving medicine.

SO WHY JOIN DAN?

When you support DAN, you support the organisation’s ongoing efforts to reduce dive injuries and improve first response and medical treatment. One hundred percent of DAN’s profits are reinvested in research, medical services and programs that make diving safer for all divers. As a diver, you need DAN and DAN needs you.

DAN offers comprehensive plans that provide protection and peace-of-mind in the event of a dive accident for far less than the cost of an unplanned event.

DAN’s dive accident cover plans are recognised worldwide providing secondary coverage of up to R800,000 and paying 100% of eligible expenses.

DAN DIVE COVER VS. MEDICAL INSURANCE

It is true that some medical insurance include cover for diving injuries. However, divers who have tried to go this route soon discover that it is not easy to work with a medical insurance when trying to organise an emergency evacuation for a diving injury. That is simply not the time to discover that your medical insurance is not able to assist you in getting the most appropriate treatment or advice. Their convenient 0800 toll-free number doesn’t work in Zanzibar and even in South Africa, working your way through a multi-prompt menu from a cell phone is not what you need in a crisis. Also, getting documented authorisations takes time and nearly all private emergency service providers now insist on a written Guarantee of Payment (GOP) before responding. That is not surprising given that most aeromedical evacuations in Africa come in at R200 000 or more and even evacuations by ambulance approach R20 000 plus when advanced life support services are involved. Evacuations are costly. Recompression, on the other hand, is not that expensive in Africa. In the rest of the World, it may set you back about R100 000, but in South Africa the cost is usually under R20 000 unless multiple treatments are needed. However, if evacuation and hospitalisation are called for, the costs can be very high.

As a DAN member, all these concerns disappear. One number and you have all the help and cover you need for a diving emergency. The travel and medical benefits are an added bonus, but don’t tear up your medical insurance card just yet. So, should a diver have a medical insurance or be a DAN member? A diver should have both!

WHAT DO YOU RECEIVE WHEN YOU JOIN DAN?

  • Medical Dive Accident - Up to R800,000
  • Cover Evacuation - Real Expenses
  • Assistance International Non-Diving - Up to R800,000
  • Cover Personal Liability - Up to R2,000,000
  • Depth Limit - 40 meters
  • Cover for freedivers & spearfishermen

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