The Sardine Run in South Africa, one among the modern Seven Wonders of the World to look out for in 2023, is one such spectacle to behold. Here’s why it’s making South Africa a must-visit destination.
Here’s Why South Africa’s Sardine Run Is A Wonder To Behold
South Africa’s Sardine Run plays out like a perfect version of the Wildebeest Migration, the 8th Wonder of the World. The Wildebeest Migration also called “The Great Migration” takes place in Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya’s most famous safari destination.
While there are some points of similarities between the two wildlife shows, they are not exactly the same. The one involves wildebeests while the other involves sardines. Also, while what has been billed the “The greatest show on Earth” takes place on the mainland, quite a distance from the ocean, South Africa’s Sardine Run takes place deep inside the ocean.
But the element of wonder elegantly shines through both spectacles.
Here’s what makes the Sardine Run a marvel. These small oily fish, most times less than nine inches in length, every year migrate along a section of South Africa’s ocean in as vast numbers as often build a spectacular shoal as long as nine miles.
For perspective, that’s the distance from Washington Monument to Tacoma Park. And then the magnitude.
Of course, it’s not possible to place an accurate figure on the numbers; however, various estimates suggest it’s hundreds of millions, possibly billions. How they band together and move in complete harmony—and for a long distance—is one of the factors that make this an exciting wonder.
And yet, they don’t have a leader that tells them when to move, how to move, or even where to move. For all appearances, everything looks spontaneous yet unbelievably perfect.
So too is the equally frenzied behavior of man when massive shoals of sardines are pushed ashore.
Particular wind and current conditions may force the sardines very close to the beach, where they are easily caught using baskets, hand nets or even skirts! In fact, when sardines are beaching anything goes, and it is not uncommon to see grandmothers competing with teenagers for their share of the feast in a social occasion that draws crowds into the surf and even larger crowds of awed and amused spectators.
But why do the sardines travel up the coast?
Although the bulk of South Africa’s sardines are found in the cooler Cape waters, each winter a small proportion of the fish moves eastwards up the Wild Coast. These shoals take advantage of cool water on the continental shelf of the east coast that occurs seasonally as a narrow band between the coast and the warm, southward flowing Agulhas Current.
It is not clear what advantage the sardines gain by entering KwaZulu-Natal waters. In fact, local waters are less food-rich than the Cape waters. The favorable cooler conditions are only temporary and, to complicate matters the sardines are accompanied by many predators which prey on them mercilessly. Because the fish become concentrated near the surface in a narrow inshore band of water, the shoals are quickly located by schools of marauding predators that are whipped into a frenzy by this brief period of plenty in these otherwise less productive waters.
Nearly a quarter of the world’s fish
Although these fish are small, collectively they comprise nearly a quarter of the world’s fish catch by weight, making them one of our most valuable groups of fish.
The Sardine Run and the KZN Sharks Board (KZNSB)
The melee of predators accompanying the sardine shoals is problematic, not just to the sardines, but also to the KZNSB. The shark nets that provide bather protection along the beaches take a heavy toll of sharks and dolphins if they are not lifted before the arrival of the Sardine Run. In addition, damage to the nets themselves carries a heavy financial cost to the KZNSB. The organization’s ability to monitor the movements of the run has improved over the years. Although it has long been Board practice to lift the nets prior to the arrival of the shoals, the organisation’s capacity to monitor the movements of the shoals has improved over the years. This capacity was significantly enhanced by the acquisition of an aircraft, enabling the Board to conduct regular sardine monitoring flights.
This dramatic reduction in catches has been achieved not only by improved monitoring but also by removing the nets slightly earlier than was previously the case and by keeping them out of the water until all indications suggest that the Sardine Run is over. However, this temporary removal of the nets has implications for the tourist industry. The KwaZulu-Natal coast enjoys some of its best weather at this time of year and the Sardine Run coincides with the winter school holidays. Pressure to return the nets to the water prematurely has been eased by the introduction of “discretionary bathing”.