SSI x Edges of Earth: Diving Consciously - Lessons from the Bait Ball Shoals

Moalboal hosts one of the world’s most accessible and impressive sardine bait balls. In Edges of Earth’s latest news, discover what diving among 4 million sardines is like and the surprising lessons learnt about diving sustainably - with nature’s wellbeing front and center.

How do you embark on a two-year global dive expedition that highlights positive ocean news? The inception of our project, "Edges of Earth," can be traced back to a transformative solo dive in Taveuni Island, Fiji, hailed as the soft coral capital of the world. Surrounded by the staggering beauty of expansive soft coral walls and the rich biodiversity, I was captivated and wanted to know so much more. 

On Taveuni, I had the privilege of engaging with local dive experts whose lifelong experiences in these waters told tales of audacious exploration, self-discovery and an unparalleled bond with the ocean. These stories and their deeply resonant themes laid the foundation for our ambitious expedition.

It wasn’t just the breathtaking biodiversity that stuck with me, but more so the profound narratives of those connected to the Fijian waters. These tales of profound oceanic bonds left me feeling like I needed to do more personally. I needed to learn more about the ocean, listen to those who hold the knowledge, and share the uncovered findings in whatever way I could. As I knew I was not the only one interested in this kind of insight. 

In an era dominated by distressing news, it became quite clear how to focus this expedition. We needed to spotlight the positive news and progress happening around the world. The mainstream often overshadows uplifting accounts with disheartening narratives. And since the beginning, we wanted to change that. 

To highlight the good news, we had to find it first.

That meant searching for genuine people on the frontlines of ocean conservation and restoration who wanted to share their stories. Seeing is believing. So we thought if we could show what others are doing to contribute, perhaps it would inspire others, giving them some options for how they too can get involved. With that, Edges of Earth was no longer a concept, it was an actionable expedition. 

Plotting the journey’s course has presented challenges. Initially slated as a 12-month voyage, it has since expanded to 24 months. After all, the vast and largely uncharted expanse of our oceans demands more time.

Diving deep into marine conservation.

Today, our itinerary consists of "deep locations," where we immerse ourselves for a month, partnering with local experts to unearth and share unique marine stories, such as what we have done in the Philippines. Conversely, there are "unexpected locations" that, while not remote, conceal intriguing underwater secrets. An instance of this was our exploration of the last shellfish reefs in Hong Kong’s Pearl River Delta.

Each destination on our expedition shares a common thread: invaluable marine ecosystems and dedicated conservationists working to protect them. This insight has been the driver for the 24-month itinerary, meticulously crafted over two years.

As we have gotten further along in our voyage, we have added what we call "pit stops" to the plan. These are extraordinary events occurring precisely when we were in a given region, moments too remarkable to miss but those that were not necessarily part of the core expedition trail. 

The Philippines captivated us with its grand spectacle: the permanent sardine bait ball.

This became one of the marquee pit stops along the way, the more we started to learn about sardines. 

What is a sardine bait ball?

A sardine bait ball refers to a phenomenon wherein these small fish group together in a compact, spherical formation in the open ocean. This defensive behavior is usually a response to the presence of predators, such as sharks, dolphins and seabirds. By sticking closely together in large numbers, individual fish reduce their chances of being singled out and eaten. The movement of the bait ball is synchronous, with each fish mirroring the movements of its neighbor, creating a dynamic visual experience that makes this tiny fish seem like a gigantic one when all of them are working so closely together. 

The occurrence of any species of bait ball is of immense ecological significance. These formations represent a critical food source for a variety of marine predators, ensuring their sustenance and survival. The frenzied feeding event can gather diverse species ranging from pelagic birds diving from above to large marine species attacking from below. 

In particular, one of the most renowned occurrences of the bait ball formation is the annual sardine run along the eastern coast of South Africa. During this event, billions of sardines migrate northward, leading to one of the largest marine predation events on the planet.

Apart from South Africa, bait ball phenomena can also be observed in various other oceanic regions, including the coasts of California, Mexico and Australia, particularly when conditions are right for small fish to congregate and migrate.

Finding the elusive bait balls of Moalboal.

Moalboal in the Philippines hosts one of the most accessible yet still elusive sardine bait balls. Before even getting on a boat and plunging into the water to see the sardines in action, there is quite a long journey ahead on land. It begins with a flight to Cebu, the country’s second-largest city. From there, a three-hour drive leads to Moalboal—a tiny area that is known for its tiny fish!

Over the last few years, whispers spread online suggesting the famed, ever-present bait ball had disappeared from Moalboal. With no real understanding of why the sardines left the site—or if it was even true at all—we were curious to find out. By March 2023, the rumor mills were still active, so our August 2023 arrival to inspect the sardine shoal firsthand was met with high anticipation. Unsure what this would mean for the diving in the area, we went in with open minds. 

An expedition of this nature inherently comes with unpredictability. While we cannot control nature, our strategy lies in timing our visits based on seasons, collaborating with experts, and demonstrating patience within our designated periods. In our research, if we are seeing red flags like this, we have to weigh our options. We decided we needed to just go for it as the potential of seeing this was entirely worth it. 

A cornerstone of our planning is avoiding peak seasons. Opting for shoulder or off-season grants us unhampered exploration, revealing unexpected wonders during times that are sometimes written off. With fewer disturbances, nature thrives, often leading to unforgettable encounters. Nature is at its best when engaged with sustainably.

Upon our arrival in Moalboal, much of the chatter was around diving Pescador Island, famed for its whale shark encounters and diverse marine giants. However, the more locals we connected with, the more affirmation we got regarding the sardines. According to the pros, there were many sardines in these waters. We were excited to find out for ourselves.

READ MORE: Diving with Whale Sharks: All You Need to Know.

Experiencing marine marvels deepens our appreciation for the ocean’s majesty and intricacy, reinforcing conservation motives. Yet when tourism is left unchecked, it poses significant risks and can creep into the category of "over-tourism." This is when a location cannot handle the influx of tourists due to lacking infrastructure, management practices and regulations. Given this nearshore phenomenon, we were hopeful that the site was in pristine condition. 

Upon reaching the shoal, it was evident the rumors had not dampened enthusiasm. The area buzzed with activity, boats anchored everywhere as snorkelers and freedivers vied for the perfect bait ball snapshot. Tourism was running wild here, in every single direction. Yet, there were very few scuba divers in line of sight. 

As we submerged, the surface chaos faded. We drifted to a less frequented area, anticipating the bait ball’s shift in our direction or the retreat of surface divers. Eventually, after sitting in the shallows waiting for a while, the sardine spectacle surrounded us, away from the crowd. Our patience had paid off! 

Amidst over 4 million sardines, we felt transported to another era.

Their coordinated dance created a force larger than any predator they might encounter, rivaling even the whale shark. Contentedly, we hovered between 5-10 meters (16-32 feet), enveloped by this natural marvel for over an hour. As the surface divers gradually retreated, we trailed the sardines, letting them guide our exploration of the shoal. 

I share this to inspire not just your wanderlust, but also as a discerning approach to your dive planning during your travels. Drawing insights from various accounts and experiences is essential to make informed decisions; from selecting seasons and operators to pinpointing specific marine aggregations or natural occurrences and how to best interact with them.

In all of our travels, we have realized one of the most critical aspects is learning to navigate the planet consciously. We must remember we are just transient visitors beneath the surface. Respecting these fragile ecosystems from a vantage of reverence is not just recommended—it is essential.

RELATED: 10 Top Tips for Sustainable Diving.

Diving immerses us in an enchanting marine realm, but it comes with a profound responsibility. It is important to experience the sea and all of its magic, as it brings us closer and forms the bond that I was describing earlier that the Fijians possess with ease. Yet, if we deviate from mindful diving practices or unwittingly contribute to overtourism, the repercussions can be irreversible.

Optimal diving entails patience, strategic timing, and a genuine acceptance of nature’s unpredictability. Distributing our diving throughout the year minimizes our impact, allowing marine life to flourish undisturbed. The easiest solution is considering off-peak times to dive the more famed sites, minimizing your contribution to the chaos above and below the water. 

Guided by these principles, every dive location we have chosen reaffirms one truth: the ocean’s marvels are incredible, yet fragile. As we continue to explore the depths, it is essential to navigate diving as consciously as possible, understanding that our actions, both above and below the surface, impact this vast and vital blue world. 

So, where will you go diving next? If our experience at Moalboal has inspired you, check out SSI’s guide to diving in Moalboal and plan your bait ball adventure:


Andi Cross is an SSI Ambassador and lead of the Edges of Earth expedition, highlighting stories of remote ocean conservation communities and organizations in 50 destinations worldwide. To keep up with the expedition and see where the team is going next, follow the team on InstagramLinkedInTikTokYouTube and their website.