By Peter Lamberti, Cameraman September 29, 2011

The Sardine Run

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The sardine run is a truly extraordinary natural event, but filming it is much harder than you’d think. Hordes of predators descend on the shoal, but it’s so vast and unpredictable that finding the action is an enormous challenge. The sardines migrate down hundreds of kilometers of coastline, and action packed "baitballs" can literally pop up anywhere. Finding them in time to catch the predators at work requires days out at sea, and it helps to have eyes in the sky that can spot the action and lead you to it. We often teamed up with light aircraft pilots who’d scan the seas for the first signs of action and radio them in to us, and then we’d race out as fast as possible and hope it wasn’t all over when we got there.

Filming the sardine run isn’t just a matter of finding the shoal. The main shoal and the predators move extremely fast, and it’s virtually impossible for a cameraman with a heavy camera to keep up. To film the action, you need to find a baitball, where a smaller mass of fish has been separated from the main shoal by predators like dolphins and sharks. These tight throngs of fish are effectively immobilized by the constant assault, which makes it possible for a cameraman to keep up with the action.  The most obvious signs of a baitball under attack are the diving gannets, so that’s what we’d search for, but it’s always a race against time as baitballs can last from as little as a few minutes to hours, and you never know if you’ll get there just as the action dries up.

When you do finally get into the water with cameras rolling, a whole new set of challenges open up. The balls constantly changed position with each new assault of predators. If the cameraman gets enveloped in the bait ball, he’s in big trouble. In the dense mass of fish predators can’t see what’s ahead of them, and the chances of being rammed by a high-speed dolphin or a gaping set of shark jaws are high.  You have to keep your eyes open and be ready to react all the time to stay safe and get the best footage.

All these obstacles make the sardine run an extremely challenging phenomenon to film, and we’ve gone whole seasons without getting a decent baitball, but that just makes it all the more incredible when you finally get to film a real feeding frenzy with sharks, dolphins, and gannets all in the mix!

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