South Africa, Sardine Run

Eagerly anticipated annually, the majority of sardines, usually found in the cooler Cape Waters, brings to the KwaZulu-Natal region a small proportion which is the highlight of the season, attracting fishermen and thousands of locals and tourists as they throng to the shores to watch the sardine run.


Image courtesy of the web

These swift fish are pursued by sharks, shad, seals and dolphins. As the sardines leap to the surface, the birds (Cape gannets and gulls and others) swoop down around the dolphins to ravage the shimmering masses of panicky fish. The coastal dolphins, not to be outdone, prey on the shoals to replenish their depleted fat stores and wean their calves. When the fish become lethargic due to oxygen in the surrounding water being almost minimal, predators feed leisurely. All compete for a share of the bounty in this extraordinary occurrence. Experienced fishermen flock also compete for their share of the spoils.

cape gannets.jpg

This time, the sea at Pennington and Sezela revealed Pods of up to 200 dolphins as well as frenzy of shark activity and other identified pockets of baitfish that followed the sardines up the coast. These swift sardines live fast and die young, they rarely live longer than three years. Measuring a length of just under 20 cm, they are highly fecund with females producing to 27 500 eggs. Their main spawning grounds are off the southern Cape coast where the adults gather for a prolonged breeding season during spring and early summer. Their eggs are simply released into the water, fertilized and left to drift off in the open ocean. These marvels of nature grow into little fish that swim in dense pockets against the current to complete their cycle back home.

Some information on sardines :

  • Sardines are cold-water fish
  • Sardines are commonly found in enormous shoals on the west coasts of California, South America, Japan, Australia and Southern Africa
  • They comprise nearly a quarter of the world’s fish catch by weight and is one of valuable groups of fish
  • Their close relatives are anchovies and herrings
  • 200 000 tonnes caught annually
  • They feed primarily on plankton, minute plants and animals

Diving Trips

Back in the 1930’s and 40’s, Indian, purse seine fishermen made a living off the sardine and shad catches. When the sardine shoals beached in huge numbers, the suffocating fish would be left stranded and unable to escape. Neptune’s free bounty allowed people to rush to the surf in a frenzy with anything that could hold sardines, be it, buckets, baskets, shirts or skirts. Hence the “Sardine Fever” was born. A good run is dependent on the temperature of the water (around 19°).

south coast run

Commercial fishing is also undertaken using beach seine nets, which are pulled and dragged ashore. The sardines are crated and depending on the quality of the fish, the catch may be canned or ground into fishmeal. The Cape fishery employs thousands of people as they see annual catches of about 10 000 tonnes whilst the KwaZulu-Natal waters, hundreds of tonnes. Some are packaged to be sold as bait or for human consumption. It is not uncommon to find light motor vehicles displaying hastily made signs advertising the fresh fish. The first netting guarantees premiums rates. Most grumble at the cost of “free” fish being sold and wait for the ensuing days for the prices to be reduced. As did my husband, who waited a couple of days. Eager not to miss this delicacy this year (we missed a couple of years), he arrived from work with a packet of 18 sardines. . An ardent fisherman himself, we made a rule when we married, he would clean and gut, I would prepare and serve. That is exactly what we did. Fairly simple, either braaied or fried. However, I chose to fry.

fried sardines

Sardines fried…

How to fry sardines :

  1. Season the sardines with salt and pepper.
  2. Dredge them in a mixture the flour, turmeric powder and curry powder
  3. Shake off the excess and place them in the hot oil to fry.
  4. Turn the sardines over with tongs and fry on the other side.
  5. Drain on paper towels.
  6. Service with slices of lemon.

I was reminded of my days in Kerala when I saw the karameen being prepared and deep fried. It was a treat then as was our sardines yesterday. Even the children, picky eaters when it comes to fish, could not resist asking to taste. I cleaned off the “bones” and the meatier bits were appreciated. It brought back memories of my childhood, I knew my children would remember their family meal of fried sardines.

Whilst it is a boon for so many, the sardine run has negative effects on tourism as their arrival coincides with the school holidays and bathers are restricted from beach activities by the South African Sharks Board. The shark nets have been temporarily removed to accommodate the Sardine Run. Local authorities have agreed to “discretionary bathing”. Signs have been erected that state that the nets have been removed from the sea because of the Sardine Run but that bathers may enter the water at their own risk.

One thing is certain, everybody wants a piece of the sardine action. Once the word gets out, within hours, social media has its own frenzy. To cope, there is a hotline which is updated regularly through the duration of the run. Tour operators offer sea and flight package tours to view this phenomenon Such is the hype and excitement that several high profile television documentaries, including the BBC’s Blue Planet series, have featured the Sardine Run, as have prestigious magazines such as National Geographic.

For those keen, Oceans Africa and Bluewilderness caters for those looking for real life African diving adventures………

Rightly termed as “The Greatest Shoal on Earth”, our Sardine Run is an epic event, a bucket list item of “things to see and do” and ”eat”! It IS a truly unique and unforgettable experience that unites a rainbow nation and makes us all Proudly South African.

Main picture : A haul of sardines netted at Pumula this morning
Photo: The Sardine Run Facebook page, Pic cr Corné

Watch the video on the Sardine Run here on

24 thoughts on “South Africa, Sardine Run

  1. I remember this from my brief sojourn near Durban back in 1974. Thank you for such an interesting and informative article about the phenomenon. The local fishermen in Umkomaas used to go out in ski boats every day all year round but the sardine run was a special occasion.

    Liked by 1 person

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