The greatest shoal on earth is one of the biggest natural events on the planet. During mid winter off of South Africa’s South Eastern Cape coast around five hundred million sardines congregate and then migrate. This migration see’s them follow the coast all the way to KwaZulu Natal. The warm Agulhas current flowing southwards, passing the KwaZulu Natal coast, means the sardines get closer here to the beach than anywhere else on their journey.
My mid winter trip, during July, to South Africa would give me an opportunity to witness what locals call ‘the sardine run’. Much like game viewing there are no guarantees of seeing sardines. However I took a gamble and booked three nights on the KwaZulu Natal south coast. It would also give me a chance to explore the region and see a more commercial ‘seaside’ stretch of coast.
Basing myself in Margate I thought would give me as good a chance as anywhere else. Research on the internet and regular calls to the ‘sardine hotline’ I hoped would keep me informed of any sightings. I was also encouraged by the adverts on East Coast Radio as I drove down. “They are coming in their millions, silver & ghost like….”
From the breakfast room at Beachcomber Bay guest house I had a great view of the ocean. What was ominous was the amount of seabirds all flying south every morning. The sardines attract vast amounts of predators on the journey including gannets, dolphins and whales. This all adds to the spectacle. Sharon, from Beachcomber Bay, had seen whales breaching during my stay and sardines had been netted off the Margate beaches the week before my arrival.
I decided to head up to Shelly Beach to speak to locals and maybe take a boat trip. Again I was told “last week crates of sardines were netted right here”. I declined the offer a shark cage dive and took the advice of locals. “Head south to Port Edward”.
The news was much the same at Port Edward. Whales had been seen breaching that morning and dolphins were spotted in the surf. However, the sardines are still a long way south.
The general verdict was that it was too warm for the main shoal to head north. It was small splinter shoals that were being seen off various beaches from Port Edward to Durban. Locals also kept telling me it was the coldest winter in years. I listened, wearing my flip-flops, tee shirt and shorts under 23°C of warm sunshine.
Sardines or not the sardine festival goes ahead. From early June to late August there are many events up and down the south coast. The winter sunshine also attracts many visitors from the colder northern regions.
Overall there is a real seaside feel to this area of coast. I visited busy beaches in Margate, Leisure Bay and Ramsgate. I also spent some time on the whale watching tower in Ramsgate, eyes fixed on the sea.
Mpenjate is one of the quieter beaches managed by KZN Wildlife where I found myself sharing the sand with assorted gulls and terns. Umtamvuna & Oribi Gorge Nature reserves are also in close proximity and well worth a visit.
Away from the coast I drove through banana plantations in search of the world’s smallest desert. The Red Desert proved as illusive as the sardines. I even crossed the Mitchell Bridge, leaving KZN, entering the Eastern Cape Wild Coast.
For me there were to be no sardines, or any of their predators. There was however new places to explore and that feeling that only comes from being next to the crashing surf.