Waiting for the Sardines

By Winnie Graham

“If you want to know when the sardines will come, watch the sea. And feel the wind. That’s the way to tell.  Last year was not too good. This year, perhaps, the sardines will come again—and with it the big fish and the birds.”

Godfrey Mkuzi is an angler who spends much of his off-duty time on the beaches near Port Shepstone. While thousands of other sardine enthusiasts confidently expect the shoals to appear in June or July each year he, like others who live on the coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN), have learnt their arrival is not a foregone conclusion. Weather is a key factor. The shoals run only if the water is cool and the winds are right. Nature is in control.

But, while tens of thousands of visitors flock to the South Coast of KZN each year, all keen on seeing, “the marine event that equals the wildebeest migration across the Serengeti,” the sardines are by no means the only reason for going there. The annual Sardine Festival, starting in the last week of June and continuing to the middle of July, has become a tourist attraction in its own right.

The local tourist authority, Ugu South Coast Tourism, in cooperation with KZN Tourism, goes to great lengths to prepare a programme that appeals to young and old. Even if the sardines don’t materialise, the events provide visitors with lots to do and plenty of entertainment.

But that doesn’t mean all eyes are not on the ocean. Will the sardines appear today? That’s the over riding thought on everyone’s mind when they wake each morning.
Sardines are typically found in water between 14ºC and 20ºC. During the winter months of June to August, cooler water penetrates eastwards along the Eastern Cape coast towards Port St Johns, providing sardines with a suitable habitat. But that is not all required to ensure a sardine run. Scientists say the north easterly winds causing “an upwelling of cold water along this section of the coast” also assist the northwards movement of large shoals. The cool band of water inshore is critical to the run. If the water is too warm, the sardines remain in the cooler water further south, or move northwards further offshore and at greater depths where the water is cooler.

These conditions make it difficult for the Seine-net fishermen to pull in the traditional large shoals—and for the predators to feast on them. This was the case in 2003 when un-seasonally warm sea surface temperatures kept the sardines away.
When the shoals are sighted close inshore, thousands of people head for the beach with nets, buckets and even baby baths to grab what they can of nature’s bounty. The more fastidious watch the goings-on from a deckchair on the beach, while others, keen to see it all, take to boat and follow the shoals up the coast. The more determined sometimes hire a plane to witness the event from above the Indian Ocean. Dave Watson of Port Edward claims the lighthouse there is the best place to see the sardines arrive.

KZN experts say enthusiasts can even dive with the sardines (including the reefs, wrecks and sharks) at Aliwal Shoal, Protea Banks and Rocky Bay as they migrate northwards along the coastline. The South Coast has world-class dive sites with none other than the world’s most famous diver, Jacques Cousteau, having rated Aliwal Shoal as one of the world’s top ten dive sites. 
The Natal Sharks Board estimates that more than 23 000 dolphins, 100 000 gannets and hundreds of sharks follow the run. Humpback and southern right whales are also around. This is coincidental as they do not feed on sardines. The whales migrate north to give birth and mate off the coast. During their migration, they are believed to travel up to 8 000km in what is probably the longest mammal migration known to man.

Sardines have a short life cycle, living between two and three years. Spawning takes place in spring and summer off the Southern Cape on the Agulhas banks. Scientists have established that each female releases tens of thousands of eggs into water, which are then fertilized by the males. These eggs drift with the current in westerly and northerly directions into the nutrient rich waters off the west coast. Here the larvae mature and develop into juvenile fish which, once strong enough, congregate into dense shoals and migrate southwards, eventually returning to the Agulhas Banks to complete their life cycle.
Most netted sardines end up as ‘pilchards in tomato sauce’, and are caught off the Western Cape coast where about 100 000 tons are harvested annually. Only 700 tons are netted in KZN.

The Sardine Festival, which includes all the resorts along the Hibiscus Coast from Scottburgh in the north to Port Edward in the south, organises fishing competitions, mountain biking and beach entertainment on a number of world-class Blue Flag beaches. 
The Mallard Mercury Ski Boat Festival in early July launches from Shelly Beach. Now in its eighth year, the competition has become the biggest ski boat competition of its kind in South Africa. It attracts around 400 anglers and literally thousands of visitors who come to the weigh-in at St Michaels.

Then there is the fishing competition. The sardines inevitably attract the biggest fish. In the last few years excellent yellow-fin, tuna and king mackerel catches have been recorded, part of the wide assortment of game fish that follow the sardines.
Most folk who take regular holidays on the South Coast visit Oribi Gorge, part of the Ensemvelo KZN Wildlife area. The rock that leans over a precipice has long been a popular spot for photographers. What is new is a restaurant on the site, along with self-catering chalets, all with great views of the Umzimkulu River below. Even more exciting are the opportunities for white water rafting and swinging from the world’s highest ‘swing and slide’ where the brave (or foolhardy) leap off the cliffs some 160 metres above the gorge floor.

In the same area is the Lake Eland Game Reserve where there is a suspension bridge across the gorge, as well as hiking trails, caves, camping facilities, mountain biking and even fishing. Other attractions on the KZN coast include crocodile farms, the famous pottery outlet at Nikewise and numerous weaving and beadwork stalls. Shosholoza Boshongweni, near Hibberdene, in the Mathuline Tribal Area generates income by selling crafts. Visitors keen on experiencing traditional African food, Zulu dancing, gospel music and curio shopping can overnight in rondavels at Emthini.

A special pleasure is exploring the towns and villages along the coast. Scottburgh is a prime holiday destination; Umkomaas, Clanthal and Widenham are just south of Durban with the famous Aliwal Shoal five kilometres out to sea. Other places to visit include Pennington, Umzinto (with the Vernon Crooks Nature Reserve close by), Park Rynie, Sezela, Hibberdine, St Michaels, Ramsgate, Marina Beach and so on.
The Natal Sharks Board offers a Sardine Run hotline 082 284 9495 which is regularly updated and a useful tool in keeping track of the marine action.

More than Just Sardines 
The appearance of millions of sardines off the KZN coast is a marine phenomenon that has captured the imagination of the world, with National Geographic magazine devoting considerable space to it. It is, indeed, a spectacular event, so much more than just glistening shoals of fish moving up the coast. With it comes an array of marine birds and mammals.
Great white sharks, copper sharks, common dolphins, and Cape gannets are the four main predators that pursue the shoals. These shoals can be 20km to 30km long. The resultant feeding frenzy is a spectacular sight. The sharks and dolphins round up the sardines into huge ‘bait balls’, to be consumed by the predators. Cape gannets plunge into the water to spear fish while dolphins join together to herd the sardines through ‘super pods’ several thousand strong, with hundreds of sharks joining the party.
So make sure to choose a good viewing spot, and have your binocs ready.

Some of the events planned during the Sardine Festival: 
Jazz Festival in Port Shepstone at the end of June 
Mardi Gras in Margate, 2 July
Mallard Mercury Ski Boat Festival at Shelly Beach, 2-5 July 
Soap Box Derby in Scottburgh, 6 July
Sardine Marathon in Hibberdene, 13 July
Fishing Competition at Shelly Beach, 26, 27 July

Where to stay
Hotel Edwardian, (039) 311-3618
San Lameer, (039) 313-0450
Marlicht Vacation Resort, (039) 312-1052
The Estuary, (039) 311-2675
Mdoni Lodge, (039) 695-1215