Dolphins gracefully popped out of the water, peppering the Indian Ocean’s surface, as sharks rose from the depths and birds dove from the sky — all on the hunt for sardines.
In the crisp air of winter, South Africa’s east coast becomes home to a spectacular annual migration of millions of sardines.
The “sardine run” — which lasts several months and usually peaks in July — attracts a host of marine predators, resulting in a feeding frenzy.
“This is a super-pod of common dolphins,” marine biologist Michelle Carpenter said, while perching on the side of a boat as three dolphins dove perfectly synchronized just off the bow.
As the ripples of foamy waters rolled through, a flurry of Cape gannets tucked in their wings in succession, diving from the clear blue skies like arrows into the dark waves.
A shape-shifting silvery ball of sardines grouped together glided through the water in unison below the waves: a “bait ball.”
Separated from the main shoal, which can be several kilometers long, they were surrounded and then herded up to the surface by the dolphins.
The feasting could begin.
This choreographed dance of nature is possible because of the symbiotic relationship between the different predators.
“Sardines are always looking for depth, for protection ... so they try to go down deep. That’s where the sharks come in,” professional diver Gary Snodgrass said. “So you have the sharks at the bottom and the dolphins around the edges, basically stopping the sardines from running away.”
Then, the most menacing guest arrived, a dusky shark with its fear-inducing dorsal fin, stealthily weaving its way into the banquet feast.
Under the surface, wetsuit-clad spectators kept their distance, watching the feeding frenzy as the sardines frantically tried to escape.
However, within minutes, their shoal was decimated — the dining ended and the guests took their leave.
Their binge was to be repeated over and over during the three to four months of the migration — until the sardines disappear back into the open ocean.
The reason behind the “sardine run” is not exactly known, but scientists believe that it is linked to their reproductive cycle.
Those who saw the feast from under the waves took away indelible memories.
“Amazing,” said French diver Laurent, who did not give his surname. “The shark was the cherry on the cake — incredible. The shark didn’t bite us. It was the best time ever.”
As calm returned to the sea’s surface, a silvery constellation of fish scales trickled like stardust into the deep.
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