The Sardine Run, the greatest shoal on Earth


Dubbed ‘the greatest shoal on Earth’, the sardine run sees thousands upon thousands of silvery fish making their way up the South African coastline every winter. This annual migration has its starting block in the cool waters of the Atlantic Ocean, off the country’s west coast. Once the starting gun has gone off, sardines race along a cool-water highway to the finish line, located somewhere off the east coast in a much warmer Indian Ocean.  “Sardine Fever” is a term used to describe the frantic behaviour of people involved in the sardine run. Inshore currents, the narrow continental shelf, as well as predator herding, sometimes causes sardines to beach, and beaching leads to “Sardine Fever”.

The sardine run of southern Africa occurs from May through July when billions of sardines – or more specifically the Southern African pilchard Sardinops sagax – spawn in the cool waters of the Agulhas Bank and move northward along the east coast of South Africa. Their sheer numbers create a feeding frenzy along the coastline. The run, containing millions of individual sardines, occurs when a current of cold water heads north from the Agulhas Bank up to Mozambique where it then leaves the coastline and goes further east into the Indian Ocean.


In terms of biomass, researchers estimate the sardine run could rival East Africa’s great wildebeest migration. However, little is known of the phenomenon. It is believed that the water temperature has to drop below 21°C in order for the migration to take place. The shoals are often more than 7 km long, 1.5 km wide and 30 meters deep and are clearly visible from spotter planes or from the surface.  Sardines group together when they are threatened. This instinctual behaviour is a defence mechanism, as lone individuals are more likely to be eaten than large groups.


Dolphins (estimated as being up to 18,000 in number, mostly the Common Dolphin, but also the Bottlenose Dolphin) are largely responsible for rounding up the sardines into bait balls. These bait balls can be 10–20 metres in diameter and extend to a depth of 10 metres. The bait balls are short lived and seldom last longer than 10 minutes. Once the sardines are rounded up, sharks (primarily the Bronze Whaler, but also Dusky Shark, Grey Nurse Shark, Blacktip Shark, Spinner Shark and Zambezi Shark), game fish (including Shad/Elf a.k.a. Bluefish, King Mackerel, various kingfish species, Garrick, Geelbek and Eastern Little Tuna) and birds (like the Cape Gannet, cormorants, terns and gulls) take advantage of the opportunity.  Cape Fur Seals follow the shoals up the Eastern Cape coastline as far as Port St Johns.


The Wild Coast, situated in the far corner of South Africa’s Eastern Province, is an undiscovered jewel where natural beauty and cultural heritage come together for a unique travel experience. This part of South Africa is also referred to as frontier country on account of the many wars fought by Europeans against the proud amaXhosa that inhabit the region. Historically the amaXhosa were cattle herders and subsistence farmers. Indeed little has changed along the wild coast as mud-hut homesteads and Nguni cattle still dot the rolling green hillsides between the mighty Drakensberg Mountains and the warm Indian Ocean. In recent times the region in and around the Wild Coast has produced a handful of great South African leaders like Oliver Tambo, Thabo Mbeki and South Africa’s greatest hero, Nelson Mandela.


Previously known during the apartheid times as the Transkei, the name has been replaced by the more descriptive “Wild Coast”, a testament to the many ships wrecked off it’s treacherous shore.  During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the early Portuguese explorers lost dozens of ships on the rocky cliffs of the Wild Coast as they sailed the strong trade winds back from the east.  The survivors, often without any hope of ever making it back home, were assimilated into the Xhosa tribes leaving behind legendary tales and myths among that people that still linger today in the story-lines of the elderly.  One such wreck, the St. Jao (or St. John), a Portuguese galleon laden with jewels and gold, was wrecked in the area.  The main wreck was never found and the handful of survivors trekked 2000kms north enduring much hardship until they reached the small Portuguese outpost somewhere in present-day Mozambique where the last stragglers were picked up and sent home.  The wreck however has since given its name to the small town of Port St Johns at the mouth of the Umzimvubu River.  Give us a call at Road Travel to find out more about the area, things to do, places to stay and prices to expect.  We look forward to being of assistance.

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