Everything you need to know about the Sardine Run, KZN’s greatest ocean spectacle

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KwaZulu-Natal’s winter months come with sunny days, incredible ocean conditions and of course, the greatest ocean spectacle known as the annual Sardine Run.

Sardine Run Image credit Noel McDonogh-Wow Flight School
Sardine Run. Image: Noel McDonogh,Wow Flight School

Every year, seaside visitors are treated to this world-renowned oceanic phenomenon, featuring billions of sardines, evidently followed by all kinds of marine life.

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Says Phelisa Mangcu, CEO of Ugu South Coast Tourism (USCT): “The Sardine Run is a highlight on the KZN South Coast’s tourism calendar, and we’re looking forward to welcoming visitors who can finally experience this natural display after two years in lockdown and the devastating recent floods. Whether from the land, the sea or the sky, we have the best viewpoints for our many visitors who are looking for a really unique family-friendly holiday.”

READ: KZN Sharks Board and Tourism KZN join hands to clean up and help flood victims

What is the Sardine Run?

The annual Sardine Run is believed to be the planet’s biggest biomass migration. Billions of sardines move Northwards toward warmer waters, swimming past the KZN South Coast come May. The shoal comes very close to shore, attracting anglers and seine net fishermen who capture the fish for commercial sale.

The sardines also attract numerous marine animals. Flocks of seabirds can be seen diving into the water, while dolphins, game fish, sharks and even whales feast on the silverfish, making for a spectacular marine viewing experience.

The Sardine Run kicks off the annual whale migration too – another epic ocean experience. You can watch as the humpback and southern right whales head Northwards from Mozambique, with KZN offering numerous whale viewing decks, including the Umtentweni Conservancy Deck, and Ramsgate Whale Deck, Impithi Beach Kiosk and Umdoni Gold Club Whale Deck.

KZN South Coast Sardine Run Image: Justin Klusener
KZN South Coast Sardine Run Image: Justin Klusener

Here’s what you need to know about this year’s event

According to Dr Ryan Daly of the Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban, and the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, conditions are set for this year’s Sardine Run to be yet another bumper year.

“What we know about the sardines so far is that there appears to be a lot in the Western Cape with sightings in the Plettenberg Bay area. We know they’re down in the Cape. The question is, will they come up here?”

Following the recent KZN floods which caused a surge in water and debris into the Indian Ocean, Daly says the impact on the ocean has largely passed and it shouldn’t have an impact on this year’s Sardine Run.

“Temperature is the main thing that dictates the timing and extent of the movement up the coast. It has been an unusual couple of years in that they’ve been very wet. But 2020 and 2021 were relatively good Sardine Runs, both of which were similarly wet being La Niña years.”

Daly says this year, the pattern is the same, which indicates that it might be another good year.

Greg Thompson, operations manager at the KZN Sharks Board says they will start their Sardine Run monitoring in the second week of May.

“Our first few flights are normally through to East London to try and gauge how far North the sardines have moved. This is to ensure that our shark safety gear is removed well before the first pockets reach KZN waters.”

He also says that it is fairly easy to monitor large quantities of sardines with associated predators in pursuit, but that it is the small pilot shoals that pop up out of nowhere that pose a challenge.

“Therefore, we also rely on the information and sightings we receive from the residents, fishermen and dive charters in the Eastern Cape.”

Sardine Run. Image: Noel McDonogh, Wow Flight School
Sardine Run. Image: Noel McDonogh, Wow Flight School

What’s in it for tourists?

You can get up close and personal with marine life you rarely see during this time of the year.

Visitors can view the Sardine Run from shore, or those looking for a little more adventure can charter a boat out to sea and even scuba dive or free dive with local tour guides.

There are also local microlight operators who take visitors up in the air for an eagle’s eye view.

Apart from the Sardine Run, visitors can also tap into other exciting activities:

  • Boating or diving adventures at either Aliwal Shoal or Protea Banks
  • Blue Flag beaches for swimming, snorkelling, rock pool exploring, surfing and kayaking
  • Deep-sea fishing or rock-and-surf angling in some of the best spots
  • Tidal pools for protected bathing
  • Rickshaw rides along the Margate beachfront
  • Golfing at one of the 11 KZN golf courses
  • Trail hiking or biking
  • 4×4 adventures
  • Gorge swinging, ziplining, white-water rafting or abseiling
  • Authentic rural excursions at KwaXolo Caves Adventures, the KwaNzimakwe Multi-Trails, the Nyandezulu Experience and Ntelezi Msani Heritage Centre
  • A farmland experience on the KZN South Coast Agri-CULTURE Tours
  • Viewings of Mzamba fossils in the Petrified Forest
  • Bird watching (be sure to include the Oribi Vulture Viewing Hide)
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