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Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The greatest shoal on Earth.

Here in KwaZuluNatal we are getting ready for the annual sardine run. This is not some strange race, but shoals of sardines which move up the coast. These tiny fish, about 9 inches long at their longest move up the KZN coast in the millions, if not billions.

Sardines, Sardinops sagax, are cold water fish living in the cold waters of the southern and western Cape coast of South Africa. The Western Cape fishing industry nets about 200,000 tons of these fish annually. During the winter months when the water off the KZN coast cools down, a part of these great shoals migrate up the eastern coast. Why they do this is not clear, there is seemingly no gain in it for them. Yet year after year they come, some years there are less and some years more, but always they come.

These shoals of sardines are followed by thousands of game fish, sharks, dolphins and seals. Great flocks of sea birds also follow these fish, gannets, cormorants and gulls. The game fish, sharks, dolphins and seals attack the sardines from the sides and from below, while the birds dive into them by the thousands from above.

On the shore the human predators are waiting for them. As soon as they are within a couple of hundred meters from the beach small boats go out to surround them with nets. These nets are then pulled in by men standing on the beach. Often these fish are pushed in so close to the shore by game fish, sharks and dolphins, that they beach themselves. This is when the so called sardine fever breaks out.

No one is immune, man, woman, child, of every race, creed and language is infected. Every one rushes into the waves, fully clothed,even shoes are not spared, with any kind of container that can be used to scoop up the fish. No one cares that the sharks have followed the small fish right into the surf zone, sharks and humans ignore each other. There is only one goal, to gorge on the sardines, scoop up as many as you can. When I lived on the coast even I got infected with sardine fever, there is no cure, and no resistance possible. Fortunately it's not fatal. (The first sardine in the pan, frying in some garlic butter, eases the symptoms).

The first pilot shoals have arrived on the KZN south coast and the first sardines netted, a basket of sardines selling for R600, about US$90 (there is a kind of snob value being able to say you got some of the first sardines of the season)(Humans are strange creatures). The newspapers, radio and TV report on the progress of the shoals. When they get close, any one who lives close enough, drops everything and heads for the beach.

In terms of Biomass these sardine shoals could rival the great wildebeest migrations of East Africa. The shoals can be 7 kilometres long, 1.5 kilometres wide, and about 30 metres deep. It is said that they can be seen from outer space.

In recent years this spectacle has become a major tourist attraction with visitors from every corner of the globe. Special boat excursions are organised to follow the shoals and some brave (maybe foolhardy?) souls even dive, with scuba gear, to watch the sharks and game fish attacking the sardines.

One of the great wonders of God's creation.

Google; sardine run KZN South Coast, for more.


Desiree said...

Wonderfully enlightening account of the exact nature of these sardine runs, Phillip. It must be quite a sight to behold.

e.m.b. said...

Wow! What an interesting thing, is nature...and how brilliantly told!

Gaelyn said...

Although I don't care to eat sardines I'd love to see the frenzy by all the other animals, land, air and water.

Kay L. Davies said...

The only sardines I've ever tasted were in cans. These, freshly fried in garlic butter, have got to be MUCH much better.
It does sound like The Greatest Shoal on Earth, I love your title for this very interesting story, Phillip.
— K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

Gorges Smythe said...

Like Ms. Davies, I've never tasted sardines that didn't come from a can. I didn't like them when I was kid, but I do now.