Moal Boal Sardine Ball

posted in: Travel | 2

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A few weeks ago, myself and Anna travelled up the coast to Moal Boal on one of our days off from working with LAMAVE as research assistants in Oslob, Cebu, in the beautiful Philippines that is our home for the next year or so.
Moal Boal has become a famous dive destination, and even as a none-diver I highly recommend the place.  It’s a friendly, slow paced town with a backpackers feel to it.

Snorkelling in Cebu in general is another level compared to anywhere else I’ve been before, and moal boal is no let down; green turtles become a regular occurrence, beautiful multi-coloured coral is an average sight, as are lion fish, sea krates and schools of tiny, spectacular reef fish.
But Moal Boal has one major snorkelling draw: the Sardine Ball.

A green turtle pauses from eating to examine the strange creature trying to capture his portrait
A green turtle pauses from eating to examine the strange creature trying to capture his portrait

We we’re told to expect millions of sardines tightly packed into a ball, less than 10m from the shore.  That’s possibly the worst description ever of an incredibly mind blowing sight.  We swam out across super shallow multi-coloured coral at low tide, carefully avoiding any contact (it’s not hard to do folks!).  The coral suddenly drops, forming a vertical sea wall which is beautiful in it’s own right.  And then you look up.

The sardines are best seen from below the ball, where their collective shapes can be observed in silhouette.
The sardines are best seen from below the ball, where their collective shapes can be observed in silhouette.

A million is a number that is hard to compute, and when you physically see that many of anything it’s no easier to compute, but there are millions upon millions of tiny, glittering sardines.  They resemble a murmur of starlings, forming unimaginable shapes and reacting beautifully to any movement, only they stay in a similar area and flash sunlight in their movement.  The flashing is a predatory avoidance technique aimed at causing confusion in predators and the prevention of isolating a single individual, as first described by Milinski and Heller in 1978.  Overall, the experience is pretty hard to describe, so have a watch of the video to get half an idea of what it’s really like.

Most of you who know me realise that I have an interest in the representation of animals in society, and consider any animal interaction experience that is created or maintained by humans to be negative to the perception of animals that the average person will maintain.  I have subsequently tried to find out if there are any negative ethical implications of the sardine ball in Moal Boal, as the majority of animal experiences in South East Asia are related to animal exploitation.  Shoaling behaviour is a pretty regular occurrence, and happens when one fish is attracted to one or more other fish and reacts by staying near them (defined in 1955 by Keeleyside).  It is a regular feature of sardines that they form large aggregations for the predatory techniques avoidance mentioned above, as well as proposed general shoaling advantages such as enhanced foraging, mate finding and potential hydrodynamic advantages [Pitcher and Parish 1993].  I couldn’t find any information on the reason that sardines shoal in particular areas, but it doesn’t seem that they are maintained in Moal Boal through feeding and they’re certainly not stopped from leaving.  The information I can find seems to present this phenomenon as a natural occurrence.

I started properly trying to free dive just over 2 months ago, when I first arrived in the Philippines and bought my first pair of long fins.  I was at my best at the sardine bowl, calm and enjoying reaching an estimated 20m on some of the dives.  I’m happy under the water for over a minute, and super proud of myself for being able to do that.  Free diving for me is similar to bouldering in rock climbing – one of my other passions.  It’s all about self accomplishment and personal enjoyment, whilst feeling free and unrestrained by equipment.
However, I can confirm that the predatory confusion tactics of the sardines definitely work.  One dive down, I struggled to equalise with only one ear seeming to do so.  I was right inside the sardine ball at the time.  Now, I don’t know whether it was a case of alternobaric vertigo or just a bit of confusion due to being surrounded by so many fish, but as I tried to swim upwards to relieve the pressure in my unequalised ear, I actually swam one more kick down.  Sadly, one more kick in long fins equals a couple of extra metres, and bang went my ear drum.
A trip to the nearest hospital revealed a perforation in my ear, and confirmed that the next 6 weeks will be dry.  That’s not good news for a research assistant who’s job is to free dive with whale sharks twice a day…

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2 Responses

  1. Felicity Carter

    Beautiful photography and compilation, Luke. Well done.

    • Thank you Felicity! Don’t hesitate to point out any errors in my writing – though I’m sure you’ve got enough marking on your hands already.

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