Over the past few years I have been leading expeditions to South Africa’s annual Sardine Run with Blue Wilderness. This year, as we prepare once again to travel to the wild coast and tackle the Sardine Run, I thought it would be useful to reflect on past expeditions and give a few insights into which explorers had the top expeditions and why. This may help those of you considering to join us be a little more prepared and get the most out of the expedition.
Manage your expectations.
If there is one thing I could stress over and over again, it is this – manage your own expectations. Many people travel annually to the Sardine Run, in search for that perfect bait ball, clear water, millions of sardines, sharks, gannets, dolphins and whales. This outcome is very rare, and is why BBC’s The greatest shoal on earth was filmed over 2 years and 100 days at sea. The sardine run is an event in its entirety; it is a unique time when marine predators migrate to the inshore coastal waters of the wild coast in search for schools of sardines and other bait fish. Guests can enjoy diving with humpback whales, swimming with dolphins, watching gannets plummet into the water and all the other incredible sights associated with the sardine run.
If you rely solely on diving with an awesome bait ball, and sacrifice enjoying all the other aspects of the run, you may easily be disappointed. Getting onto great bait balls is the end objective, but in reality, the likelihood of achieving this on any expedition is 30-40%.
However, even if you don’t achieve it this time, you can still enjoy an incredible experience if you tackle the sardine run with the correct mind set. Eat, Sleep and Rest. You see, the Sardine run is not to be taken lightly, we spend up to 8 hours in the water each day. This takes a massive toll on your body, and to keep on enjoying it you need all your physical and mental strength. Don’t be fooled and perceive the Sardine Run expedition as a chance to party in the evenings and play in the day, take every chance you can get to sleep and power to the end!
Learn the signs
You will often see your guides and skippers conferring up the front of the boat about the best course of action, good ones will also include you in the discussion, explaining the signs they are watching out for and the thoughts behind their actions. Be proactive and include yourself in these discussions. Ask questions so you can read the signs and gain greater understanding of animal behaviour. By doing this, you will become closer to nature.
Even on warm days, the constant exposure to the elements will drop your core body temperature during time at sea and over multiple days this loss of body heat will become quicker. From day one focus on staying warm and maintain your body whenever you can. Wear warms hats, extra jackets and try to dry off between bouts of jumping in and out of the water. When you return to land, enjoy the hot showers and food. Relax in warm clothing allowing your core body temperature to restore.
Listen to your guides and skipper, and when they say go, – go!
Okay, this sounds like an obvious one, but experience showed me that many sardine run explorers struggle to adapt to the speed of the sardine run, particularly getting on and off the vessels. The guides are all vastly experienced, and are searching for that moment when everything comes together and you get to experience diving on an incredible bait shoal. The timing to get onto these events is critical and when a guide tells you to get in the water quickly, that means jump! You may only get a single chance to get onto an awesome bait ball, and you don’t want to miss this once in a life time opportunity! Also, that means having your gear ready and close to you at all times!
Enrich your sardine run
Many hours are spent on the water trolling away in the hope of getting onto something incredible. The way you spend this time will have a massive impact on your sardine run experience as a whole. Get involved, engage your guides and fellow passengers and have fun. If you want to stop to do a backflip off the boat, do it! If you have a million questions for the guides, there is no better time to start asking!
Take a few minutes for bathroom needs before heading out to sea for the day. The boats on the sardine run are small, light, fast and designed to chase down the sardine bait balls. They don’t have on-board bathrooms, so take a few minutes and ensure that you don’t have an uncomfortable day!
Cameras are a must, but unless you are a professional photographer or videographer, big cameras and housings can become a real pain on the sardine run for everyone involved, due to the space they take up and the speed at which you can enter the water and follow a bait ball. Try to keep your media equipment small and light, a gopro hero3 black is about as perfect as you can get for 90% of sardine run explorers! (Just remember to bring extra battery packs and charge it in the evenings!)
Don’t underrate free diving!
Many of the bait balls can be species such as redeye, a notoriously fast moving shoal. For these types of encounters, it is by far the most rewarding to experience them whilst free diving, as you are quick in and out of the water, and you can swim after the bait balls if they are moving. If the bait ball stabilises and looks good for SCUBA, it is easy to get the vessels over to you and get them to pass down your SCUBA kit.
Have the time of your life!
Really, when else would you get the chance to chase the greatest marine event in the world? This is the most challenging, rewarding and incredible expeditions many of us will ever experience. Yes, there will be hard times, but there will also be wonderful times and if everything comes together, you will get to witness something few people can even imagine bearing witness to. Never forget this and even during the times when things are a little cold and hard, keep the chin up and don’t forget where you are and what you are doing!
There you have it; these are little things that can make a massive difference to any Sardine run expedition! I hope you get to join us this year for an epic adventure of a lifetime!
Want to join us on this year’s adventure to the Wild Coast? Click here for more information.
Blogger Profile – Ryan Johnson
Ryan is founder of Oceans Campus. He is a frequent host on wildlife documentaries for broadcasters including National Geographic and Discovery Channel. Ryan also instructs the wildlife film-making course at Africa Media.