AdventureAfricaScubaSouth Africa

6/22: The Sardine Run

Evelyn and I woke at 6:30 (oy – jetlag!) for breakfast and our dive briefing. Nic – the owner of SEAL Expeditions – introduced the staff, talked about the procedures, and split us into boat groups. Evelyn and I are in “SEAL 2” with part of the Pan Aqua group, a man named Jim from Portland, and our skipper François and Dive Master Ulrich. We got our gear together, suited up in our wetsuits (a woman named Lesley has kindly loaned me one of her bathing suits to wear under mine since I’ve no clothes), and headed down to the beach where the staff was preparing the launch.
African Shore Launch
Our boats are large Zodiacs that fit 8-10 divers, and the launch involves a series of tricky maneuvers on the part of the skipper. The boat is loaded from the shore, we jump in, and François navigates the 5-6 foot breakers until he finds a safe entry into the blue. It’s an exhilarating experience that’s compounded by the intensity of an oncoming storm. The waves were rough and SEAL 2 caught air at least twice before landing beyond the breakers. We were the first boat out, and I’d learn later that the divers on the shore watched our progress with great interest, likening it to something “very National Geographic”.
François in SEAL2 on the shore
SEAL 2 flew into the rough waves, spraying us with cold salt water and soaking us through our full wetsuits. Remember that this is winter in South Africa and, while “winter” here is a mild 50-70 degrees, it’s damn cold on the water. I found myself wishing for my thick windbreaker that I’d smartly packed somewhere inside my missing backpack. Hopefully miracles still happen.
François found a spot on the ocean that was a little less rough than the rest (read: 4’ swells rather than 6-10’ swells). We took the time to suit up in our scuba gear for a brief dive and weight check to ensure we’re properly weighted when the time comes that we spot a mass of sardines.
This is where I should describe what diving the Sardine Run is like. We cruise the ocean in our zodiac, fully suited in wetsuits, scuba gear at the ready, and try to spot a shoal of sardines. There’s a microlight pilot who cruises the shoreline for the same purpose and radios back any activity (also known as “bait balls”) he sees so we can zip over and watch. If and when we find sardine activity, we must be prepared to jump in quickly before it moves away. This is, after all, nature. There are no guarantees that we’ll see anything and – if we do – it’s likely to happen fast. Evelyn says they’ve mostly snorkeled since the sardines move quickly away before they’ve put on their scuba gear. Doesn’t matter to me. I just want to see some sharks and whales. But there were no bait balls today, and the weather was cold, cloudy, and windy so we called it an early day and headed back to the lodge for a late lunch.
African Shore Landing
The beach landing is the reverse of the launch, and meant that François “surfed” the zodiac back into the beach. Before we landed, he joked that “the boat is equipped with ABS breaks, so don’t worry when it gets bumpy”. A true statement – we sped full speed to the sand and skidded to a stop just beyond the shoreline. Quite smooth.
Mbyoti River Area
I took an extended nap in the afternoon and wrote in my journal before helping myself to a glass of red wine at the bar and socializing with the rest of the guests. They are from various places and all walks of life, and this is precisely why I love diving… so many interesting people to meet. I learned over dinner that Skip and Susan used to race cars. He had a Lotus (!) that they once got up to 150 mph in a road race in Nevada. Did I mention earlier that I feel provincial? Now I need to add “race obscenely expensive sportscars” to the things I should do before I die.
Oh, my luggage arrived! All is right with the world.