RDF Media/National Geographic – Facing Jaws


Simon Enderby – Underwater Cameraman

I jump in to the cold water, checking the camera and locking the settings and start finning towards the scene exploding in front of my eyes. In the distance I see an immense ball of fish, numbers impossible to count, and the only words that can describe what I see is ‘sheer panic’, for the school is being harried and hunted from every possible direction. I start rolling and finally begin to film a Sardine Run bait ball!

We had been searching for this natural phenomenon now for four weeks, and so far we’d only been rewarded with tantalizing glimpses. Having said that, it hadn’t all been bad and in that time we snorkeled with humpback whales, inshore and offshore bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins and pan-tropical spotted dolphins, as well as dived with the odd copper, dusky and ragged tooth shark – but this is not why we came to South Africa. Having spent the last few weeks at Mkambati waiting for the sardines to arrive, we travelled much further south to meet the sardines as they move north up the Kwazulu-Natal coastline. And now we have found them and more importantly, so have the thousands of dolphins, Cape Gannets, dusky and copper sharks and Cape fur seals.

I adjust my position and camera as the silvery ball in my monitor suddenly melts to the left, like mercury slipping across the frame, and a pod of 15-20 common dolphins tear in from the right. As they wheel around the dolphins herd the fish with streams of bubbles, picking off stragglers at the sides and pushing the school towards the surface. Within split seconds I feel as if I am back on some desolate SE Asian reef being bombed by fishermen, as extremely loud underwater explosions resonate through the water and shake my body – it takes me a few seconds to realise that this volley of noise is the result of the tens of birds I now see swimming before me, jabbing at the panicked fish and leaving silvery trails of bubbles in their wake. Suddenly there is a loud metallic clang as my cylinder clashes with that of Keith, my safety diver, and a quick glance over my shoulder tells me he is working hard pushing away predator after predator.

Excited by the frantic maneuvers of the fish, 3-4m copper and dusky sharks circle beneath in holding patterns before swinging in and blindly chomping their way through the fish. However, their curiosity has to be satisfied first. The bigger sharks calmly swim up and try to bump us with their snouts, inquisitive as to what we are doing there, whilst the smaller animals dash up to us in a frantic game of chicken, turning away at the last moment to avoid collision. That’s of little consolation for Keith or myself, as we are here to document the Sardine Run through the eyes of a British underwater photographer bitten by a shark on his very first encounter with a bait ball. Anyway, my adrenalin levels are now so high I don’t think I would have even noticed the loss of a leg or safety diver, unless it ruined my shot!

I’m in fully automated filming mode now and scan the scene for shots, although with so much action going on it’s virtually impossible. Just as one shot seems to finish there’s another burst of activity and I continue to roll. The visibility gets worse and worse and I check the position of the sun trying to keep it behind me. In the murky water, what appears to be snow drifts around, as thousands of small silvery scales cascade from the school – I feel as if I am in one of those souvenir snow domes you keep on your desk as a paperweight. The bait ball is getting smaller now and its motion more frantic. The dolphins continue to wheel around in tight, organised packs, the bombing from the gannets above is relentless and the sharks brush past mouths agape, biting through the melee. Having risen with the mob I find myself suddenly surrounded by struggling sardines and can feel them between my legs and under my arms. This is not a good place to be! I fin backwards as the fish explode in front of me and a diving gannet suddenly fills the camera frame. Keeping up my backward momentum until I am outside once more, I pause to collect my thoughts just as a copper shark rams the front of the camera – “Wow! What was that for?” I think, checking the front of the dome port for scratches (my biggest nightmare). Thankfully the lens is unscathed – many thanks to Tom Campbell for the loan although he may not realize just how close the lens came to being shark food!

Just as I think that I have seen everything the Sardine Run has to offer, a Cape fur seal pirouettes down from above. Holding off by a few meters, he ‘barks’ at me before spinning up and into the fish, as graceful as any synchronized swimmer. It is now some 3 hours since we first jumped into this incredible spectacle, and as one bait ball is demolished another soon springs up and we are constantly on the move, in and out of the water, checking to see if we have enough tape and air for the next bit of action. Climbing aboard the boat for the last time we look upon the topside action in equal awe. Thousands of diving gannets fill the air with their screeches and calls, punctuated by the sudden blasts of air from surfacing dolphins. A truly unforgettable experience that leaves me trembling in an adrenalin high for several hours, not from the cold or any fear, but from thinking that this is the moment that I have lived for up until now, this is it, this is what it’s all about, the underwater world at its most dramatic. As the boat speeds back I close my eyes and let the images run through my mind, laughing in immense joy!

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