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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Above, Below And Beyond: Capturing The Annual Sardine Run

Every year around June, a mass migration takes place along the southern and eastern coasts of South Africa that draws an unprecedented abundance of predators of fin, fur and feather

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The Sardine Run takes place during late May through early July, following large populations of sardines as they migrate from cold-water seas to the more temperate Wild Coast off the southern tip of South Africa. It's an almost perfect nexus of predators and prey comprised of sharks, whales, seals, birds and fish. Photographer Chris Fallows offers several marine safaris based out of South Africa, including an annual trip to capture images of the frenzied action. Above: Common dolphins chasing and herding ever-shifting sardine balls beneath the waves.

Between the months of May and July, the annual Sardine Run along the southern and eastern coasts of South Africa is an eastward exodus of billions of sardines that follow nutrient-rich cool water while being followed themselves by a veritable caravan of predators. A unique aspect of the Sardine Run is that you can capture great images of the action from both above and below the water as predators dive toward the shoals of sardines from the air, as well as attack upward from beneath. To paint a picture of the action and chaos is difficult as it's truly a sensory overload, but unquestionably, it's one of nature's greatest spectacles, and this mass-feeding event offers photographers, filmmakers and naturalists an abundance of viewing and photographic opportunities.

Bronze whaler sharks enter the fray.
Generally, the first sign of action is the wheeling flocks of Cape Gannet seabirds that circle above the schools of bait fish. Often, they're waiting for dolphins to arrive and frighten the fish into defensive balls of bait that are then driven close to the surface and into the birds' diving range, which can be as deep as 60 feet. Sometimes thousands of common dolphins attack the shoals of bait fish in coordinated waves of almost military-like formations while emitting powerful bursts of sonar that confuse and stun their prey. When the gannets start diving, sometimes from as high as 100 feet above the water, the action ratchets up a few notches. Gannets can strike the water at over 70 miles per hour, and the noise and concussion of the strike can be heard from a long way away. The balls of fish converge and change shape to evade predators, and the racket of thousands of fish moving together and apart rapidly sounds like fall leaves rustling down a gravel track.

Cape Gannet seabirds are powerful divers and are capable of attacking the submarine sardines from above. They also skim the surface of the ocean looking for leftovers.
Then come the sharks and, sometimes, even penguins. The sharks launch themselves into the balls of bait, themselves being swallowed into the balls of bait like a scene from Star Trek as a spaceship disappears into a black hole, opening once again when the shark pops out the other side like a magician's magic act. The penguins, draped in their black-and-white tuxedos, dance around like an army of butlers performing a waltz, backward, forward and side to side, any which way that will allow them to catch their prey. Lastly, the big guns of the show arrive for the final act. Bryde's whales with cavernous mouths and lengths of up to 50 feet will drive into the balls of bait like freight trains, swallowing thousands of desperate fish and anything else that gets in their way. Sardines scatter upward to escape them, erupting from the water as raucous gulls, gannets and albatross wait and then feast from above as they break the ocean's surface. With all this action, there's something for everyone to photograph, and even with limited skills, the image opportunities are diverse and plentiful. The skill is knowing what to shoot, when and where, and, of course, not to get caught up in the action by shooting wildly like a mad machine-gunner.

For topside shots, I find keeping the action close to the lens rather than using longer lenses will work best. The reasoning behind this is simple. The environment is often chaotic, and if you approach it slowly with a boat you can get very close without disturbing the behavior. Added to this, the ocean's surface is never flat during active feeding. Even if there's little swell to the surface, the dolphins porpoising above and below the water alongside gannets plunging into the ocean will cause wavelets and plenty of surface chop, so any really long or heavy lens is difficult to work with thanks to camera shake, especially noticeable in telephotos. The Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM with image stabilization is my primary lens. Another good lens to have handy is a wide zoom, like the 16-35mm ƒ/2.8, as gannets and dolphins sometimes spread themselves apart over hundreds of yards. This expanse, coupled with beautiful seascape backgrounds, gives the use of a wide lens a noticeably different approach to photographing the action.

While obviously difficult to capture successfully, motion blurs of rapidly porpoising dolphins or plunging gannets offer many options for tracking subjects through the melee of shapes and forms that are all moving in a variety of directions. It's never easy to know which gannet is going to dive next, but the birds usually give a warning call just prior to diving to let other birds sitting on the surface of the ocean below know that they're about to dive into the same area. Dolphins usually move in synchrony, so shooting with an ƒ-stop that provides a decent amount of depth of field gives a sense of the number of animals feeding. Photographing dolphins from lower angles often allows you to capture dramatic bursts of flight as the dolphins race from shoal to shoal. Be under no illusion, though; this isn't easy, and the lower you go to the surface of the water, the trickier it gets. I have my wife, Monique, call out to me where a dolphin has last leapt, and then I focus in the area that I next expect the dolphin to leap again. Dolphins often will use an advancing swell to propel them into a leap, so be aware of this to help predict the next breach and your next potential shot.


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