The sardine run is one of the largest natural phenomena in the world, though not many people know about it. You can experience it, though you do need one kind of animal to make it happen for you: dolphins.

There is amazing footage of this event; s swirling mass of fish that is attacked by dolphins, sharks and birds. Those fish are sardines and you can see this spectacle off the Wild Coast of South Africa. But it requires a certain set of circumstances for it to happen. So to witness it you have to head out to sea in an agile zodiac (boat), wearing a wetsuit to keep you warm in the cold water.

Divers getting ready to take the plunge.
Divers getting ready to take the plunge. Corno van den Berg

The sardine run is relatively unknown. This is because it cannot be planned. The only time it could happen is in June and July, because that’s wintertime and the cold plays and important role. It takes place where the cold currents from Antarctica hit the African continent. Sardines like cold water, and normally live at around 80 metres deep.

The sardine run can occur, but it could just as well not happen at all. So the weather gets monitored daily in the popular seaside towns of Coffee Bay near Port St Johns. The cold weather will bring out the sardines, which is a boon for the dolphins.

A pod of bottlenose dolphins in action.
A pod of bottlenose dolphins in action. Corno van den Berg

It starts with dozens of northern gannets (sea birds) that dive bomb from the sky. Just before they hit the water, they fold in their wings, and enter the water to catch the fish that swim near the surface. Suddenly there’s commotion all over, dolphins are everywhere. In the background you can see wales. This could be it: the ‘bait ball’. It’s an eating frenzy that’s almost unequalled.

Once the sardine run begins, you can enter the water, but only under strict supervision. This goes for divers as well as snorkelers. Because when the bait ball begins there is action everywhere: hordes of dolphins, sharks, wales and birds chase after the sardines. Thankfully enough of them escape to ensure there will be another sardine run the next year…

A whale emerges from the water.
A whale emerges from the water. Corno van den Berg

Please note:

The sardine run experience isn’t for everyone. You will spend days on the water in cold temperatures, in the wind, sometimes in rough waves, the water is cold, and more of that sort of thing. But you do get a unique experience in return: a swirling show of unrivalled action courtesy of Mother Nature. But only if luck is on your side.

Diving Snorkling