Shelf currents, lee-trapped and transient eddies on the inshore boundary of the Agulhas Current, South Africa: their relevance to the KwaZulu-Natal sardine run

  • MJ Roberts
  • CD van der Lingen
  • C Whittle
  • M van den Berg


The existence and strength of the annual KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) sardine run has long been a conundrum to fishers and scientists alike ― particularly that the sardine Sardinops sagax migrate along the narrow Transkei shelf against the powerful, warm Agulhas Current. However, examination of ship-borne acoustic Doppler current profiler (S–ADCP) data collected during two research surveys in 2005 indicated that northward-flowing coastal countercurrents exist at times between the Agulhas Bank and the KZN Bight, near Port Alfred, East London, Port St Johns and Durban. The countercurrent near Port Alfred extended as far east as the Keiskamma River, within an upwelling zone known to exist there. An ADCP mooring at a depth of 32 m off Port Alfred indicated that the countercurrent typically lasted a few days, but at times remained in the same direction for as long as 10 days. Velocities ranged between 20 and 60 cm s–1 with maximum values of ~80 cm s–1. The S–ADCP data also highlighted the existence of cyclonic flow in the Port St Johns–Waterfall Bluff coastal inset, with a northward coastal current similarly ranging in velocity between 20 and 60 cm s–1. CTD data indicated that this was associated with shelf-edge upwelling, with surface temperatures 2–4 °C cooler than the adjacent core temperature (24–26 °C) of the Agulhas Current. Vertical profiles of the S–ADCP data showed that the countercurrent, about 7 km wide, extends down the slope to at least 600 m, where it appeared to link with the deep Agulhas Undercurrent at 800 m. S–ADCP and sea surface temperature (SST) satellite data confirmed the existence of the semi-permanent, lee-trapped, cyclonic eddy off Durban, associated with a well-defined northward coastal current between Park Rynie and Balito Bay. Analysis of three months (May–July 2005) of satellite SST and ocean colour data showed the shoreward core-boundary of the Agulhas Current (24 °C isotherm) to commonly be close to the coast along the KZN south coast, as well as between the Kei and Mbhashe rivers on the Transkei shelf. The Port St Johns–Waterfall Bluff cyclonic eddy was also frequently visible in these satellite data. Transient cyclonic eddies, which spanned 150–200 km of shelf, appeared to move downstream in the shoreward boundary of the Agulhas Current at a frequency of about once a month. These seemed to be break-away Durban eddies. Data collected by ADCP moorings deployed off Port Edward in 2005 showed that these break-away eddies and the well-known Natal Pulse are associated with temporary northward countercurrents on the shelf, which can last up to six days. It is proposed that these countercurrents off Port Alfred, East London and Port St Johns assist sardine to swim northwards along the Transkei shelf against the Agulhas Current, but that their progress north of Waterfall Bluff is dependent on the arrival of a transient, southward-moving, break-away Durban cyclonic eddy, which apparently sheds every 4–6 weeks, or on the generation of a Natal Pulse. This passage control mechanism has been coined the ‘Waterfall Bluff gateway’ hypothesis. The sardine run survey in June–July 2005 was undertaken in the absence of a cyclonic eddy on the KZN south coast, i.e. when the ‘gate’ was closed.

Keywords: Agulhas Current, current reversals, eddies, KwaZulu-Natal Bight, Natal Pulse, sardine run, Transkei shelf, Waterfall Bluff gateway hypothesis

African Journal of Marine Science 2010, 32(2): 423–447

Author Biographies

MJ Roberts
Oceans and Coasts, Department of Environmental Affairs, Private Bag X2, Rogge Bay 8012, South Africa
CD van der Lingen
Branch Fisheries, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Private Bag X2, Rogge Bay 8012, South Africa; and Marine Research Institute, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7700, South Africa
C Whittle
Department of Oceanography, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7700, South Africa
M van den Berg
Oceans and Coasts, Department of Environmental Affairs, Private Bag X2, Rogge Bay 8012, South Africa

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1814-2338
print ISSN: 1814-232X