From the air the shoal looks like an oil slick; a vast blotch of black spread across a blue-green canvas. Below the water it's a frenzy. The clustered baitfish are so plentiful they block the sunlight making it difficult to discern a single fish from the silvery mass, until a diving gannet hits the water like a depth charge repelling the sardines as if by some unseen explosion, splaying the school and allowing a beam of light to peep through. Sharks lunge from the flanks. Game fish dart in and out of the shoal. Whales erupt, mouths ajar, from below. If Mother Nature directed an action movie, it would look something like South Africa's Sardine Run. And this year, it's worth watching.

"We have experienced a bumper Sardine Run this year, the likes of which hasn’t been seen on the KZN [KwaZulu-Natal] South Coast for many years," CEO of Ugu South Coast Tourism, Phelisa Mangcu explained to a local news outlet. The spectacle begins in the colder months of June or July when huge shoals of sardines break away from their spawning grounds off the southern Cape coast and head eastwards following a narrow band of cold water into the KwaZulu-Natal province. It's not entirely clear why the fish make the treacherous journey up the coast – Cape waters are safer and food is more plentiful. But, whatever the reason, their migration triggers a surge of predatory action from sharks, dolphins, whales and – perhaps most significantly – humans.

"We are so grateful that, during a time when people are facing financial difficulties and food scarcity, the ocean has truly delivered to our local communities and families," Mangcu added. South Africa is still experiencing a partial lockdown, however, permits have been issued for commercial and recreational fishing and many South Africans are getting in on the action.

"You have to be there, on the beach, to understand the sardine experience and how beautiful it is," Sardine-Run stalwart Marco Nico told the Daily Maverick. "The camaraderie. Everyone together on the beach. The sharks. The game fish. The birds. Being part of it is one of the biggest highs of my life." Encouragingly, despite the frenzied action, reports suggest that most anglers seem to be following health-and-safety protocols, including social distancing, the wearing of masks, and regular hand sanitising.

In recent years, the Sardine Run has been disappointing, creating disruptions in supply chains within the fisheries industry, and causing concern amongst scientists who understand the importance of the phenomenon to the delicate ocean ecosystem. But this year has calmed any concerns. 

"What a bonanza of fish we saw yesterday, it was overwhelming with so many sardines!" Dr Ryan Daly of the Oceanographic Research Institute told online magazine The Sardine. "As both a scientist and someone who has been following the sardines for many years, it was amazing to see the volume of sardines yesterday (Tuesday, 16 June) ... certainly, it’s the most sardines I’ve ever seen on the KZN South Coast. With climate change, potential pressure from commercial fishing and shifts in the way animals respond to environments, many scientists were worried that bumper Sardine Runs were a thing of the past, so it’s fantastic to see the surge in activity. It should bode well for a great season."

Here's a look at some of the images and videos being shared online:

Footage from a previous Sardine Run courtesy of Cameraman Bart Lukasik.

We'll be updating you as often as possible, so keep an eye on our website and Facebook page.

Header image: Lakshmi Sawitri
Lead image: Gerhard Britz & Ryan Daly