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Call Me Jonah!

SOUTH AFRICA | Tuesday, 28 July 2009 | Views [638] | Comments [5]

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I, some one who is terrified of the open expanse of the ocean and its seamlessly bottomless depth and of all its big, sleek, silent, deadly animals, would ever find myself bobbing around in the middle of one of the world greatest feeding frenzies. Thank God for adrenaline!

The Sardine Run is literally that! Tonnes of Sardines swimming for their lives from the thousands of dolphins, sharks, birds, whales and seals who drive, dive, chase and chow through the terrified schools of fish. For the months of June and July every year this incredible event takes place with millions upon millions of sardines travelling north following the cold current along the east coast of South Africa. Dolphins spend their days herding the sardines to the surface where they and all the other larger animals gorge on them.

It was at the sleepy beach town of Port St Johns, in the Transkei region of the Eastern Cape, where I found myself at 7am on a bitterly cold winter morning wrestling with my frost bitten wet suit, attempting to zip myself in with numb fingers and an endlessly runny nose! The frozen grass felt like daggers shooting up through my bare feet and the thought of heading out on a boat with chilling wind, big swell and cold water was not very appealing.

All the clients huddled together like penguins in a snow storm, telling their unique travel stories and obviously doing their best to think and talk of anything other than the cold that was eating at their bones. Finally we were aboard the boat and heading towards the river mouth ready to launch out into that vast expanse of ocean to hunt down the action that many of us had come from very far to see.

Within minutes our skipper had a report of some good action directly off the coast, just a few miles out. With the throttle open, we sped off . I was completely unaware of what I was about to experience, in fact, we were all unaware. What unfolded before us was one of the best days the Sardine Run has to offer and totally blew our minds to oblivion.

Imagine being under fire from hundreds of guns and you will get a tiny idea of what the surface of the water was like. Gannets are the birds that circle high above the school of sardines which are being herded to the surface by the dolphins down below. Their snow white body is a striking contrast with the black tips of their wings and tail. They are a glorious looking bird, simple, yet striking. They glide effortlessly through the air observing the fish below, preparing for their next deadly strike. And the term ‘deadly’ may or may not apply to themselves. These birds dive with such ferocious speed that many of them break their necks on the initial impact with the water. They pin their wings back into peaks behind them and stretch their beaks forward to form a perfectly streamlined body and then like a kamikaze bomber they accelerate down towards their target. Once they splice through the surface of the ocean they dive deep into the heart of the school of sardines, pluck an unlucky fish away from its mates and then gracefully with their beak full, head for the surface, paddling with their webbed feet. When one of these birds dives down next to your head it feels and sounds like a small missile has just flown past you. The force and power with which they hit the water is almighty and very daunting when you are only inches away.

While the artillery bombardment of hundreds of birds continues hammering down upon the fish, there is just as much action happening down below, though on a much grander scale.

Once I was in the water, terrified out of my brain but too dumbfounded to do anything about it, I kept close to the other snorkellers from my boat. Now that I had observed the birds performance I was ready to face my fears and actually see what was going on underneath me. And yes, to my horror there were several sharks doing figures of eight directly below me. Large sharks, with large teeth, big fins and that menacing head that makes your skin crawl ,only meters away from my pathetically helpless body. I kept telling myself that there is safety in numbers over and over again and to just keep breathing. Thankfully the sharks didn’t even care that I was there, all they were interested in was the million sardines that appeared to be one black shimmering organism that moved like ribbon being effortlessly blown by the wind. The sharks swim around the school and then with a sharp change of direction they plough straight into the sardines and chow their way through the school until they come out into the clear water again. With the sharks totally occupied by the sardines I relaxed, and then for the first time realised I could hear the dolphins singing over the beating of my heart. Their high echoing calls some how brought a soothing characteristic to the whole experience. The knowledge that a dolphin was never far away, or usually right behind, above, below or in front of me gave me comfort that I would be O.K. . These dolphins were not here for a holiday though. They raced through the water like a Ferrari on a formula one track. At times they were even more intimidating than the sharks! They would speed pass you with out any consideration for your personal space, jump over you or just go around you at the last minute. A head on collision with one of these muscle machines would leave you a very broken person. Yet their beauty under water is beyond what words can describe, so it would almost be a honour to have one give you a little bump.

These animals no matter how big or small were darting around the water like a bunch of hyperactive teenagers. You couldn’t keep your eye on one for more than a second or two as they dashed around so quickly it was impossible to follow them. Once second a shark is in front of you, then he is below you and then he is gone…..where? A fin would then stream pass my head or along the side of my body. “Dolphin, its only a dolphin”, I repeated in my head. It’s amazing how much you can fool yourself when needed! Adrenaline was slamming through my body and I was sure heart failure was not far away.

Five of us were grouped together all giggling and screeching, coming to reality of what was unfolding in front of us when my heart actually stopped and I believed my life was over………

I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think! I just screamed as the whale with its head and body breaching out of the water came crashing down on top of us, its mouth closing ,trapping nearly half the school of sardines it had just launched through. It came down with a tsunami wave right in front of our group, the opening of its mouth practically sliding down the front of one girl’s wet suit and sending another snorkeller metres away with the force of its landing. The fear that gripped my body was shattering for those few split seconds as I prepared to be taken under and either eaten alive or drowned by this massive Bryde’s whale. Pronounced “Brooder’s Whale” – they grow up to nearly 15 metres or 50 feet). Some how, it managed to disappear as quickly as it arrived. With delayed reaction I stuck my face in the water to try and watch it swim away only to nearly have my head decapitated by its tail which came up in a sweeping stroke, propelling it’s great hulk of a body down into the depths.

None of us could speak! We just screamed, yelled, laughed, whooped and howled with sheer terror, fear, excitement, happiness and shock!, We just couldn’t in any way function or get our heads together to allow us to speak normally!

Everyone in the water who saw our near miss was also in hysterics. We were temporary super stars and all quickly became known as “Jonah”! It was only minutes after this when another whale decided to announce its arrival not more than a few metres away from me once again. They seemed to be everywhere, throwing themselves out of the water after demolishing a whole school of sardines, delighted with themselves. Like a dog with a bone, showing off and bounding everywhere, these whales were no different, just several tonnes heavier!

I had no idea of how long I had been in the water for, it could have ten minutes or ten hours for all I knew. I had been oblivious to everything except the manic mayhem of the animals. The action had finally started to settle down and my adrenaline with it. I could feel my body was exhausted and with this I doggy paddled my way to the boat (disappointed to be leaving the water but glad to be out of harm’s way) and was pulled in feeling like a drowned rat and allowed my body to collapsed on the deck of the boat.

I was speechless! Words were useless! There was nothing I could say at that moment, nothing to describe it, explain it, express it or give it justice! There was nothing to do except gasp endlessly and shake my head in wonder.

At the beginning of my travels I had never heard of the Sardine Run. When I first heard some one talk about it I asked “the sardine ‘what’”. And now, it has been with out a doubt the most remarkable, memorable, mind blowing, earth shattering thing I have ever done!

My jaw is still scraping along the bottom of the ocean, just off the coast of that sleepy little town called Port St Johns.

Tags: diving, dolphines, sardine run, sharks, snorkeling, south africa, whales




Wonderfully written , enthralled by your experience.

  Woodrow Wilson Jul 28, 2009 5:51 PM


Awesum Shan!!! Bring on more stories!!!!!!!!!!!!! Fantastic writing by the way...... I teletransported right under that whale with u!!!

  Nat Jul 28, 2009 6:54 PM


Not bad Shan, wish i was there. The sardine run is definately on my list. Didn't think princess could write so well.

  Damo the Abyssinian King Jul 28, 2009 9:17 PM


Wow Shannon you are an incredible writer I can't wait to read more

  Lisa Oct 1, 2009 11:40 PM


Enthralling reading. Sounds like a once in a life time experience, I am sure others have paid and not experienced the same thing. I had to laugh at the 'Jonah' comment, very witty! Looking forward to more.

  Paul Orrock Oct 8, 2009 7:29 PM

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