ben and hobbes (dogs) enjoying the time on the beach as we fished for sardines

I had heard about the sardine runs in Natal, where from time to time due to certain circumstances sardines suddenly moved towards the shore. It always looked so exciting, like a sudden sea harvest.

When my friend Elize Goffe-Wood messaged me yesterday to tell me about the sardine run and I must come immediately, I didn’t even hestitate and rushed down to Hout Bay beach. Not knowing too much about it, I had thought it was a fairly quick and sudden thing, (hence the need to rush and cancel my gym session), but in fact it lasts a few days or a week.

catching fish with a sarong, the local fishermen fixing their net and getting a demo on how to fillet and gut the fish

Wikipedia explains it perfectly:

The sardine run of southern Africa occurs from May through July when billions of sardines – or more specifically the Southern African pilchard Sardinops sagax – spawn in the cool waters of the Agulhas Bank and move northward along the east coast of South Africa. Their sheer numbers create a feeding frenzy along the coastline. The run, containing millions of individual sardines, occurs when a current of cold water heads north from the Agulhas Bank up toMozambique where it then leaves the coastline and goes further east into the Indian Ocean.

In terms of biomass, researchers estimate the sardine run could rival East Africa’s great wildebeest migration.[1] However, little is known of the phenomenon. It is believed that the water temperature has to drop below 21 °C in order for the migration to take place. In 2003, the sardines failed to ‘run’ for the third time in 23 years. While 2005 saw a good run, 2006 marked another non-run.[2]

The shoals are often more than 7 km long, 1.5 km wide and 30 meters deep and are clearly visible from spotter planes or from the surface.

Sardines group together when they are threatened. This instinctual behaviour is a defense mechanism, as lone individuals are more likely to be eaten than large groups.

local fisherman, kids and dogs, everyone having fun on the beach (*note elize's pink sarong from mauritious being used as a basket to hold the fish)

The sardine run in Cape Town is fairly rare and in all my years of living here, I don’t recall ever hearing about one.

We didn’t have a net (necessary to catch them) so landed up helping a group of local fisherman who were then more than happy to give us bucket loads of pilchards.  Later a friend of Elize’s joined with a brand new net which was the perfect timing because the fishermen had broken theirs with a heavy haul.

elize helping to haul the fish in and the girls being taught how to cast a net and me doing bucket duty on the beach

What an incredible day it was. Perfect weather with kids running around and picking up fish and pouring water over the buckets.  Elize and I started selling the fish for R1 each and managed to raise a bit of money for the fishermen who were very pleased, because they only get R2.50 / kg from the fish companies.

We went home for lunch, sun burnt, covered in sand and smelling like fish, with the not entirely pleasant task of having to rinse and pack about 4 bucket loads. Despite all this, it was one of the best days of the year for me, a unique experience which I will never forget.

Elize’s husband Pete Goffe-Wood was able to pass some of the fish to restaurants, and receive a donation to kick start the Movember fundraiser event taking place at KC Canteen on Thursday 24th November. Pop in on Thursday anytime from 12:00 into the evening  for their legendary steak sandwhich and to try Pete’s new beer, Kitchen Cowboys Black River Ale.

the freshest sardines, ready to be cooked

For all the pictures of yesterdays sardine run antics on Hout Bay beach, visit the Drizzle and Dip facebook page and shot with my Canon G12.

I am not a very big fan of sardines but am determined to figure out a few ways to cook them so that they taste delicious. In the meantime check out a delicious recipe for Spanish sardines on my friend Berns blog Live to Eat

*NB ~ a fishing licence is required for any type of fishing on the South African coastline and this can be purchased from the Post Office.  See more information here.


  1. I imagine this is the result of the incredibly high phytoplankton biomass we’ve seen off the coast in the last few weeks (red tide). Rather than temperature driven like the Natal run (localised water temps off CT are way colder thanks to the Benguela upwelling). Love the photos – hope its still going on when I get back to CT – cool case study for my PhD!

  2. Sam

    Hi Hayley, I was chatting to someone on the beach yesterday about the recent phytoplankton surge and how breathtakingly beautiful it is is to see/ swim in at night under moonlight. I would be very interested to know the reason for our sardine run. I hope its still happening when you get back. There are billions of fish and they don’t seem to be going anywhere in a hurry. Happy seals and sharks indeed.

  3. This is very strange, indeed!! I think it must be such a tedious job to gut and fillet sardines!!

  4. Sam,I have put a link on my facebook to this post of yours – I hope you don’t mind!!

  5. Sam

    HI Zirkie, I tried gutting and filleting them today and gave up after my third one. I think I’m going to take the advice and do them whole on the fire. Either that, to enjoy them when next I’m in Spain :-). There are some foods for me where the effort far outweighs the enjoyment. I loved the run and the day on the beach. I don’t particularly need to eat and enjoy them too. S x

  6. Hi Sam, I also saw the run in Noordhoek and found it spectacular. Just to note that everyone catching fish theoretically should have a permit , no matter the type or abundance of fish – sorry to be a pain but as a biologist I know the effects of overfishing (as I am sure you do as an aware consumer, hence the need for SASSI)… and selling fish without a permit is *definitely* illegal. It’s all to protect overfishing, and I know that there was huge abundance in the run, but please just be aware that there are biologically sensible reasons behind the legislation.

    Either way, hope you guys feasted on the sardines and if next time you could be more aware and try to pass the information on, we would all be better for it.

  7. Sam

    Hi Rosie, Thanks for the comment and yes always important to remember these points. The fishermen that we helped did have a licence. I will add a note on the bottom of my blog post.

  8. Hey Sam. Great minds! I had so much fun cooking sardines all weekend. Hope you managed to come up with some fab recipes. These pics are great, as usual. And they certainly chose the best weather to be running. B

  9. Yes, it’s been going on all month, you can see satellite coverage from end of October:

    And mid November:

    I’m back at UCT today so will chat to some of my colleagues but I’d imagine this has created huge amounts of food prompting the sardines to come in to the coast and take advantage 🙂

  10. You have described it so well. It was one of those perfectly unexpected and memorable days in CT. Ladies whipped off their sarongs not concerned about their fat bits, no one noticed what colour the next person was, the dogs were happy running after the fish in the waves, the kids were squealing as they swam around their legs with parents getting in those once in a lifetime happy snaps, the seals were putting on a free show of note, frollicking and leaping in the air. Some people were collecting fish others were trying to chuck them back in – which seemed to be a losing battle as they were being literally washed up when I was there. Just a pity to hear that it was “illegal” for those of that were taking some home for supper without fishing permits… and of course from the perspective of the fish it was not such a great day.

  11. Sam

    Kate it was exactly like that. For me the day was all about the people and mingling with the kids, the dogs, the fishermen, the police (who were there and not too concerned with the criminal acts we were all committing :-). One of my pics has a little girl picking up a fish in the Background (behind the fishermen holding up the net) and I just loved it so much. She was truly fascinated by the fish. Another little boy felt sorry for the fish and kept getting buckets of water to pour over them as they died. Joyous, delightful, a rare bounty and quite frankly the few fish that people took out from the beach would hardly dent the billions in the shoal which is visible from satellite photographs. Most people were watching the legitimate local fishermen who were having an extraordinary day and not fishing. I loved every second of it.

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