Diving with the Big Ones

By Winnie Graham
Photography: Seal, Roger Horricks, Kathy Kay, Frances Maher

Consider this scene: Some three billion sardines are running off the South Coast of KwaZulu Natal, followed by about 1 500 sharks, 30 000 dolphins and any number of other game fish. 
A motor launch arrives and divers leap into the heart of the feeding frenzy to witness the spectacle close up.
An amazing experience—or a death wish?

Very much the former, says shark expert Mark Addison of Blue Wilderness at Shelly Beach. “The divers have come to witness the greatest show on earth, an annual event akin to the wildebeest migrations of the Serengeti. And they are perfectly safe in the ocean,” he says.

“It’s a fallacy that sharks automatically attack people in the sea. In fact, a two-metre-long shark can comfortably handle only a one-kilogram fish. The sharks and dolphins are in the water to feed on sardines, not the divers. Humans are not part of their food chain.”

Mark says his views are based on scientific fact. The son of marine biologist Brent Addison, he grew up with an enlightened view of the ocean and its creatures, including the much-maligned sharks. As a youth he loved spear fishing and became accustomed to seeing sharks in their own habitat virtually every day of the week. 

“Of course you have to treat them with respect,” he adds, “but there is no need to fear them. I give them their space and have never felt the slightest aggression towards me. In fact, in all my years of diving I have never heard of a single incident of a shark attacking a diver under water.”

So relaxed is he about sharks that his attitude has rubbed off on his daughter, Ella. She was just three, and in a boat with him, when they spotted sharks. Without a word, the little girl jumped into the sea to swim with them. “She’s seven now and still a little maniac in the water,” Mark jokes. “She’s quite at home in the ocean.”

Mark’s Blue Wilderness company is one of several on the KwaZulu Natal South Coast that will be giving holidaymakers and international tourists a ‘fish’s eye view’ of the sardine run during the annual Sardine Festival from 13 June to 17 July this year.
Divers from Gauteng and Durban, coupled with international divers, photographers and filmmakers, will congregate on the South Coast both to dive with the sardines—and to explore three world-class diving sites at Aliwal Shoal, Protea Banks and Sodwana Bay. Last year some 40 000 divers visited Aliwal Shoal alone, many from overseas.

While Mark will once again be taking a good many VIPs on diving excursions, less-venturesome visitors will not have to get their feet wet to witness the spectacle. Some 100 launches are on standby along the coast to take visitors to the action.
Mark says he first tasted sardines some years ago when Jean-Michel Cousteau, internationally-respected ocean explorer and son of the late Jacques Cousteau, asked him to bring home some sardines for supper. He caught about 12 and placed them in the freezer pending the arrival of his guest.

“Cousteau was most put out that I’d frozen them,” Mark recalls, “but he prepared a tasty meal with them nonetheless. It’s a rich fish and very palatable.”
Michael Bertram, the CEO of Ugu South Coast Tourism, responsible for organising the Sardine Festival, says the focus this year will decidedly be on “experiencing the sardines from land, air and sea”. 
“The sardine run is one of the world’s great natural wonders,” he says. “We know they’ve arrived when flocks of gannets start diving into the ocean to feed and the frenzy is about to begin...”

The sardine run has long been a major attraction on the South Coast but it is only recently that tourism has recognised—and capitalised on—its enormous potential.  “There is a gap in the market for us,” Michael says. “People head for the Maldives and Egypt to dive, but we have at least three world-class sites off the KZN coast. They’re among the world’s best.”
Michael is the man who put Knysna on the tourist map when he got involved in the annual oyster festival there. In no time the attractive Garden Route town was repeatedly being voted the prettiest town in South Africa.

Michael believes the ocean off the South Coast is a major international attraction, with the sardine run an important selling point. It already attracts filmmakers and photographers worldwide, among them Peter Lambreti of Aqua Visions, who was the first to film the sardine run.  One film, made in co-operation with Mark for the Blue Planet series, has been viewed by 267 million people. Yet another by the BBC has just been released.

But while the festival’s focus is primarily on sardines, sharks and dolphins, Michael points out that in the winter months the humpback whales are also in the coastal waters—with pods of between 400 and 500 arriving between August and October to breed. In winter, life in the ocean provides holidaymakers with a veritable feast of good viewing. He sees it as an excellent learning experience for all.

“Our visitors will have a chance of finding out more about sharks and our ocean,” he says. “As part of a plan to promote environmental awareness, we’ve invited 250 children from ten schools in the area to share the experience. It’s time to explode the myth that sharks are dangerous man-eaters.”

The sea apart, the land events promise to add yet another dimension to the festival.
The Mercury Mallard ski boat contest at Shelly Beach, one of the largest in South Africa, is probably the most popular. Several thousand people turn up each year to take part or simply to watch. Despite the economic downturn, the sponsors have once again come up trumps with a prize—a Mercury Mallard ski boat plus two engines and a trailer. 
Not to be outdone, South Africa’s biking fraternity are turning up in force, with some 5 000 bikers converging on Margate for a rally being sponsored by Harley Davidson and Jack Daniels. It’s a major draw card that promises to have the little seaside resort revving at full throttle for a few frenetic days.

Because sardines are highly nutritious and a great source of energy, the organisers are hoping to have them linked with the Heart Foundation’s sensible eating plan. Sardines, in fact, will be on the menu at virtually every restaurant along the South Coast. The chefs are preparing an array of fish dishes, not the least of which are, wait for it, Portuguese sardines.
For family fun, however, nothing can beat the world’s biggest fish braai, to be held once again at Port Edward. “Last year we barbecued some 1 739kg of fish,” Michael says. “When we planned the event we had no way of knowing how many people would turn up, but they just kept coming and coming while we kept on braaiing and braaiing. The only complaints we had came from visitors who had to queue for ages for their fish, so we didn’t do too badly. In fact, it was such fun that this year we are challenging Portugal to beat our record. 
“Can they barbecue more fish than we did in one session? Their big braai will probably take place somewhere on the Algarve coast.”

Portugal’s ambassador to South Africa and the Portuguese Forum has been invited to join in the fun at the South Coast this year. And it is not just the sardines that link the two countries. A Portuguese galleon, the Sao Jao (St John) was shipwrecked off the southern African coast in 1552. The 400-plus survivors walked 1 600km from Mozambique to Port Elizabeth in search of help. Just 22 survived the ordeal. 

An event coinciding with the Sardine Festival is Margate’s 100th birthday. Plans are currently being finalised for a host of exciting attractions, and one of the most exciting will undoubtedly be the South Coast Air Show. It is set to keep the crowds on their feet with its spectacular aerobatic displays all along the KZN South Coast, from Scottburgh to Port Edward, on the weekend of 28 June. 

No trip to the South Coast is complete without a considerable portion of the day on the beach. The South Coast has at least eight Blue Flag beaches—a signal that both sand and sea meet international health standards in cleanliness. 
The Sardine Festival has come a long way in recent years. Michael puts it this way: “There’s a whole lot more to the sardine run than going to the beach with a bucket to catch a few as they wash up on the shore.” There certainly is.

Diving with the Big Fish
Do you wonder what sorts of sharks you are likely to come face to face with if you dive with the sardines in KwaZulu Natal? Mark Addison has the answers.

The young shark expert has spent the past 20 years pioneering shark diving in and around southern Africa, specialising in underwater filming logistics. He regularly takes divers to South Africa’s newly-proclaimed marine protected area, the Aliwal Shoal, home to South Africa’s first Shark Park. And his clientele are bringing some amazing underwater footage and shark images to the world’s screens and print media.

Here, he says, are some of the shark species spotted off the KZN coast from December to June: Tiger, Whale, Ragged Tooth, Dusky, Blacktip, Zambezi and Copper sharks.  The giant Guitar shark can be seen from November to February. 
A Shark Park dive costs R990 a person, inclusive of cylinder and weighted belt plus light refreshments. A minimum of four divers are required per excursion. For more information visitwww.bluewilderness.co.za.