The Hunt

[First published in Divestyle magazine]

From the air, a baitball is a patch of bloody water. At its centre is a frenzy of sharks tearing into the sardines rounded up by dolphins. Welcome to the world of those fixated on dropping into the midst of that feast. Welcome to the greatest migration of them all: the KwaZulu-Natal Sardine Run .

Amos Nachoum is seriously pissed off. So is everybody else on the boat. Only, they’re all pissed off with Amos Nachoum. Not that he cares. Or even notices. For this swarthy, greyflecked Israeli is here for a greater purpose than this boatload of tourists. He’s here to film the big animals of the deep. And the big animals of the deep are all here this week. Only Nachoum can’t see them right now. But he knows they’re around somewhere. Consequence: all-round-pissedoffness.

Also in the boat is Tom Fuss. Being a Yank, he’s loud and opinionated. And he’s loudly of the opinion that the show is over. That the thick of the KwaZulu-Natal-coast sardine run is no time to get great photographs. In the early days, he tells anyone who’ll listen, the shark and dolphin the boatload have come to photograph were hungry, they’d herd the sardine into baitballs and tear into them. Now the mass of sardine have arrived and they’ve churned everything up. That’s why the water is so green. It’s too late. The water will not clear. It’s time to go home. Only Tom Fuss doesn’t go home. He stays on one more day. And just one more. Always in hope.

Alfredo of Uncertain Surname is Cuban. And very worried. Not only because he had to sneak out of Cuba illegally to be here, but because he doesn’t have the budget to be hanging around like this, paying for his space on the boat every day but never getting the visuals. Impatiently pushing aside the unruly curls that peek out at all angles from his wetsuit hood, he cross-examines me.

Where exactly did Charles Maxwell get that original footage? What date was it? And how clear was the water really?

There are eight of us on this boat, cruising up and down the Wild Coast off Mkambati, listening in on radioed updates from the air, where microlight ace Rob Allen is cruising at great viewing height. He’s a great aid, having guided us earlier in the day to a pod of over 200 dolphin – beautiful patterned commons – which had whizzed past us eager photographers where the boat had dropped us in the water.

But Allen’s only doing us a favour. He’s here for somebody else’s benefit entirely. The man with the bucks. The man from National Geographic.

David Doubilet has photographed over 40 features for Geographic. He’s a legend in underwater photography circles. A god. And he’s been sent by the Society to document a mass phenomenon that occurs annually on Southern African shores – a migration of immense proportion. A migration that dwarfs its more famous Serengeti counterpart. A migration to which most Southern Africans are oblivious.

Every year in late May or early June, the sardine run takes place off the Wild Coast. We’ve all heard about it; seen the pictures: women wading into the shallows and scooping up skirtfuls of the oily fish, kids jumping in with buckets and spades… But beyond the humour value of these scenes, evidence suggests that there’s a great conservation good-news story.

A northern agulhas shoal of sardine is thriving. One theory is that while its southern counterpart, which once used to migrate up the Cape West coast, was overfished in the ’70s in what was then South West African waters and subsequently died out, this northern shoal has been better protected and seems to be increasing in numbers.

The annual sardine run is, in many ways, not really a migration, but simply a range extension. It’s not that a whole mass of sardines suddenly head off in search of food or shelter, but rather a reflection of the Southern African climate and geological patterns. Prevailing currents move the Callinoides plankton foodsource north at this time of year, and the sardines simply stay with that foodsource. But in many ways this becomes a death knell, for they move into a region where the food is scarce and there are predators aplenty.

As they get further north, they move into an area where starvation is a constant problem for their predators, these millions of symbolically tightly-packed fish are forced by geography to be prey. The shallow water of that coast (often less than 10m) ensures they’re wedged between surface and bottom, and on the one side they’re hemmed in by the surf zone, by predators on the other.

This is great news for predators of the human kind: the fishing industry. Local dive tour operator Mark Addison points out the story of the copper bream on the Tsitsikamma coast. With its breeding epicentre now protected, this specie is increasing in number, offering great fishing opportunities laterally, where record catches are being reported.

But greater than the fishing opportunity is the potential tourism drawcard, if handled responsibly. It’s not really about the sardines. A whole spate of other migrations are now being noticed simultaneously. Are they a direct consequence of the sardine migration? Often the evidence is only anecdotal. But no matter. The northern movement of these millions of little fish sees a simultaneous movement of shark, dolphins, gannets, seals and whales. And we’re not just talking a few dozen at a time.

One day in June this year, Rob Allen took his microlight up to 20 000ft above a pod of common dolphin and yet could not see the start nor end of it. He reckons there must have been 20 000 creatures flying through the water below him. Common dolphin generally spend their time off PE and East London, where there are plenty of tasty squid, their favourite food, to snack on. But with the currents bringing kilometres-long shoals of sardines up north, the commons follow.

These dolphin, reckons Addison, the man Doubilet is trusting to find him the action, “are the hard workers in the equation.” Addison has long been passionate about this annual migration. Doubilet, he says, has been bitten by the same bug.

“One day we had eight bait balls at the same time. It was insane.” What they saw few others will have been lucky enough to experience. But it’s what we were there for: common dolphins chasing up sardines from 80m below the surface, working together to herd and then trap the sardine in a “bubblenet” seen up top as white froth around a bloodied ball of sardines.

The commons having done all the hard work, now all the other predators jump into the fray. “Up to that point, everyone was goofing off having a great day on the ocean.” Others quick to jump on the bandwagon are the seals, which appeared by the hundred this year, as opposed to the few of previous years. “The fact that bulls are coming too means there’s a very good food source for them.”

Our skipper guides the boat over to a raft of the things, lying sunning themselves on the surface, limbs out of the water. “Oh cute,” gush two of the women on the boat. But Amos Nachoum, Tom Fuss and the Cuban are not here to photograph seals. They want to see shark. They want bait balls.

Instead, we mill about on the surface, ocassionally plopping into the pea soup to see if we can spy any action. We know that the sardines run thick below us. But it’s not the sardines we’re actually here for either. It’s the big animals these guys want.

I, on the other hand, am fascinated by the surface activity. Gannets are here by the drove, keeping up a dive-bombing routine that puts any of the action in Pearl Harbour to shame. Squadron after squadron lets fly into the water.

There will be fatalities. Some will break their necks as they dive and swim down to as much as 17m. Others, through continual diving, might burst the sclera around their eyes, and will be die of blind hunger. Addison, the master of the sound bite, sums it up so well: “The gannet is the boxer of the sea. He takes the punches, but as a survival strategy, this is a poor one. What a tragic end to a high flyer.”

Fortunately, like the sardines, there are lots more where those came from. Or, as Addison puts it so aptly: “Through high fecundity, they compensate for lack of feeding ingenuity.”

Watching these birds – the kamikaze gannets, as well as the black browed and yellow nosed albatrosses, the Wilson storm and white chinned petrel – I’m inspired to be back next year for topside pics. Grainy black-and-whites, perhaps. With lenses aplenty. Some to get in up close and personal on all that dive bomb action. Others for the awesome landscape that is the view of the shore from five kays out.

Suddenly I’m part of the migration myself. Part of the image-hunting crowd that has tasted this mass movement and has to have more. Who simply cannot nor wants to avoid the compulsion, but will keep hanging around to sate its appetite on one of the greatest migrations on earth.

Yes, today we have some great experiences. We swim with humpback whales. (Actually, that is a bit of an exaggeration again. We plop into the water ahead of the bulky swimmers and they simply charge past us, metres away, leaving us with only a glimpse of a dark moving wall of grey, and the sound of roaring lion.)

I have my little Sea&Sea camera – it’s a great little point-and-shoot that you can take down to 30m – in hand, and I’m becoming like the rest of them: if I didn’t get the pic, the event didn’t happen. I was within half a metre of a humpback, but I didn’t get the pic.

And I never see a bait ball. I get back to the beach exhilarated and disappointed.

Later I’ll chat to Addison on the phone. He’s so excited, he hardly stops for breath. This year he saw a white humpback – while there’s a four-percent albinism in the Southern Right population, he’s not seen an albino humpback before. And he saw ragged tooth shark lunge feeding – something he’d believed them to do but had never seen. (This is a man infamous for feeding shark at Aliwal; a man who knows more than most about shark eating patterns).

A few days later, a voice mail message from Nachoum: the water did clear. The guys who stayed on did find the baitballs. He did get the shots.

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