[PH Travel] Running with sardines

Jayvee Fernandez

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What's it like to swim with a gigantic school of fish and be eye-to-eye with a shark?

METEOR SHOWER? Nope. But just like meteors, sardines seem to scintillate and generate electricity while swimming together.

MOALBOAL, Cebu City – From afar, it looked like we were floating into an underwater valley that vanished into the blue. 

But then I remembered we were diving around a very small island with no other rock formations visible from above. It was impossible to have something this huge and this dense underwater with no manifestation from the surface. Then, as we got closer to these formations, our eyes adjusted and all of a sudden, the wall on the left didn’t look like a wall at all. Because walls don’t stay still. It was shifting, turning, and sparkling against the sunlight with parts of it breaking away for a split second and then coming back. 

Then we realized: that wasn’t a wall at all, it was the sardines. Millions of them.

It was creepy. But it was creepy-awesome.

Like a kaleidoscope

JUST LIKE MITOSIS. These are not gametes multiplying. This is the actual sardine run (left), one of the ocean's most amazing phenomena.

I’ve been diving for about 3 years all around the Philippines, but I’ve never seen anything so busy and mesmerizing. I remember my childhood looking through a kaleidoscope with cellophane cut outs inside and turning the tubes around to get different patterns. That’s the closest I can come to describing the sardine run. 

There’s something about the whole thing that’s calming to the nerves, as your senses drift off into an odd state of meditation: your body floating in a blue-green weightlessness, your ears hearing nothing but the sound of bubbles, and your eyes fixating on the shifting shapes. 

And yet we know that these millions and millions of sardines are hanging on for dear life. As they protect themselves in a defensive ball, deep diving thresher sharks come out from the depths of the ocean and wait for an opening. They charge into the stragglers and stun a handful of the slow swimmers with their whip-like tails and gobble down 2 or 3 in each assault. 

We went down about 3 times every day for 3 days on different sides of the island.

Whale shark encounter

MENACING SHADOW. A whale shark emerges from the shadows to fulfill a necessary part of the circle of life.

On our 2nd day of diving, we put the sardines in the background as we were instructed to wait and watch from one of the coves at about 20 meters deep. We were looking for more thresher sharks and were advised that these pelagic fish had greater chances of appearing if we steered clear of the balls of sardines. The less bubbles we made underwater, the higher the chances the sharks could come to feed. 

While neutrally buoyant within a small cove, we saw something huge come up from about 30 meters and out into the blue. All I could see was the huge mouth that looked like a split-type air conditioner and there was no doubt about it: we found a whale shark in the wild! What else could we do but chase it! 

No touching, of course.

I put the camera on record and pushed it in front of me, moving into the slipstream created by the whale shark as it swam further and further away. I had to stop at some point because I was consuming too much air and I was out into the blue and couldn’t find the coral wall. 

When I looked back, it seemed like the 20 foot long whale shark had made a u-turn directly towards me. 

At 3:31 in the video, we make eye contact. 

My heart stopped. So did my breathing. We were looking at each other, I could tell. It was aware of me. And my camera was recording everything.

Best moment of my life, recorded on video. 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the Sardine Run of Moalboal.

What is the Sardine Run?

The Sardine Run is a migratory phenomenon that occurs once a year in South Africa where millions and millions of sardines travel and spawn into cooler waters. In the Philippines, a similar phenomenon occurs throughout the year in Pescador Island located in Moalboal, Cebu. 

It’s really more fun in the Philippines.

QUIETLY PASSING BY. A sea turtle or "pawikan" peacefully glides in front of the author's video camera.

After editing it with music (“Walls” by Kogo) from one of my favorite Swedish bands, the lead singer sent me a message on Facebook and gave me the entire album so I could use the tracks in my other underwater videos. – Rappler.com 

STARRING ROLE. A starfish seems to quietly remind divers to help protect the sea creatures from poachers and leave their world in peace. 

(Jayvee Fernandez is an officer and member of NUDI, the Network of Underwater Digital Imagers. He has been diving for about 3 years with a Advanced Open Water/Enriched Air License. You can follow him on his blog, A Bugged Life. RAPPLER believes in responsible travel. Share with us your travel adventures around the Philippines. Email your story and photos with subject heading PH Travel to desk@rappler.com.)

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