Posted by: foodtalker | May 1, 2011

against the tide

I don’t watch much television, but the other night I was glued to a nature programme about the sardine run that takes place every year off the coast of South Africa.

Apparently a shoal of sardines – billions of them – make their way to cool waters on what can only be described as a “desperate journey” to survive.

Low in the food chain, up against an army of predators – sharks, dolphins, gannets and whales, it’s not as if they can fight back.  It’s not even survival of the fittest.  There’s nothing fair about the selection process.  It just depends on whether your number is up.  A crap shoot.

Once the feeding frenzy begins, it’s the luck of the draw.  The gannets dive-bomb from above and the whales just tread water with their mouths open.  Thousands of your close friends and family are consumed in a second.

Watching this I wondered if the sardines who survived were grateful.  Were they aware of their narrow escape?  Were they in a state of grief for those who had been gobbled up?

I asked a friend who also watched the show if she thought the surviving sardines had any sense of guilt. She said she’d never given this question any thought and had watched the show and then drifted off into peaceful slumbers.

Not me.  I couldn’t help but think there was no skill involved as to which sardines made the break.  Is that a metaphor for life?  They were either eaten or not.

It was all about luck, timing and placement in the crowd.  It had nothing to do with ability, swimming skills, merit, individual worth, or a longterm plan.  And anyway, those that escaped – then what?  All that effort to wind up crammed into a tin?

In that pack of billions there’d have to have been at least one lone sardine that worried about what was to become of them.   Some bright spark with an eye to the future.

If I was a sardine I’d have problems.  I hate to be jostled.  I don’t do well in crowds especially when closely packed.  I’d want to know where we were going, when we’d get there, who’s in charge and why we needed to go anywhere anyway.  The shoal would probably dump me.  I’d be considered a rogue sardine.

Were I to try out for a television nature programme I can hear Sir David Attenborough’s sympathetic remarks now:  “It’s a very desperate journey.  This soon to be endangered species is trying not to get eaten.  As a result she is becoming more and more reclusive.” 

There would be comparisons to other solitary and anti-social creatures.  Like the three-toed sloth.  I too, can drag myself along and hang around for hours without appearing to stir.

As for mating habits – nothing much there to observe. 

Natural habitat explorations would be mundane.  “There she is taking out the trash,”  and “There she is cleaning her teeth.”  Boring observations and he’d move on.

Periodically I’d make some daring foray to the dry cleaners or the grocery store.  These would be seen as brave undertakings against frightening odds on a perilous journey.

Sympathetically the final conclusion would say: “It may seem like a few short steps, but for the lesser-spotted Savage, it’s been  a mountain to climb.


  1. I enjoyed this. I was thinking the same sort of thing myself as I watched ducks drift across the river.Everything from the royal wedding, recessions and unrest in north africa have no part in their daily routine etc. Perhaps as a species we think we are more important than we are

  2. Now David Attenborough’s voice is stuck in my head, commenting with tasteful reserve about what a mess my nest has become, how I’ve deteriorated with age, and how, soon, I will lose interest in foraging…..

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