Silver Linings

Running with the Sardines
Diverse as the oceans can be, chasing a seasonal phenomenon these days is something of a hit and miss affair. Nature’s patterns have become less predictable. As it adapts and changes to cope with our impact on the planet - warming oceans, over fishing, altered currents, plastic pollution - we go full circle with the kickback.

In the ‘70’s, we used to experience a mini sardine run flicking up the East African coast. Nothing like the billions of fish that congregate further south, but there was just enough action to generate excitement at the time, enough to plant a seed. It’s a meaningful indicator that we no longer see those infamous huge shoals skimming along the Kenyan coastline. I don’t even hear them mentioned any more. Another long-forgotten story with no fable, myth or legend. It’s a desolate legacy. Yet my childhood dreams of running with these silver fish never diminished.

Far-flung shores, where it’s still possible to encounter this unique spectacle, beckoned. A trip last February to try and catch the Yucatan’s Sardine Run in the Gulf of Mexico proved fruitless and so this year we headed east to the Philippines, for the next best thing. Sardines schooling in the millions, forming immense bait balls, but without the accompanying feeding frenzy. Less action from pelagic predators means the fish have made the relatively shallow reef around Moalboal a semi-permanent home. The reef-top and jetties offer protection from strong currents and the fish numbers remain consistently healthy.

Diving in the midst of millions of glittery, sliver fish is enthralling. It’s like watching a Starling murmuration except that it’s underwater and you’re choreographed to float around somewhere on the periphery. The fish behave as a single entity, moving in sync with one another in the ultimate acrobatic wildlife display. Split second timing. It’s about strength in numbers and emergent behaviour - the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

At times, the dense, dynamic movement of fish engulfs you and in the truest sense, you are running with the sardines. It’s phenomenal! Everywhere are eyes, millions and millions of tiny eyes. Watching you, watching for threats, watching for signs. If you head into deeper water, far below the dark fish cloud, you are showered with shimmering, silver scales that fall through the water column. Ocean glitterati!

Worldwide the population of sardines continues to fall. Just a few years ago the Moalboal sardines were also almost fished out. They used to be found out around Pescador Island, offshore from where they are now. But in this special part of the planet, the local Government took action. Working closely with the diving and fishing industries, they have nurtured the tiny fish back from the brink. The remnant splinter school has thrived under a brilliant conservation scheme. It’s a result that is incredibly rewarding for everyone involved. And long may it last!

“Nature is a mutable cloud which is always and never the same.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Photographed in the Philippines at Moalboal.
ISO200. f/10. 1/200secs. Sigma 15mm lens. Twin INON S2000's.