Part of the dynamics of the marine food chain is the bait ball: thousands or even millions of small fish concentrated near the surface in defense against larger fish and mammals.
Diving amid these swirling masses, among voracious predators, is an awesome thrill. But it’s not for the faint of heart, as Chris Fallows can attest.
“It is unbelievable with sharks bashing into you, dolphins herding, then smashing the balls, and gannets attacking from above,” says Fallows, a renowned shark expert and marine photographer. “It’s simply the most unreal spectacle you could ever imagine throwing yourself into, and at the same time it’s amazingly beautiful.”
Chris and Monique Fallows run Apex Shark Expeditions in South Africa. Once a year they conduct a “Sardine Run” expedition off the country’s Wild Coast region. It’s timed to coincide with the northbound migration of vast shoals of sardines and it’s for scuba-trained divers only. This year’s trip recently concluded and Chris Fallows provided the accompanying images to illustrate the uniqueness and surreal nature of these voyages.
Sharks patrolled the perimeter of spherical bait concentrations that “hung in the water column like a chandelier in an earthquake.” Once emboldened, the apex predators delved into and out of the sardine schools.
Dolphins planned and executed assaults on prey they had corralled. “The dolphins communicate constantly with high-pitched squeaks, orchestrating well-synchronized attacks on the shoal as they attack in high-speed volleys, sending sardines bursting out of the water,” Fallows describes.
Gannets and other seabirds dive-bomb into the fray, plucking sardines from various depths, paying no attention to predators or divers. “All around you it is chaos,” Fallows continues. “Dolphin squadrons, shark battalions and kamikaze gannets all attack, creating an almost dizzying underwater ballet of piscine gluttony.
Then there was the whale, barreling in for its share.
“Just when you thought that the action could not get any more intense the gray steam train comes smoking through in the form of a 15-meter-long Bryde’s whale complete with smoke stack of bubbles pouring out of its blowhole. Mouth agape, this sardine assassin scoops up thousands of sardines and finishes off the remnants of the ball and all the other predators’ hard work to keep it condensed and near the surface.”
Chris and Monique Fallows have witnessed plenty of dramatic events running shark-diving expeditions. They’ve helped in the production of documentaries that have aired on networks such as National Geographic, BBC and Discovery Channel. Chris Fallows, in fact, is famous for his photography of leaping great whites.
But exploring the bait ball phenomenon is perhaps the most memorable because of the intimacy factor. Says Monique: “What makes the Sardine Run experience so unique is that one is diving in the action and you feel you are part of the whole event. Most other nature experiences are watched from either a vehicle or a boat. This experience takes you right into the moment.”
– Images provided by Chris Fallows for this story only and are protected by copyright laws