The greatest shoal on earth

“I’ve visited hundreds of marine locations, but there are a handful of seascapes that have touched me incredibly deeply. The first time I experienced that kind of high was about 10 years ago, off South Africa’s rugged, wild coast. And every June and July, enormous shoals of sardines travel northwards in a mass migration we call the Sardine Run…”

 

  • Thomas Peschak, Conservation Photographer

 

Every year, South Africa bears witness to ‘The greatest shoal on earth,’ the sardine run. Many of us have seen this with our very own eyes, be it from the shores of the beaches, from boats or watercraft or, if even from under the water. Although the sardine run is not an unfamiliar phenomenon to most Durbanites, we are not entirely sure how it is that millions of sardines end up off our coastline. Interestingly, even to the world of marine science this phenomenon remains an enigma.

The seminal event occurs when billions of Sardines spawn in the Agulhas Bank’s cool waters. The Agulhas Bank is itself a place of wonder and turbulent seas. This is the natural boundary between 3 ocean currents – the Atlantic Ocean, the Southern Ocean, and the Indian Ocean. Once the spawning event is over, the sardines begin their mass migration northwards along the South African east coast. The sardine run, which happens between May and August, occurs when a coastal current of cold water moves from the spawning area, the Agulhas Bank, in a northerly direction towards Mozambique. The science indicates that in order for the migration to begin, the water temperature needs to drop below 21 degrees Celsius. The shoals are most often more than 7 kilometres long and as much as 30 metres deep. In terms of sheer mass, this event can be likened to the other great migrations like the Wildebeest migration in East Africa and it covers a distance of 1500 kilometres.

No doubt, the proliferation of fish attracts a range of ocean predators from fur seals and gannets to dolphins and sharks, with congregations of sardine so large that they can be seen from the sky. Unfortunately, the ‘no-run’ occurrences are becoming more common. What was once an annual event is now being threatened by rising water temperatures which are causally linked to global warming. Although the sardine run provides vital sustenance for marine wildlife, its absence is not entirely diabolical and species, like the Common Dolphin are intelligent enough to seek prey elsewhere. The sardine run attracts ecotourism to KwaZulu-Natal, and in turn generates money for the province. Many people benefit from this annual phenomenon and their livelihoods depend on this massive event. Activities directly and indirectly linked to the sardine run generates more than R50 million in revenue each year.

There is still a lot research being done about this amazing event; and still to this day there are many unanswered questions. However, it is abundantly clear that we have to do all we can to look after our oceans. As a means of livelihood for so many, and as one of the natural assets which draws tourism in to KZN, the value of our oceans cannot be overstated. Success comes with a collective effort and a buy-in from all stakeholders, and sustainability and ecological awareness are key to sustained value and longevity of a region. KZN is on a sharp growth trajectory, spurred on by catalytic nodes like the Sibaya Coastal Precinct. The Sibaya Coastal Precinct’s design is underpinned by its ongoing and wholescale conservation efforts which endeavour to uphold, conserve, and protect the region’s natural assets, including our oceans.

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