Sunday, June 29, 2008


The primary reason I initially decided to come back to Africa – though it has clearly been pulling me back for months – has finally arrived! It is SARDINE RUN time! Once a year, the Sardines move down the coast of South Africa as the water temperatures change, and with them comes an amazing display of predators and action. Diving gannets, humpback and bride whales, dolphins by the thousands, sharks by the hundreds and of course shoals and shoals of glistening sardines.

The past few years, the sardines haven’t "run", and the diving has been lackluster at best. But this year, early reports indicate the sardines will be plentiful and the run promises to be an incredible display.

Unfortunately, as it always seems to happen when I am in South Africa, I managed to plan a trip during a time in which they have a weather first. A few months ago when diving with the white sharks, it was winds and swells like they had never seen before. This time around, it was a flash flood. As luck would have it, the day we were set to arrive in Durban, they received an unpredicted downpour that resulted in rivers overflowing and destroying bridges and consuming highways, houses sliding down hills into the oceans, and even a plane sliding off the runway.

Now, I am a relatively tough chick and am happy (or at least begrudging at best) to dive in the rain. But what this did was far worse then a bit of inconvenience on the boat for our first few days on the run. It turned the water into a murky, mixed up chocolate syrup with no visibility and the massive amount of debris in the water combined with the destruction closed launch sites for days. But as always, we made the most of it.

Jamie and I were diving with my dear friends, Mark and Gail Addison, who run Blue Wilderness. Mark and Gail are incredibly passionate and committed to conservation, and protecting all things cherished about this planet. They are some of the most kind, generous people I have ever met, and the most knowledgeable operators - I mean, they started Sardine Run.

And, much to our delight, Jamie and I were also with a wonderful group of people. First, there was Pam, our skipper and the sweetest person you could ever hope to meet. What’s more, this was a rugged and brilliant chick, who ran her own dive tour operation while getting her Marine Biology degree. She is the type of person I wished I had grown up to become! Then, there was Mark and Sophia – a delightful couple whose passion for each other was just as strong as their passion for adventure. She had been a news photographer for years, frequently finding herself in the middle of riots and shootings. Mark is a surfer that makes boards and a professional photographer in his own right. The two of them were so funny and such a joy to be around, I just simply couldn’t get enough of them. And as luck would have it, they are best friends with my new housemate Renier, so I am going to have a chance to spend much time with them in my days to come in Capetown. They are the type of couple that gives me hope - and the type that everyone just wants to be around.

Then, there was Paul, who ran a production company in Malaysia and was soon to become my first shooter for my gig with the Underwater channel. Paul and I instantly gravitated towards one another, I suppose because we both were in similar sibling situations growing up. Paul took care of both Jamie and I, while at the same time, tormented me with all sorts of brotherly antics – which of course I loved. Finally, there was Mike, a freediver and another cinematographer/production company owner from South Africa, who was there doing a piece for Japanese television. Mike is one of those guys you used to invent when you were an 11 year old girl dreaming of the boyfriend you would invariably have when you were 20 and of course also famous and rich beyond your wildest dreams at that point... handsome, tall, athletic, funny, smart, successful, and kind. But, more importantly, (and really all that mattered to me...) Mike and I were cut out of the same cloth; we even both run Shark Conservation organizations. So, of course I couldn’t get enough of him, spending hours talking about sharks… (and yes just a few other things as well!)

The first few days, we were not able to launch, so we explored an aquarium, went horseback riding on the beach (I am the typical chick who grew up LOVING horses), discovered Port Edward and had a ball getting to know each other. Then, finally, it came time to do what we were there for – find some Sardine action!
The Sardine Run is like no other dive adventure I have been on. You literally spend hours looking for action, suited up in your wet suit on a small panga zooming around the ocean with a microlite above cluing you in on the action. It was brief and few and far in between, but when you got action, it made it all worthwhile. One day, we spent the day dropping in and freediving with pods of common nose and spinner dolphins who numbered in the thousands. It was such an amazing site to hang at fifteen feet and have dolphins whiz by you as far as the eye could see, like walking through Grand Central Station during rush hour… Another day we found the Humpbacks and I had a magical experience when two headed straight for me and I got up close and personal with some of the most majestic creatures on the planet. I was so close, I was pulled into the current they created with their enormous, barnacled bodies that glided effortlessly by.

The diving gannets were a sight to see. Beautiful above water, they turned into monstrous looking things as they pierced the surface and dove down twenty feet for a sardine. One took a liking to Jamie’s wetsuit and began incessantly attacking her arm. I nearly drowned laughing so hard.

Finally, Mother Nature delivered our bait ball. A swarming mass of sardines, encircled by dozens of bronze whaler and black tip sharks that were darting in and out of the school, flanked by dolphins whose piercing calls I could hear through my hood. Everywhere I turned there was action – even gannets diving in from above. It was hectic – and even a bit disconcerting when I found myself in the middle of it all. Sharks with their open mouths brushing my legs and zooming past my mask – spending much of their time hidden closely next to me in my blind spot. I remembered my friend Shawn’s words of caution but rather than moving away from the action, in typical Julie style, I was drawn to the middle of it! It was quite singularly one of the most incredible things I have ever experienced. I am desperate to return. And to see all my new friends again, who on this trip, all turned into family.

(Thanks to Pam, Jamie and Sophia for the great pictures...)

More photos of the African adventure.

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