Largest annual shoal of fish worldwide

Nature’s biggest harvest arrives on South African shores in the form of a sardine, by the gazillions. It is estimated that there are roughly half a million tons each year. The feast that ensues is something to behold. In this event, you have the opportunity to interact with some of nature’s most incredible creatures. We are talking everything from pods of orca to snorkeling in with feeding whales and dolphins.

On top of that, birds (Cape gannets) diving from 50 meters up, swooping down wings folded, at incredible speeds, piercing the water, darting to 15 meters below, picking off sardines with ease, one, or sometimes two at a time. The mayhem is further interrupted with spinner sharks, hammerheads, blacktips, and bronze whaler sharks swimming in messy uncoordinated balls chomping at the feast while tuna whiz around in large circular loops at high speed, picking off traumatized and daze sardines. It’s too much to take in at once.

Sardine Run Adventures

Bait ball diving

These interactions with bait balls happens maybe once a day, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending heavily on the availability of sardines and weather conditions. Wild creatures as we all know have plans of their own, so it’s difficult to guarantee something if they haven’t pitched for the day. With some persistence, however, we always find what we are looking for!

Each year many locals and tourists gather for this epic event, which starts down in the eastern cape in May/June and makes its way up the coast. Whales, birds, and dolphins are the visible signs of the presence of large shoals of baitfish, and are ideal photographic moments, with plenty of action to shoot. Fishing is also at an all-time high for the region, with many charters working full tilt. We invite you to join us, and come and share a week or two in one of the world’s most spectacular natural event.

So let’s go through the first day in the life of an adventurer seeking sardine run excitement…

5:00 AM Beep beep beep beep

The alarm bells chimes signifying the dawn of a new day. The first thing is a decent brew of coffee or tea and a rusk (or two) for good measure. An optional shower followed with a snack to nibble on, or bacon and eggs with a couple of slices of toast. It’s going to be a busy day ahead! So let’s not be shy about kilojoule intake, you’re probably going to need them. Kit up also takes place, on with wetsuits and boots, with a couple of rash vests to ward off the morning chills are climbed into. It is about 9 degrees each morning before dawn, so its best to pack some decent warm kit.

5:30 AM Step outside your room into the night

The fresh crispy cool off-shore sometimes whispers through the taller trees. It’s still dark outside, the stars twinkle above brightly in the almost pitch black heavens. Some banter about the conditions and choices are made before the boats are prepped. Minions, divemasters, skippers, and clients start to ease themselves out of the woodwork, and soon its a bustle. After a fair amount of chatting, meeting up with everyone, shaking hands, etc, there is this air of expectation as the boat leaves the yard loaded with plenty of fuel for a day out looking for the ultimate prize, a bait ball. Then we are escorted down to the launch to watch the organized drivers and boats

5:45 AM Duck takes to the water

All of us jump on board with our food and gear and find our comfort zone. The best spot on the boat as far back as possible, especially if you have photographic equipment, or have any back issues. Port St Johns has a truly amazing river mouth. It is a sort of a gorge, with these very tall mountains that rise up dramatically to form high flat plateaus, one of which is the light aircraft runway. Lifejackets all on, the boat eases out the mouth, the not-yet rising sun eliminates the sky with contrasting ambers and hues, its a stage for action as the boat nears the mouth… We bounce through the waves! Wow, what a ride!! These skippers really know their business, and within half a minute we settle to take off our safety gear and prepare for a glimpse at the worlds largest shoal.

8:00 AM First super-pod of common dolphins

Oh my hat! I have never in my life seen something like this. There are dolphins everywhere! Many of them are mother and calves cruising in harmony together. The smallest one is less than a meter long. I counted and lost count, estimating maybe 4000 dolphins, all working together. These common dolphins actually live in much smaller pods but get together en-mass to help make the most out of hunting as a mega-pack. Soon we see bird action in the distance. It looks like a bird waterfall, with hundreds of them falling together from the sky, and as they surface, they make way for the barrage. Gannets are circling overhead, while a few fearless and ruthless skewers pecking at their tails and grab on, which makes the gannets regurgitate their catch. They are definitely not to be messed with. It’s a truly incredible sight, being so close to this sort of natural phenomenon.

10:00 AM Cruise past an ocean waterfall

A most unexpected and delightful encounter with one of the few waterfalls that plummet directly into the ocean! We arrive with the presence of bottlenose dolphins and a great white that’s circling the boat. This shark is huge! But she looks chilled and somewhat curious. Great white shark fear orca and are extremely vulnerable when the apex predators of the ocean pay them a visit. The views are spectacular. This is a good spot for drone footage!

12:00 PM Snorkelling with whales

Our skipper being very experienced kept his distance with the boat but dropped us quite far ahead, knowing more or less where the humpbacks will surface. We wait for a minute, hearing their echoing voices sign out messages, loud as foghorns. And then they appeared! Deep down, about 30 meters, here they come! Rising up, I caught a glimpse of mommy’s loved one. Oh gosh, the little one is super cute! Still very light coloured swimming on top of mom’s back. A truly once in a lifetime experience. After the snorkel a snack to recuperate all that well used energy. I am now feeling like I have done some exercise.

14:00 PM Homeward bound

A fairly long cruise back after scouting the oceans. It’s been an epic day! I have seen nature at its best! Everyone’s chatting buoyantly about what was seen and the action that ensued. Lots of smiles and laughs, I feel closer to nature than ever before. We stop briefly behind the backline, don our lifejackets and prepare for entering the river mouth. It looks quite different to the morning sunrise. Things have warmed up quite a bit. The web suits are all glimmering with salt crystals. Entering through the mouth brings a tranquil end to an incredible boat ride. PADI high 5 to our skipper for showing us all he could. Now time for kit wash, gear check and of course, a nice long shower and perhaps a little snooze to recoup that lost energy.

16:00 PM Gathering for the feast

We grouped up and enjoy a few drink and snacks in anticipation for a hearty meal. A bonfire is glowing in the back. Tonight is braai night! South Africans traditional BBQ’s are not quite like any other nations. We really know how to braai! Out comes a collection of all types of meats, beef, chicken, seafood, and boerewors, along with big tubs of an assortment of tasty salads and side dishes. Let the feast begin as the day fades to orange and we have truly had a big to remember.

Notes to future visitors

If you are a diver, photographer or nature lover, and are looking for something “different”, this is one of those essential not-to-be-missed bucket-list activities to do at least once in your lifetime. I highly recommend making this a family occasion. I met up with many couples and their teenage kids all enjoying nature’s bounty. It seems appropriate, why would a family man want to keep this all to himself! The photographic and diving opportunities are wide open. On the rare occasion, more elusive species show their faces, with marlin, sailfish, wahoo and many other predator species combing the seas for morsels.

Getting Here & There

Upon arriving at King Shaka International Airport, one of our drivers/divemasters will be there to greet you at arrivals and will assist you with your gear if needed. It takes about an hour’s drive to our beach lodge situated in Umkomaas. Our location is in the middle of the action, while Port St Johns is a further 5-hour drive south into the former Wild Coast, Transkei. If you would like to self-drive and want the freedom to go and visit points of interest we recommend hiring a vehicle prior to arrival from Avis or one of the other car rentals at King Shaka International Airport. We can, however, organise escorted trips with a guide who will be able to show you a lot of interesting places. Our goal is not merely to accommodate, but to educate and inform when given the opportunity.

Other activities

Locally we have microlight beach flights, adventure rides, snorkeling with sharks, scuba diving, wildlife safaris, rock and surf fishing, boat fishing, surfacing, croc world, historical places, cultural diversification like no other place on earth and best of all, we have sun!

All your accommodation, travel and activities are inclusive into one easy package deal. We go out of our way to make sure you an experience of a lifetime, with 35 years of experience behind us. For inquiries, please write to us at umkomaaslodge@gmail.com or call us on+27 (0) 61 101 6772.

Let’s do some adventure!