I Swam With Dolphins and Billions of Fish During One of the World's Most Astonishing Natural Migrations — Here's How You Can, Too

Off the eastern coast of South Africa, one adventurer dives into a wildlife spectacle unlike any other.

View from a microlight aircraft over the Wild Coast of South Africa
Microlight aircraft patrol the coast to report wildlife sightings. Photo:

Mark Ziembicki/Courtesy of andBeyond

“Okay, they’re coming back — get in the water! Go! Go! Go!” our skipper, Walter Bernardis, shouted as I pulled on my fins, shoved a snorkel into my mouth, and slid off the Zodiac into the Indian Ocean. With my head underwater, I heard them before I saw them. Clicking and whistling sounds zipped through the sea, and suddenly they were everywhere — thousands of common dolphins diving beneath me, leaping high above me, their bubbles shimmying past me. I kicked as hard as I could to keep up, but just as quickly as they’d arrived, the dolphins left me breathless in their wake.

A woman sits on the edge of a boat, watching dolphins
The author and a pod of common dolphins during the sardine run.

Mark Ziembicki/Courtesy of andBeyond

Like me, the dolphins were following the sardine run, an ecological phenomenon in which billions of the fish migrate up South Africa’s eastern coast each June and July. The annual journey — a sort of aquatic version of the famed Great Migration of wildebeests from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara — attracts great numbers of predators: common dolphins, sharks, Bryde’s whales, sailfish, manta rays, and seabirds, especially Cape gannets. Though the event has long drawn serious divers, it has not typically been on the radar of high-end travel outfitters. But South Africa–based andBeyond aims to change that with its 10-night expedition centered on the sardine run, which will visit the country’s Wild Coast, as well as andBeyond’s Phinda Private Game Reserve, near the border with Mozambique.

I was lucky enough to get a preview on a six-night expedition in 2021, which, like forthcoming andBeyond adventures, was organized with the help of Bernardis’s dive company, African Watersports, and the nonprofit Oceans Without Borders (OWB). Profits from the Wild Coast trips will benefit OWB, and guests will be hosted by marine biologist and OWB program manager Tessa Hempson.

“Oceans really have no borders,” Hempson told me, noting that the migration brings together species from across multiple oceans, some from as far afield as Antarctica. “So the sardine run has a ripple effect through various ecosystems.”

Back in the water, I got a closer look at what’s known as a bait ball, a school of sardines swimming as a close-knit unit to protect one another from predators. I watched thousands of slender fish, switching directions en masse with a flick of their silvery bodies. Three more dolphins surged past in a chatter of clicks, prompting the sardines to dart away. A blacktip reef shark emerged from the murky depths and cruised languidly below me before disappearing again.

A diver and a dolphin in Sodwana Bay, South Africa
Free diving with a bottlenose dolphin in Sodwana Bay.

Mark Ziembicki/Courtesy of andBeyond

I resurfaced, only to have Bernardis tell me that there were likely dozens more sharks underneath us, circling the bait ball from below as dolphins worked it from the sides. I felt exhilarated to be bobbing away in the middle of this dynamic ecosystem. (Bernardis said it can get even more lively: in his two-decade career as a guide, he’s often seen a Bryde’s whale swallow a whole chunk of a bait ball.)

For such a well-documented phenomenon, there is still much about the migration that scientists have to learn. A recent study found that the phenomenon is driven by a current of temporarily cooler water in the Indian Ocean. The same study warned that climate change, and consequently rising ocean temperatures, could alter the timing of the sardine run — or even end it. For her part, Hempson hopes guests will help track data on wildlife sightings and underwater bioacoustics such as whale songs.

One thing’s for sure: experiencing the sardine run is addictive. Obsessives return year after year, Bernardis told me, hoping to catch the perfect combination of weather and sea conditions that can make the event all the more spectacular.

A group of sardines swimming off the coast of South Africa
The sardine run off South Africa’s Wild Coast is often called the greatest shoal on earth.

Mark Ziembicki/Courtesy of andBeyond

My own trip was dimmed, ever so slightly, by limited visibility under the waves because sediment had been stirred up by heavy rains. In spite of that, our days at sea were thrilling — and exhausting. My group spent four nights at Mbotyi River Lodge, which overlooks a sweep of golden sand on the Wild Coast. We’d rise at dawn, have a light breakfast, then wriggle into our wet suits and take to the boat. I’d often lie flat along the bow, looking over the edge as dolphins swam alongside us, within touching distance. One morning, one of the animals briefly surfaced — and sharply expelled a shot of salt water right in my face. We’d spend five or six hours on the water, in and out of the boat, aided by the pilot of a microlight aircraft who was tasked with spotting bait balls, humpback whales, and common dolphins from above, then relaying the coordinates to Bernardis by radio.

The dining room at Mbotyi River Lodge
The dining room at Mbotyi River Lodge, home base for sardine spotters.

Mark Ziembicki/Courtesy of andBeyond

After three full days of sardine spotting, our group traveled up the coast to Phinda. The forests and grasslands of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province may seem to have little in common with the Indian Ocean. But Hempson said combining the two will show visitors “how intricately the marine and the terrestrial are connected.” Seeing conservation efforts in both places will provide a broader perspective on issues such as humankind’s overreliance on plastics, which often end up in the sea, and the fact that fenced wildlife preserves, common in South Africa, may not be an ideal way to serve at-risk ecosystems. “The ocean challenges a lot of the models we have in conservation,” Hempson said.

I’d been to Phinda before but hadn’t had the opportunity to visit nearby Sodwana Bay, one of South Africa’s most popular diving destinations. This time I took to the water, jumping in to swim with a pod of bottlenose dolphins. The animals were curious and playful, more relaxed than the common dolphins we’d seen on the sardine run, swimming nearly nose-to-nose with us before swerving away.

Just hours later, we returned to the bush, where we watched a black-maned lion and a lioness munch on a giraffe carcass as the setting sun cast streaks of magenta across the sky. There are few places where you can swim with dolphins in the morning and watch lions in the evening. Even so, I found myself missing the rough Wild Coast waves — and the drama that lay beneath. I’d joined the club of sardine-run obsessives. I was hooked.

andBeyond offers 10-day sardine run trips from $14,400 per person.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline On the Run.

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