By Matt Jacobs
All images © Matt Jacobs
That sinking feeling. When the number of bags on the carousel gets fewer and fewer. That sinking feeling. When the carousel stops. And your luggage is not there.
I’m in Durban airport, South Africa. But my luggage is not. All I have are the clothes I stand up in, my cameras and lenses, and a tooth brush. I think my bags must only be in Johannesburg where I stopped, only a twenty min flight away. Or worst case scenario in Istanbul. I quickly find out that no, my luggage never left London.
I’m in South Africa to dive the famous Sardine Run and Aliwal Shoal with Blue Ocean Dive Resort in Umkomaas and sitting in their mini bus I feel all is lost. I arrive at the resort and Nicki Gibson, the owner warmly welcomes me and calms me down, quickly taking control of the logistics for me. My luggage is not to arrive for another week and I’m confined to barracks (the bar) for the duration. I’m given the option to hire gear and dive, but I just can’t. I simply cannot bear the thought of seeing something wonderful and not being able to film or photograph it.
A week passes in a wonderful blur and my luggage is here at last and I hit the ground running with two dives on the world famous Aliwal Shoal in the early morning.
Diving here is not for the faint hearted. The launch over the surf is one of the most challenging and dangerous in the world and only the most skilled and experienced skippers can attempt this. Life jackets are handed out and I develop what the locals call the “white knuckle death grip” as I hang onto the ropes of the zodiac, adrenaline surging through my veins in response to the massive acceleration of the zodiac as it races towards the ominous looking surf. Surely we can’t clear those waves? They look far too high? The skipper weaves between the breakers sometimes turning back to make a second run, the zodiac launches skywards as we hit the waves, my death grip tightens and we safely clear the surf. Lifejackets are removed and we have a 15 minute journey to the shoal.
Humpback whales are with us and some breach nearby sending me into raptures of delight but I soon realise they are like cats out here. They are everywhere. The whales are heading north to give birth in the warmer waters near Mozambique before returning south to the Antarctic. They never cross the equator and the neither do the northern humpbacks and thus the two cousins never meet.
My guide on the reef is Rae, a hugely experienced instructor who knows every inch of Aliwal and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the marine life here, but her passion is sharks, or her babies as she calls them.
As we descend, Aliwal is bursting with life, moray eels, huge rays, turtles, schools of snappers, and of course, sharks everywhere. We are at a spot called The Cathedral and the ragged tooth sharks are here in great numbers this time of the year. Ferocious looking but docile, Rae had imparted her wisdom the night before on how best to approach to photograph them. I’m using an 8mm fish eye on the LUMIX GH6 so I need to get close. Very close.
The Wild Coast
After a second dive on the reef we race back to shore and I prepare my gear for the 5 hour road trip down to the Wild Coast for the Sardine Run. The trip down there is magical, my driver Jayson keeping me entertained through our mutual love of music as the smooth tarmac of the highways gives way to twisting bumpy roads and the urban landscape gives way to rolling hills as the sun races towards the horizon casting an otherworldly light the like of which I have not yet seen in my life. As we near our destination of Port St John’s, two huge 1,000 foot (304.8 meter) cliffs known as the Gates of St John create a gorge that the Mzimvubu River flows throw and out into the Indian Ocean. It is breathtakingly beautiful. Jayson stops so I can get a better view in the fading light and with strange birds squawking all around me I feel like I’m entering Jurassic Park. This is Wild. This is the Wild Coast.
The next morning, the blue hour reveals the true majesty of the mountains that tower over Cremone, the resort which Blue Ocean operate the Sardine Run from.
The sardine run of southern Africa occurs from May through July when billions of sardines spawn in the cool waters and move northward along the east coast of South Africa. Their sheer numbers create a feeding frenzy along the coastline with birds, dolphins, sharks, sailfish, and marlin are amongst the diners that begin to assemble and hunt down the hapless sardines.
Launching from the river it is similar to Aliwal and our skipper Rob is one of the best in the game, an ex-F1 powerboat driver, he exudes confidence and charisma and duly obliges Frenchman Adrien’s pleas to give it “full power” as once again my death grip tightens as we charge towards the furious looking surf. Once over, the hunt begins.
Rob communicates with other skippers in the area and with spotter planes overheard and has to make a decision whether to heard north or south. We race southwards and our dive guide Michael expertly scans the sea for signs of sardines at the surface and for birds diving in to the sea. These are the pointers that a bait ball has formed. Sometimes we can travel 60 kilometres (37.3miles) in either direction to get to the action. Most of the sardine run is done on snorkel or free diving. SCUBA only becomes an option when a static bait ball forms and looks like it’s going to hang around. You need to be ready to get in the water at a moments notice as bait balls disappear just as fast as they appear. After around an hour we see birds diving and swooping down, we get close, Rob turns, smiles and says “bait ball, get ready." On "go" we slip into the water as quietly as possible and move towards the bait-ball. Common dolphins burst through the sardines just as a black tip shark charges up from underneath, it’s a furious feeding frenzy and in the blink of eye its gone. This is the sardine run: the hunt, the buzz, the charge, the exhilaration.
But it’s not all about the bait balls. If one becomes fixated on this then one misses the true beauty of the run because the whole sea is simply alive at this time of year. Humpback whales are literally everywhere. On the horizon, near the boat, breaching, tale slapping. Dolphins are here in vast numbers. One day our boat is in the middle of literally thousands of dolphins all heading north with a curious urgency. Adrien on free diving down discovers there are ten times as many again under us as there are on the surface.
Date with a Humpback
It’s not easy to get close to a humpback whale. They will only play on their terms and if they don’t want to play they are gone in an instant. On the third day I slip into the water with a view of three humpbacks some way off. I am expecting the whales to turn away as they have been doing and the opportunity to photograph them will be gone. This time though, they were not for turning and I’m faced with what Rob described later as one of the biggest humpbacks he’s ever seen bearing down on me. I’m at the surface and she is growing bigger and bigger. All 40 tonnes of her. She is blowing air and it sounds primeval, dinosaur like as she keeps coming. There’s a shout from the boat, “It’s coming right for you Matt!” Yes, believe it or not I can see it, thanks. My mind starts to race, I cant swim under her she’s too big, I cant go left or right, she’s too big. So I just float there. I know my camera housing is strong but is it 40 tonne humpback strong? I start to think of all the crazy things I’ve done in my life and this is how it ends. My death certificate will have “death by humpback” on it. Then I think of Rae’s words: “If you get hit by a whale those barnacles will slice you open” Nice, thanks for that Rae.
I’m almost resigned now to that fact that I’m going over the top of this whale, she is so close. And then, at very last second just as I’m thinking of who will get my guitars when I die... she dives. She dives straight down and her huge tail sucks the water and the light down with it and she’s gone. Rob tells me later he was bracing the wheel for impact as he thought she was going to hit the boat. Back on the boat Adrien laughs and comments that my eyes are wide and staring, like saucers. This is the sardine run. This is wild. This is the Wild Coast.
We are on the zodiac for around 6 hours a day and the group I have is a wonderful life affirming bunch of people from all over the globe with Rob as the ringmaster keeping us all in check. There are quiet times on the sardine run, hours can pass where you see nothing but our group see the beauty and wonder in such things as the coastal waterfalls we pass by. It’s not just about the sardines you know.
After five days of the run I head back up to Umkomass to be reunited with Rae and explore more of Aliwal shoal. I’m treated to the over hangs, the swim throughs, the electric rays, the two wrecks of the Nebo and the Produce but it’s the baited shark dive that sets my pulse racing and is the highlight for me. This is not shark feeding. No sharks are fed here.
After a thorough safety briefing Rae sinks two drums, one at 5 metres (16.4 feet) and one at 18 metres (59 feet). The drums are full of dead sardines, mackerel and fish oil and soon as the drums hit the water the sharks begin to show up. Huge numbers of oceanic blacktips swarm around me and I am in heaven. In the summer months bull sharks show up along with tigers. Every once in a while a great white can show up.
Rae stands on the drum at 5 metres and moves it around, more sharks move in, she does the same at 18 meters. More sharks come. At one point I feel Rae hit my thigh, I look down to see what she wants, but it’s not her, it’s a huge shark with no table manners pushing me out of the way. They move fast, I jack my shutter speed to 640 sec and fire away as sharks barrel towards me and turn away at the last sec. There are sharks everywhere I turn, in-front, behind, below and above me. I’m so excited I’m going through my air like a pig through hot strawberries now.
We are an hour into the dive but I don't want this one to end, I could stay here all day. My air gauge has other ideas though and reluctantly, we ascend. As the drums are pulled back on the boat the sharks slowly slip away back into the blue. I do two more dives at Aliwal but the trip has ended two soon. Three weeks is not enough. This country and its people have got under my skin. I arrived close to tears because of my luggage and left in floods of tears because I didn’t want to leave.
My setup is always simple. For this trip I used the new Panasonic LUMIX GH6 in the new Ikelite housing. I used an Olympus 8mm fish eye with a red filter taped to the black of the lens. I only ever use ambient light underwater whether shooting video or stills. Fully manual, spot metering and manually white balancing every time I change depth by around 5 metres or so give me the results I want.
Both camera and housing worked flawlessly. The vacuum lock on the housing was perfect for the sardine run where I was getting in and out of the zodiac constantly. Knowing it was sealed and could handle the constant re-entries gave me complete peace of mind.
Just Do It
If you’ve never dived in South Africa you owe it to yourself to make it a priority on your list. Whatever you are into it’s here for you. From nudibranchs to great whites, turtles to humpbacks. I’ve dived all over the world but this is something very, very special. It’s diving at its most pure, it’s most untamed, its most visceral and most wild. Some of the diving can be challenging, but can also be the most rewarding diving you will ever do. It will be etched into your memory forever.
My heartfelt thanks gives to everyone at Blue Ocean Dive Resort who made my stay so, so magical but special thanks goes to Nicki for making sure I didn’t have a melt down when my luggage went missing and to Rae for putting me in front of what I needed to shoot and let my do my thing.
Ambassador Matt Jacobs learned to dive in the Philippines while he was traveling around the world extensively as a photographer in the late 90's. It was only natural to combine his passion for photography with his love of the water. Egypt is now his spiritual home with a special fondness for the Red Sea. Matt is a Panasonic LUMIX Ambassador and his work has been published and sold as fine art internationally. Read more...
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