The Sardine Run, South Africa

Any wildlife photographer has a list, stuff we really want to see and hopefully photograph, for many (esp underwater photographers) seeing a ‘Blue Planet’ style Sardine bait ball is on the list, until you do your research you think that a week on the water will give you a few spectacular bait balls and with it, some great shots. Its a bit harder than that, the BBC and national Geographic spend years out at sea getting singular minutes of footage, so you need lots of time or to be lucky, we had 7 days.

There’s a formula to the Sardine run: cold water + lots of Sardines + common dolphins = bait ball + (Cape Gannets + Bottle Nosed Dolphins + Bryde’s Whales + sharks (Bronze Whalers, dusky sharks and oceanic blacktip sharks) + Sail fish). The sea is getting warming making the sardines less likily to migrate up the coast of south africa, some years this means the sardines don’t run at all. We had some sardines and would see scenes like this most days, but by the time we got there the ball had broken up (not enough Common Dolpins) and there was no point getting into the water. The Cape Gannets where the best indication of action as we could see them from a long way off.



Inaddition to the Gannets we used a guy in a mirolight who would track common dolphin movements and spot any whales in the area.


The Cape Gannets are really similar to the UK’s Northern Gannet, the easiest way to spot the difference is the black wing feathers follow the edge of the wing in the Cape Gannets and the Northern Gannets just have a black wing tip (you are very unlikily to see them both together though!).

The Bottlenosed Dolphins live of the South Afican coast and follow the Common Dolphins hoping to get in with the action after they’ve done all the hard work. The guys on the boats wouldn’t follow the Bottlenosed Dolphins as they rarely create bait balls (apparently their not as clever as their common cousins). We did jump in the water with a few pods, listening to the noises underwater is brillant, this pod swam pretty close to me in the murky water.

At speed in big groups the Common Dolphins are the kings of this sea, their speed and intellegnce giving everyone else the chance for a meal. Seeing these guys work move the sardines was fantanstic.

One of the days we couldn’t go out due to bad weather and rough seas (the main impact is getting in and out with the boats rather than being out at sea). The dolphins didn’t disapoint as they started to surf in the waves just off the beach.

The biggest surprise to the trip was the ammount of Humpback Whales we saw, the whales migrate from the Antarctic up the South African coast to mate and give birth in places like the Reunion Islands North of Madagascar. Over our time on the water was saw over 100 whales, some close enough to splash the boats.

As we followed some of the whales they would spend a minute on the surface then drop their heads and disappear in front of us heading north, their massive tail fins cutting through the water. Its usully the only thing you sea above the water, but a good whale tail with water coming off it still looks great.

Some of the whales would stop and slap the water with their tails making lots of noise and when they got close to the boats covering us in water.

Whale breaches, the target of any whale watching trip. One day we saw well over a 100 breaches, often hearing a long way off before moving the boats a bit closer. Some whales would do 10 in sucession then disappear.

The Humpbacks spin in the air to land on their backs to make the biggest slap possible.

We didn’t see that many birds while we where out on the water, this guy is an India Yellownosed Albratros, we saw a few petrels (like the white chinnes petrel in the Whale tail shot above) it always cool seeing these birds glide over the effortlessly.

I feel lucky to see a any whales breaching, on a really windy day out on the water we followed 2 Humpback Whales breaching together, they both breached over 10 times over about 2 miles, amazing to see and a lasting memory from the trip. Despite not seeing the ‘blue planet’ style bait ball it was a real wildlife photography trip, hard work, getting shots when I could and always hoping to that in the next hour it would all come together for the perfect shot. We’ll just have to do it again!


Getting the shots

Shooting on a small RIB isn’t easy, even on calm days you need to protecct everything you’ve got. Rather than taking my big lens I took a Canon 1DX and a Canon 70mm-200mm lens, all stored in a dry bag. Make sure you close your dry bag up every time you use it, its very easy for water to get inside when you boucing about on the sea. If you can keep low in the boat rather than standing up, its much easy to balance and you get a lower angle which always improves wildlife photographs. Careful resting your camera on the side of the boat as waves ofter come over the sides. Have a water proof cover of the len and camera which will prevent splash damage. The front of your lens needs have a protective filter on, have a large micro fibre cloth in your pocket to remove the water that will end up on the filiter.

Underwater I use a Ikelite housing for a Canon 5DMKII with a dome front and 2 canon lens 14mm II f2.8 and 24mm Ii f1.4, great lens but you do need to be pretty close to your subjects. Water visibility isn’t great so faster lens are better. As you can see from the bottle nosed dolphin shots you get close allowing the use of wider lens. A high ISO and a little more depth of field than fully open is good, alservo tracking usually works well enough but will struggle as the subjects get further away or they are moving quickly. I add a  gorpro with a clamp on to my set up that allow me to capture a bit of video too.