This African sardine run is the only place left in the world where scientists and tourists can view such massive predation so close to shore, asserted Professor Vic Peddemors, a marine biologist at University of KwaZulu-Natal. Tourists and adventure divers from around the globe travel to the eastern coast of South Africa in June and July to witness the migration.
“You can see what they see in crisp, brilliant, bigger-than-life-size, IMAX images, without the cost of travel or danger of frenzied sharks,” said Jack Schneider, Aquarium curator of animals and director of education. Sardine is a common name for many different small fish. The particular variety featured in the movie is also called a pilchard, he explained.
“Only an IMAX-sized movie can do justice to this massive spectacle of nature,” Schneider added. Shoals often measure 4 miles long by more than a mile wide and 100 feet deep, Peddemors said. “The shoals . . . look like a giant sea monster, shimmering in the sun, weaving through the water,” wrote Leon Marshall for National Geographic News.
Twenty thousand or more dolphins follow the sardines, according to the Zulu Kingdom’s web site. Dolphins orchestrate coordinated attacks in “super pods” several thousand individuals strong. Communicating with sonar-like clicks and vocalizations, dolphins blow bubble curtains to corral the sardines, carving out of the shoal huge, spherical, “bait balls” of fish. To eat the sardines more easily, the air-breathing dolphins concentrate the sardines then push their panicked prey toward the surface. The ocean boils in a silvery-blue mass.
That in turn alerts thousands of the approximately 100,000 cape gannets (fish-eating birds) following the migration. They begin diving attacks from above, whilst dolphins gobble up fish from below. Gulls, cormorants and terns join the aerial attack. IMAX cameras catch the action from above and below the ocean surface.
Meanwhile the ocean feeding frenzy attracts hundreds of sharks: coppers, spinners, black-tips and others. An adult dusky shark was found with 621 sardines in its stomach, reported the Zulu Kingdom’s web site. Pilchard sardines measure from under an inch to nearly nine.
Other marine animals take their share of schooling sardines too: big game fish, penguins, Cape fur seals, even whales.
When shoals draw near to shore, the movie takes you along as small commercial fishing boats set out with purse seine nets. This type of net is like a large bag or purse with a drawstring at the bottom that is closed after the open “top” is drawn through the school. When the net is full, swimmers jump off the boats into the shallows and pull the net bottom closed. When very close in-shore, helpers wade in from the beach, dragging the whole lot up onto terra firma.
“Timing is everything,” reported National Geographic. “If the shoal is very active and ‘bubbling,’ the fishermen know it is being chased by sharks and the swimmers must wait.”
Sometimes thousands of panicked pilchards, chased by predators, run right up onto the beach unleashing pandemonium, described the Natal Sharks Board.
“When sardines are beaching anything goes, and it is not uncommon to see grandmothers competing with teenagers for ‘their’ share of the feast in a social occasion that draws crowds into the surf and even larger crowds of awed and amused spectators,” the Board’s website declared. Fish are so thick in the shallows they are collected with hand nets, buckets, baskets, even hats, pants, shirts, skirts and bare hands.
All the frenzy and adventure is captured and shown for you in brilliant, clear images and presented to a soundtrack that evokes the rhythms of Africa, Schneider said, but you need travel no farther than Norwalk to see it.
“Wild Ocean” also examines the longtime relationship between the people of South Africa and the pilchard migration. Produced by the creators of “Stomp,” the IMAX film offers a symphonic and colorful presentation of the struggle for survival set against the culture of coastal Africa, Schneider offered.
“Wild Ocean, Where Africa Meets the Sea” addresses the spectacle from several perspectives, both physically and sociologically, Schneider said. “Physically, the film takes you up in the air, out on a boat, underwater and overland. Sociologically it explores the very important economic and ecologic ramifications of the pilchard migration and the humans that feed upon it,” Schneider explained.
In the last hundred years, however, one predator developed the unnatural ability to take great quantities from the ocean’s stocks. Using mechanized fishing, this predator takes enormous shoals in a single sweep, yet gives nothing back to the sea. This predator broke the circle. It mistakenly considered the ocean an unlimited resource, the movie offers.
Fortunately, this predator is becoming aware of its appetite. It is better matching its needs to the food chain and recognizing the value of sustainable fishing practices. In South Africa, business, government and the local people have joined forces in an attempt to protect this great and invaluable sardine migration. This is where Africa meets the sea. This, the film’s creators say, is the message of hope in “Wild Ocean.”
More Background Information:
The South Africa sardine (Sardinops sagaz) also known as the pilchard, is related to herring, shad and Atlantic menhaden.
Sardines are named for the Italian island of Sardinia where they once teemed in great numbers until humans depleted the fishery. The term “sardine” applies broadly to fish found, often in great numbers, in the Pacific, and Indian Oceans. A sardine migration similar to that shown in “Wild Ocean” occurs along the coast of California on a smaller scale.
The Maritime Aquarium has an exhibit of schooling fish with the pilchard-related Atlantic menhaden. Pilchards are filter feeders like their cousins the menhaden, which can be seen swimming with their mouths open in the Aquarium’s exhibit, straining plankton from the water for their sustenance.
South Africa, nearly twice the size of Texas, is broken into nine provinces. KwaZulu-Natal Province is where the sardine migration takes place. It was formed from two separate regions in 1994 when apartheid ended and the Republic of South Africa was reorganized under black majority rule.
“KwaZulu” in the Zulu language means “place of the Zulu.” The Zulu Kingdom still exists within the province. The Zulu people are an African tribal culture still led by a ceremonial king. “Natal” in Portuguese means “Christmas.” Explorer Vasco da Gama came ashore in the region on Christmas Day in 1497 and named the region Natal.
“Wild Ocean” is a production of Giant Screen Films and Yes/No Productions. The film is written and directed by Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, Academy Award nominated creators of the international sensation “Stomp.” Photography is by award winning director of photography, Reed Smoot with underwater photography by D.J. Roller. Original music by Cresswell and McNichols with sound design and mix by Mike Roberts and Brian Elmer.
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