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Have you experience a sardine run, or seen the smallest desert in the world yet?

The sardine run of southern Africa occurs from May through July when billions of sardines – or more specifically the Southern African pilchard, Sardinops saqax, 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 to Mozambique 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. 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. The shoals are often more than 7 km long, 1.5 km wide and 30 metres 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.

The sardine run is most likely a seasonal reproductive migration of a genetically distinct sub population of sardine that moves along the coast from the eastern Agulhas Bank to the coast of KwaZulu-Natal in most years if not in every year. The migration is restricted to the inshore waters by the preference of sardine for cooler water and the strong and warm offshore Agulhas Current, which flows in the opposite direction to the migration, and is strongest just off the continental shelf. A band of cooler coastal water and the occurrence of Natal pulses and break-away eddies make it possible for sardine shoals to overcome their habitat constraints. The importance of these enabling factors is greatest where the continental shelf is narrowest. The presence of eggs off the KwaZulu-Natal coast suggests that sardine stay there for several months and their return migration during late winter to spring is nearly always unnoticeable because it probably occurs at depths where the water is cooler than at the surface.

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The Red Desert Nature Conservation Reserve is a national heritage site and is reputed to be the smallest desert in the world with a width of just 200m and 11 hectares in its entirety. Best described as a miniature version of the Arizona Desert, the high hills and valleys of naked red soil bare stark contrast to to the surrounding lush and tropical vegetation. Archaeological artifacts going back millions of years can be found and the locals are pleased this is now an internationally protected heritage site. This peculiar phenomenon is surrounded by myth and legend including stories that this is the site of an alien landing. Truth be told the origins of this desert are found in the location of a Zulu tribe in the 1800’s, with vast cattle herds stolen from the Pondo’s. The terrain became severely over grazed and subsequently eroded by wind leading to the desertification and an opportunity to study the unique desert ecology.

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