South Africa Sardine Migration Draws Crowds

Leon Marshall
for National Geographic News
July 16, 2002
Like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and the migration of
the wildebeest across the Serengeti in east Africa, the annual sardine
run along South Africa's east coast is fast becoming a major tourist

Each year during June and July, huge shoals of sardines make their way north to the waters of holiday province KwaZulu Natal. The shoals, which can be several miles long, sometimes look like a giant sea monster, shimmering in the sun, weaving through the water. And they draw crowds; thousands of sharks, dolphins, and other predatory fish follow the sardines, birds hover above, and masses of people line the shores to watch.

The annual run is "unique and as a market, virtually untapped in South Africa," said Robbie Naidoo, a spokesman for Tourism KZN, the province's official tourism promotion body.

The tourism board is working hard to bring "The Greatest Shoal on Earth" to the world's attention.

Fishing for Sardines

During the annual migration, the Natal Sharks Board (NSB), a research and regulatory agency, makes regular flights along the coast to track the progress of the shoals. The information is used to determine when to lift the shark nets that protect many of the province's beaches and to let the public know where the shoals are and where they are likely to beach.

The NSB raises the nets when the sardines come close to shore to avoid accidentally catching the sharks, dolphins, and other predators that follow the shoals.

As the shoals draw nearer to shore, small commercial fishing boats set out through the surf, trailing their nets behind them. When a net fills with sardines, swimmers jump into the water and tie the ends to form a large bag. Timing is everything; if the shoal is very active and "bubbling," the fishermen know it's being chased by sharks and the swimmers must wait.

The crowds on the beach frequently help pull the ropes used to haul the sardine-filled nets onto the sand, and then bargain furiously to buy the fish, which are sold by the basket.

Herded into shallow water by dolphins, sharks, and other predators, the shoals sometimes become trapped and beach themselves. That's when "sardine fever" really grips the crowd. People surge into the shallows, oblivious of the shark danger.

Jostling for space, they use buckets, hats, shirts, pants and every conceivable container as well as their bare hands to catch as much as they can.

Flocks of seabirds, particularly gannets, hovering overhead are just as greedy, and frequently gorge themselves to the point that, unable to lift off the water, they in turn fall prey to the thousands of sharks following the shoals.

Sardine Migration

The South African sardine (Sardinops sagax), also known as the pilchard, is usually found in huge shoals in the upper layers of the ocean. Like anchovies and herrings, they are small, primitive fish belonging to the group known as clupeoids. They are short-lived and fast growing, reaching a length of about nine inches (23 centimeters) in two years.

The runs are probably caused by changing water temperatures, said Sheldon Dudley, a senior scientist at the NSB.

The sardines like water temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius). In winter—June and July in the southern hemisphere—the surface water cools along the east coast, allowing the sardines to expand their habitat and move north.

It is the comparatively narrow continental shelf along the east coast and consequent narrower strip of cold surface water during winter that make the sardines so much more visible, said Dudley.

This year's run has been particularly good; sardine stocks are high, foreign tourism numbers are up. Even better, the businesses supporting sardine tourism—boat tours, dive trips, beach guides, and expeditions—are multiplying as word of the "The Greatest Shoal on Earth" spreads.

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