Bronze whaler shark (Carcharhinus brachyurus), sardine baitball, Wild Coast, South Africa

behind the photograph: Sardine Fever

Posted on August 14, 2012

Every winter I contract a severe case of sardine fever: the irrepressible urge to pursue and photograph vast schools of silvery fish across some of the roughest seas in the world. Sardines normally prefer the cold waters off South Africa’s west and south coast, but during June and July vast shoals follow a tongue of cold-water that licks northwards along the sub-tropical east coast. In hot pursuit of this silvery bounty are a vast army of predators–sharks, dolphins, whales and tens of thousands of seabirds. This phenomenon is popularly known as the sardine run.  I often curse it as the hardest thing I have ever done — the odds are always against the photographer! In addition to unpredictable sardine movements, 15-foot seas and frighteningly low visibility are par for the course. The photographic holy grail of this grand event is capturing an image of Long-beaked common dolphins carving a hot air balloon-sized chunk of sardines off a larger shoal. This bait ball is then corralled to the surface where other predators take advantage of the dolphins’ wrangling skills.  Sharks, Cape gannets and whales joining in a mass feeding event like no other on our planet.

In 8 years of being a slave to the sardine run, I have been in the water with epic bait balls only a handful of times, most notably in 2007 off the coast of East London.  Years of hard work paid off when clear water, abundant predators and exceptional light came together. King Neptune himself seemed to present me with the photographic gift of a lifetime: a hour-long and nearly static bait ball… and I was the only photographer in the water. Instinctively, I spent most of my time at the edge of the bait ball. In between framing images, I curled up like a hedgehog to avoid the frenzied sharks and other predators inside the whirling mass of fish. Taking advantage of the incredible visibility  allowed me to visualize a different perspective. I backed off  about 10 meters from the bait ball in the open water.  By this time, many of the predators were  satiated, so the frenzy slowed. Sharks now charged into the bait ball singly instead of in groups.  After many failed attempts, I finally managed to capture the moment (literally, the split second) when a bronze whaler shark, jaws agape, snatched a mouthful of sardines.  Even shooting at 250th of second, you can miss the lightning speed at which these sharks prey.

I first documented the sardine run in 2003 with the aim of revealing what an essential component these silvery little fish were to South Africa’s oceans. Sardines unfortunately do not have the same public appeal as panda bears or humpback whales and most people believe the natural habitat of the sardine is the tin can. A lack of such conservation sympathies resulted in severe overfishing with stocks collapsing repeatedly since the 1960′s. The survival of top predators is intrinsically linked to the health of sardine stocks. Without the vast silvery shoals pulsing along our shores, the tens of thousands of predators that occupy the top of the marine food chain would soon disappear from South Africa’s seas. By investing in the conservation of sardines, we automatically ensure a healthier future for the “hungry charismatics” like dolphins, gannets, Bryde’s whales, bronze whaler sharks and not to mention…humans.


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