A Dive into a Vibrant Ecosystem

26 July, 2023

The play unfolds right in front of my camera – my breathing rate is high. Nick and Kimmo are with me. We spread out so as not to ruin each other’s shots. Nick was supposed to be our “safety diver,” but we don’t have time for that now. He has to film too. When the opportunity arises, we must seize it!

Photo: Kimmo Hagman

Finally, after countless attempts, up and down in the rubber boat, we’ve ended up in the perfect spot. An enormous “baitball” of sardines glimmers before us, accompanied by hundreds of dolphins, sharks, sea lions, cormorants, and whales. It feels like all of the ocean’s inhabitants have gathered in one place.

We are here to film a nature documentary about the phenomenon of “the great sardine run.” For two months, massive schools of sardines swim north along South Africa’s east coast, and we have a team on-site for the entire period. Due to the sardines’ migration, many of the ocean’s inhabitants follow suit. It’s a daily struggle of survival beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean – eat or be eaten.

Photo: Johan Candert

I’ve been in Mdumbi/Wild Coast for ten days now and I’m beginning to realize how challenging it is to capture good underwater footage, even though the sea is teeming with life. First, the dolphins create the “ball,” then they try to keep it relatively stable, and it must form in clear blue water. Finally, we have to locate it and film it. The ocean is vast, and the chances are slim. Therefore, it takes many long days on the bobbing rubber boat before we succeed.

The small dolphins (common dolphins) do most of the hard work. They gather small “balls” of the massive sardine schools to make them more manageable (and edible). The gathering can last for hours. Once they manage to create a ball of the right size, they start “herding” the sardines towards the surface, forming a “wall” that limits the sardines’ escape routes. Other creatures have learned to benefit from the dolphins’ hard work. Sea lions and cormorants push the ball from the surface, while the dolphins hold it together from underneath. Sharks and Bryde’s whales take advantage of the situation, and when it’s time to eat, many are invited to the dinner table.

Photo: Johan Candert

I feel a strong kick on my side; who was that? I turn the camera and see a shark about to turn back towards me. I don’t have time to be afraid; I focus on pointing the camera between myself and the shark. It swims directly into my camera lens and quickly swims away. Thankfully, I’ve gotten used to this; it happens on every dive. The sharks here get so excited by all the activity and food that you have to keep an eye on them. I’m pretty good at it! It’s actually Nick’s job to keep the sharks away, but right now, he’s filming.

Photo: Nick Fillmalter

I turn the camera back to the school/ball of sardines. From the surface, sea lions are diving down, and the sharks accelerate, swimming with their mouths wide open and their eyes closed, right through the ball of fish. I manage to capture a few sequences. Wow! And then there are the ones who did all the hard work – the small dolphins. They attack the ball with tremendous speed and complete synchronization. They fill their mouths, in and out. Impressive. Amidst the ball, I spot a little bird from Sweden, a cormorant. It’s fascinating to see how long it can hold its breath and what a skilled swimmer it is!

Photo: Kimmo Hagman

I’m in the “ocean’s Eldorado,” and I’m enjoying every second of it. The visibility is excellent (blue water), the school of sardines is gathered in a large ball, and everyone is jostling to get to the dinner table – except for one large dolphin. It hovers right beneath the ball. At first, I think it must be the “mother”? Through an open mouth, she emits intense clicking sounds. “She” seems to be directing the entire event, just like killer whales do in Norway – I think to myself. Then I realize it’s a much larger dolphin, not the same species as the smaller ones. And there are more large dolphins, five of them (Atlantic bottlenose dolphins). These dolphins typically live further offshore and catch larger fish. But now, they are right in the center of the action. Five dolphins behaving entirely differently. They seem to be merely observing, not eating or herding, just staying calm. They watch and appear to be trying to learn. I see one of them making a timid attempt to catch a sardine but failing.

Photo: Kimmo Hagman

It’s a powerful feeling to dive down and experience what a living marine ecosystem can look like and how it functions. But I wonder, why specifically here?

There are undoubtedly many biological explanations as to why the ocean is so rich in life right here. But one thing strikes me – we haven’t seen a single fishing boat/trawler during our days here, and we’ve spent many long days at sea.

Back on the shore, humans are fishing, and the catches are bountiful. We eat fish and seafood every day. It seems like the ocean’s delicacies are enough for everyone. Imagine if it could be like this in more places on our blue planet – what a joy. Even for us humans.

Text: Johan Candert
Photography: Johan Candert, Kimmo Hagman, Nick Filmalter

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