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

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.

Gannet action is always frenetic, and it's simply awesome above and below the water. If you want to get images of gannets hitting the water, a suggestion is to focus on a patch of water known as "the gate"—the churned-up white area above the shoal of fish caused by dozens, hundreds and occasionally, thousands of gannets entering the water at roughly the same place. It's not difficult to see where this is, and by focusing on this general area as a wave of gannets falls, simply fire away and sooner or later, it will yield a pleasing result. Selection of the best spot on a vessel is key for getting crisp images on a boat. Typically, I tend to jam myself into a corner so I can concentrate on shooting and not my balance. Usually, the stern of the boat where the engines are is less likely to be bumpy than the bow. On our vessel, we've custom-designed the boat to allow dramatic water-line shooting opportunities as my guests can lie down almost flush with the water line while still staying dry. This angle allows the height and athleticism of any breach to be shown to the maximum. On any really flat calm days, it's also a good idea to have your wide-angle handy between feeding bouts, as dolphins will often bow-ride with the boat. By using a polarizer coupled with a graduated filter, you can get beautiful shots of dolphins cruising just below the surface by lying on the bow of the boat. (Be careful to avoid your reflection, and be aware of the typically large difference of exposure between the dark water and the bright horizon, hence the suggestion to use graduated filters or bracket your exposures.)

Even penguins are welcome participants in the Sardine Run, as you can see by these African penguins off of False Bay near Cape Town. Other frequent fowl include petrels, shearwaters, Cape gannets and albatross.

When it comes to shooting action underwater, a lot of different rules and suggestions apply. First, the action can be intense, and a cool head goes a long way, not only to getting the shots, but also staying safe. I equate being next to a sardine bait ball as similar to standing next to a herd of wildebeest crossing the Serengeti with lions and all other predators closing in around you. It can be dangerous if you don't pay attention. If you're lucky enough to get an active bait ball, don't crowd it too tightly, as often the gannets will stop diving and then the sharks will disperse and finally the dolphins will leave. It's easy to tell when this is happening so, be respectful with regard to your impact on the action.

When the gannets really start piling in, it charges the whole scene up several levels. Sharks appear from everywhere, and it's at this time that they may give you an exploratory bump, so it's always a good idea to look behind you once in a while and watch your diving buddies to warn them, if you can, when a shark approaches. Hopefully, they will do likewise. One of the key things to remember is not to swim to the action too aggressively, but let it come to you and, invariably, it will at some stage. Don't allow yourself to be caught up in the ball, as this is when accidents can, and do, happen. Sharks, on occasion, charge through the ball with mouths agape, and most exciting is when a Bryde's whale lunges through the ball with a mouth like a 747 freight plane with its cargo door open. It's not difficult at a time like this to imagine how Jonah was said to have ended up inside a whale.

A bronze whaler shark and several other species intermingle beneath the waves.

If you're diving with other photographers or group members, it's a good idea before you go under to discuss what you're wanting to achieve. If all divers surround the ball, this can make very frustrating shooting conditions when you have divers who are opposite you in every frame. It's a good idea for all to start off by shooting with the sun and light at your back, and doing so in a semicircle if there are more than two of you. As the action underwater sometimes takes place in a large area with multiple species, you generally want to shoot very wide since you're ultimately telling a story about a mass-feeding event. To do this, I've shot with a Canon EF 15mm ƒ/2.8 fisheye and the newer EF Canon 8-15mm ƒ/4L fisheye. Currently, I shoot with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II in an Aquatica digital housing. I still use my trusted Ikelite DS125 strobes. Don't forget to take a crack at split- or water-level shots, especially between dives. Gannets falling, dolphins charging and seabirds resting can be very interesting if shot from a low perspective.

The Sardine Run is one of the marine world's greatest events, seldom predictable and always changing, but when you hit the home-run shot while it's all going crazy, there can be few events as exciting to be part of than this one. When planning your trip, make sure you choose a reputable and experienced operator. Ask if they have worked with photographers before, see if they understand the local sea conditions, and ask if they can adapt to capturing other wildlife on any given day if the sardine action isn't happening.

For more information on Apex Shark Expeditions Sardine Run trips for 2013 or general advice on shooting this event, visit

Leave a Reply

Main Menu