Words: Raggy Charters
It is extremely difficult for us who know what is currently taking place, to remain on land. The past two weeks of excellent weather has resulted in us imagining we were on board one of our vessels, picturing the glassy water, being disturbed only by an abundance of marine life, engaged in a feeding frenzy of immense proportions. Of course, I am talking about the Sardine Run. For those that do not know. The sardine run is a phenomenon that begins on the Agulhas Bank in the waters off the Southern Cape of South Africa with the recruitment and growth of juvenile sardines and anchovies. Sometime In the month of March, the sardines and anchovies start making their way towards us in the Eastern Cape. They need cool water, so as it moves up the coast in an easterly direction, they move with it. It is not only these two species in the run, but saury, maasbanker and red-eye round herring as well.
The winter run is a reproductive migration rather than a feeding one. Reason being is that there is very little food available for them after they pass Algoa Bay and East London by the end of June. Luckily for us it seems that the bait fish are “held” for a while in Algoa Bay due to the two upwelling hotspots in our area. The sheering effect of the Agulhas Current and Easterly winds in summer drive this process. Nutrient rich waters are brought up from the depths, which in turn create phytoplankton and thus zooplankton blooms. This is what the sardines, anchovies, and other baitfish target. Unfortunately for them, just about every other predator in the sea is close on their heels, namely Bryde’s and Minke whales, Long-beaked common dolphins, African penguins, Cape gannets and various other seabirds, seals, sharks and gamefish. Although daunting for the bait fish, experiencing this feeding frenzy from a small (20-seater) and maneuverable boat is often the highlight of our year.
The few remaining fish that make it past the Transkei coast eventually reach KZN. Some are chased into the shallows by predators and end up on the beaches, much to the delight of the locals. Scientists have recorded both sardine eggs and larvae off KZN. It is likely that these are swept Westwards by the Agulhas Current and end up back on the Agulhas Bank and start the whole process all over again. It is not sure what exactly happens to the adults after they spawn, but they probably ended up in the deeper cooler water further off the coast.
When we head out in search of sardine run action there are two predators in our area that lend us a helping hand, namely Cape Gannets and Long Beaked common Dolphins. Fortunately for us we do not have a shortage of cape Gannets as Bird Island at far Eastern end of Algoa bay is home to approximately 270 000 gannets. These birds are often the first sign of action as a decent number of them diving for prey can be spotted from several miles away. Generally, as you approach closer to the feeding Gannets you then notice the Common Dolphins keeping the shoal of fish under control close to the surface. It is during moments like this that you can quickly rack up a long list of species sighted in a short period of time. Sitting here I can clearly picture the sight and deafening sound of Gannets diving from above, common dolphins chasing, seals porpoising or chewing a catch, sharks swimming open-mouthed at the surface, Bryde’s whales lunging and record breaking smiles on board.
With so much happening around the boat photographing and ensuring that your guests see the most spectacular “mini-events” is tricky business. An example of such an ‘event’ would be a Brydes Whales Lunge feeding. As a guide you want to make sure that your guests are looking in the right direction at the right time. And as a photographer you want to capture the most memorable moments so you can reflect on them when there is a nationwide ‘Lock- down’. Luckily there are some natural signs that give you a heads up. When observing a bait-ball in Algoa Bay there will nearly always be a few Cape-Cormorants on the scene. These birds generally position themselves on the water directly above the ball of fish where they can make short dives to feed. When there are Bryde’s whales in the area, the cormorants are the ones you need to keep your eye on. When a Bryde’s whale races up towards the fish to take a mouthful, just before the whale engulfs the fish and breaks the surface, the cormorants all scatter to safety. This gives you just enough time to lift your camera and draw your guests attention to the right spot.
For the time being, looking at these pictures, studying past encounters for sightings we might have missed, and reading books of marine life feels like a good way to pass the time during this lock-down. We always learn new things when we head out to sea, I think it’s important that we try to keep that up while we are stuck at home.
(Note: WCA partners are welcome to join Raggy Charters on a cruise at no charge! Give us a call when you’re in Port Elizabeth)
To find out more about Raggy Charters visit their website: https://www.raggycharters.co.za/