The Greatest Shoal on Earth

The biggest bucket list adventure off land.

Sardine Run by Tonya Khoury

Welcome to the Sardine Run. The most extraordinary adventure on earth.

Sharks, huge duskey sharks, bronze whalers, squadrons of dive-bombing gannets, and dolphin megapods. This is the Studio 54 of the underwater world: a cacophony of deafening sound; a metaphysically uproarious chaos, and tramps like us, baby we were born to run!

Why would they call an off land event a “run”? Here’s the rub. The predators ‘run’ after those bait balls as if it were the chase they had prepared for their entire lives. The boats “run” to catch the action and the divers and snorkelers ‘run’ (underwater) to keep up.

I had several fears for this trip: I’m old, I get cold (very cold), and I get sea-sick. I had a ton of excuses which would suffice to say no. But I have had this dream since time and memorial, and now at 50 I finally had the opportunity to drop my defenses and open up to a nudge in ribs from the Shark Man, Walter Bernadis, my extraordinary friend and fearless leader who is the owner and shark diving pioneer of African Watersports based in Umkomaas.

Over a period of many years, I’ve watched Walter, usually in a centre of a ring of bull sharks where he seems most comfortable, do the most incredible things with these misunderstood creatures, while they circle curiously around him.

The man who removes hooks, the tonic master. When I first started shark diving, I learnt to always listen to exactly what Walter said, and as a result, have always had the time of my life. So, naturally, when the time came, Walter was my only choice. I thought, I’ll be safe and just like with shark diving and I was right: Only dive / run with the best.

Driving down to Port St Johns left me dumbstruck. I’ve always heard the Transkei was breathtaking and here I was between two large crags, the river cutting through unsullied land into the wild coast’s Indian Ocean. The most astonishing, untamed, untouched landscape with pristine beaches, dramatic cliffs, rolling hills, and lush forests. It is a region of exceptional natural beauty and there were moments when I wished I could stay just a little while longer to avoid the feeling of melancholy as I watched the beauty flash by.

Everyone warned me about the launch, but I had no fear for that; I’d been with Walter and Top Man Thunzi before, and surfing waves with a boat is something they both make look easy. My biggest apprehension was the cold, and my goodness, I was right. I had a big ass jacket, literally three times too big for me so that I could curl up in it, two beanies, a neck scarf and gloves. Turns out I wasn’t the only one prepared for cold as one of our teammates, Lorenzo Pilati, came with two hot water bottles for his feet, I was envious, and he was generous, sharing his pink flamingo covered water bottle with all on board. And as we raced headlong into the sound and the fury I remembered Walter’s description of what was about to take place: “It is going to feel as if we are being lured into a gravitational tornado of movement from above and below”. On arrival we could see thousands of Cape Gannets diving and hitting the silver silhouette of the bait ball that spins below the surface, desperately trying to keep itself together as if a secret pact had been agreed upon, and dolphins putting on an aerial display, flying into the air, jumping and twirling. And then back into the fray; the fray that we were about to jump into.

Everything including the cold disappeared when I was given my first “Go” and landed right next to a humpback whale that hung suspended in the water waiting for me to applaud it. I had to remind myself to breathe. The enormity of this creature was heart-stopping. It is indescribable, the feeling of being next to a mammal that weighs tonnes. You feel insignificant, and the thought of being swallowed, of disappearing for eternity, crossed my mind. Instead, with the smallest of eyes, a look of such deep intensity; a spiritual connection that is beyond belief … and words fail me. Colossal, yet so incredibly aware of the space it occupies. Several times humpbacks came so close that their pectoral fins almost touched us and one can only believe that they didn’t touch us deliberately. We were in the presence of something so great.

I am told that not everyone sees what I saw on the run, and I still don’t feel like I saw enough. Below the surface the birds made my eyes wide. Once they hit the water, they resemble bombs; the speed cuts a trail behind them that is almost cartoonish as my mind translates their sunny air assault into picture bubbles under water. They gobble up sardines as they dive bomb, three or four at a time and they swim with their wings as if they’d been created as half bird /half fish. Then they bob up like a buoy line trapped under water. The sound of it alone reminds you that you are in Africa and this is truly the Wild Coast.

The dolphins are juggling tasks, and there was not a day that wasn’t filled with dolphins singing and clicking as they corralled the sardines into a ball. Torpedoes in the water, dolphins are extraordinarily fast and, strangely enough, know exactly where you are and that you are not food. Often, they wink or smile as they go past and some even say there’s the occasional “teehee” amongst their calls. You’ll think I’m mad, but that’s the truth.

The sharks, while with the dolphins and part of the predatorial pack, are my favourites; when they’re alone circling you, um, not so much. I’ve been taught how to swim with sharks and, yet, everything I did went against my training. I lost my nerve at one point when at least six duskies began circling me and I screamed for Thunzi to help me back onto the boat. What a thrill, my heart double beats just thinking of it. The sharks loved me so much that I earned the nickname: Sharkey NumNum.

I couldn’t believe there could be more to this experience, but the truth is, we had just begun. I spent nine days with the AWS crew and every day was a triumph. Finally, we saw a static bait ball. I told a friend that it felt like the first time I had dived, and she responded: “It was like the first time I lived.” I agree. Here it was, the mother ship, the nirvana.

A massive tower of sardines that stretched as high or low as your eyes could see. This tight tornado of fish separates as several sharks sweep through it. It rejoins only to be scattered by dolphins and birds.

I have never seen anything like that in my life and I will spend my next years running after that experience. I thought I reached the peak of the run, I was wrong again.

The Brydes whale is the most coveted sight on the Sardine Run, and I saw not one but two. One of which came close to swallowing Walter. Watching a recording of this incredible video, I still believe that the whale knew he was there because if you slow the footage down you’ll see the whale not only didn’t swallow Walter, it didn’t swallow a gannet that was in the way either. These creatures are just incredible.

And then there were the people. When you participate in an endurance activity like this, you truly get to know your peers, and I loved the people as much as I loved the adventure. We were a bunch of characters and I have made friends for life. We have a Whatsapp group now filled with “miss you guys” and “same time next year” greetings.

This has single-handedly been the big adventure of my life and that’s saying something. I changed forever; I became friends with my body; I achieved more than I could ever dream of; and, of course, I certainly saw the greatest show on earth.

The Original Article can be read here:

Special Thanks to Divers Alert Network Southern Africa & our dear friend Tonya KhourY!