How To Experience South Africa's Annual Sardine Run
By Michele Herrmann, Epicure & Culture Contributor

It’s quite the marine voyage: a swarm of tiny fish on a one-way journey along South Africa’s waters, from its cold-watered Cape to the warmer temperatures of KwaZulu-Natal, a coastal province.

Every year — usually starting in May and continuing until the end of July — what’s known as the Sardine Run happens along South Africa’s East Coast. These shoals of sardines migrate along the Western Cape, and northward to the city of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal.

So why are these sardines going on such a journey?

Actually, the question should be what. Nutritious plankton, a major food source for sardines, entice them to brave the cold-water currents. In fact, when the currents aren’t producing these essential microscopic organisms, the sardines don’t make the journey to Durban. This happened in 2013 and 2014.

Yet when the environment is ideal, the Sardine Run is a natural phenomenon to behold. Here’s some information that Ashley Norman, a representative from the Durban Tourism Board, shared with Epicure & Culture about this incredible feat.

Dolphins and sardines in the sardine run
The trek that these sardines make along South African waters is not easy, as they encounter natural predators along the way.

The Sardine Run: An Impressive Feat

Sardines travel in massive-sized shoals forming up to nine miles in length. During most of their journey they remain close to the ocean’s surface and shorelines. These fish move in packs to avoid being taken and eaten by other creatures such as whales, sharks, and dolphins, while en route.

Dolphins, in particular, don’t make these sardines’ voyage any easier. Dolphin pods push sardines into tight packs, where other marine life might be able to head toward them for feasting on.

Sardines caught in a net in the sardine run
Spectators observe this catch in Durban, South Africa, during the annual Sardine Run. Photo by John Lamberti, courtesy of Durban Tourism

Sardines also have to watch out for those on land. In certain areas along their route, they are forced to swim close to the beach where locals wait to snatch up these fish with baskets, handnets or fishing skirts. This scene can be witnessed on Durban’s beachfront known as the Golden Mile, where spectators can watch the Sardine Run and locals hauling in their netted catches. Bonus: the Golden Mile is a 3.7-mile long sandy beach, one of Durban’s major attractions.

How To Watch The Sardine Run

Planning a trip to watch the Sardine Run is a bit tricky to do. The exact time and viewing spot on the Golden Mile varies from year to year. The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board posts regular updates on the Sardine Run via their Facebook page. Another option is to research diving packages such on the nearby Aliwal Shoal and southward down the coast.

“Sardine Run dive trips are planned based upon historical data. Mid-June to mid-July is traditionally the best time to see the Sardine Run in action, both on the shore and underwater,” said Lelanie Botha of Aliwal Shoal Scuba.

If you can’t view the Sardine Run, you can join the second half of the fun — eating the fishermen’s catch. The sardines are hauled to nearby Wilson’s Wharf, a fish market venue on Durban’s Victorian embankment. Restaurants buy and prepare them in many dishes.

A must-try dish is the local favorite of sardines on toast, cut up and paired with onions. Or, if you want to try it at home, check out the fresh sardines in polenta recipe below!

Sardines cooked from the sardine run

Recipe: Durban Masala Fried Sardines

This recipe is provided by The Seasoned Pot in Brooklyn.

To make Durban Masala fried sardines for six, you will need:

• 2 ½ tsp. chili powder
• 1 tsp. ground cumin powder
• 1 tsp. ground coriander powder
• ½ tsp. turmeric powder
• 2 ½ tsp. crushed garlic and ginger
• 2 tsp. fresh cilantro chopped
• 1 ½ tsp. salt (or salt to taste)
• Drizzle of olive oil

1) Mix all of the ingredients together.

2) Place sardines in a flat bowl or dish and marinate them in this mixture.

3) Marinate the sardines for half an hour in the fridge.

4) In a large pan, add in oil for doing a shallow fry.

5) Fry sardines until they’re crispy or brown on both sides.

6) Drain the sardines on a paper towel, and squeeze a slice of lemon on them. Enjoy this dish right away.

Have you witnessed South Africa’s annual Sardine Run? Share your experiences in the comments below! 

Further Exploration:

How To Help Endangered Penguins In South Africa [Blog Reads]

Traditional South African Cooking [Great Reads]

Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments [Travel Safety]


Michele Herrmann

Michele Herrmann splits her time between New England and New York City, and has gotten much better at packing light with her back and forth trips. She has jaunted across Europe and up, down and across the United States and even as far as the South Pacific. She's grateful for being able to dispense travel stories and advice through media outlets and companies (as well as putting her BA in English to good use). Her blog She Is Going Places serves as her way to encourage others to get out and exploring!

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