Sardine Run 2011
One of the greatest migrations on Earth
These photographs reveal one of nature's greatest phenomena - the annual sardine run. Millions of the fish move north along the coast of South Africa where they are eaten by dolphins, sharks and gannets in a huge feeding frenzy.
Some people say that this year the Sardine Run didn't actually happen: the water temperature on a surface was too high, so sardines stayed in the deep, where they couldn't be reached by gannets. So it took from me a lot of time and patience to stay in the sea in rough conditions to wait for activity. It was good that I went for a long 12-days trip: lot of people who arrived just for 4-6 days didn't even have a single dive! That was very frustrating for them. This year a number of boats with divers was maximum of all past years: mainly due to huge success of Oceans film and BBC Greatest Migrations series. It looked so easy in the cinema: huge shoals of sardines, dolphins, birds and all that amazing activity. But what people didn't know, that it took 3 years for BBC to make that 20-min film, and 90% was filmed on a single dive. And it took 4 years for Doug Perrine to get his famous shot with 2 sharks charging throw sardines.
Sardine Run takes a lot of factors to happen, and to take a good pictures you must have a perfect combination of them:

- A narrow stripe of cold water near the coast, pushed to the coast by warmer water in the ocean: sardines are pushed together, and dolphins can make "baitballs" out of them - separate shoal of fish, shaped in a form of giant ball. If they make it - a feeding feast starts: common dolphins, cape gannets, bronze and dusky sharks, and even Bryde's whales start eating them, charging throw baitball with open mouths. Baitball can last from typical several minutes to 4-5 hours.
- The water should be clear enough. If it's dirty then it's too dangerous to dive, and of course it's bad for photo. Some days all action stayed in a dirty water: the water was boiling from activity, but we can't go and see it.

- Not very strong wind - if the wind is strong, birds can't fly, so you can't find a baitball.

- Good sun - for photography.

- And the main thing: good dense baitball, which is not moving very fast. Frequently all action happens on a territory too big: dolphins easily purse the fish 200m to one side, than 300m to the other side... I jump into that - they fly around me in a few seconds and that's it, I have to go back on boat. Jump again, go back, and so on.
Waiting for all that factors takes 99% of time. Additionally, all that activity happens on a huge territory. We wait in the sea watching the gannets to start the bombardment - as soon as we find them, we start the engines and go there full speed... usually to be too late to go in the water. Skippers of the boats talk to each other by mobile phones, telling what the situation is in different parts of the coast - it helps, but not guaranties success. Sometimes there is a plane watching the birds - but all that it can do is to spot the feeding, but you have to be close enough to it and have all same success factors.
Diving near the baitball is one of the most amazing adrenalin-full experiences in a life. Scuba diving is usually a very silent thing... not in this case. Dolphin's attack on sardines starts with very loud high-frequency whistle - dolphins communicate with each other to coordinate the attack. In a seconds a whistle is followed by pack of dolphins, charging themselves into a baitball, usually from down to up. Sardines are trying to escape, so the baitball curves itself like a liquid, approaching the surface... and it comes close enough for gannets to reach them. Cape gannets are very good divers: they fall from 20-30m into the water with a speed up to 120 km/h, diving to 10-12m deep. The water around instantly becomes full of bubbles - traces of the birds. If the bird hits you, that would be a trouble... But they have very good sight, so it's not a threat to divers. The sound of birds entering the water is also very loud - it's like someone smashing the giant hammer into water.
Definitely scuba diving in Sardine Run is not for beginners. But it's not dangerous if you follow the rules: not diving in dirty water, going together with group, and not putting yourself into baitball.
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