March 8, 2009

The other night I was watching David Attenborough's programme on Nature's Great Events. There is a sardine run that takes place every year off the coast of South Africa.

A shoal of sardines - billions of them - make their way to cool waters on what he described as a "desperate journey" to survive. Life as a sardine is not easy.

You're low in the food chain. Up against an army of predators: sharks, dolphins, gannets and whales. It's not like you can fight back. All you can hope for is not to be eaten.

Once the feeding frenzy begins, it's just a matter of chance. The gannets dive-bomb from the air and all the whales have to do is open their mouth - thousands of your friends and family are devoured in an instant.

Watching this I wondered if the sardines who survived were grateful. Were they swimming away thinking they made a lucky escape? Were some of them in mourning?

My friend, Pippa, watched the same show. I asked if she wondered if the ones that escaped had survivor's guilt.

"I can honestly say I did not wonder about that at all," she replied. "I watched the show and drifted off into a peaceful sleep."

Not me. What intrigued me was that there was no skill at all as to which sardines made it. Is that a metaphor for life? Either they were eaten by a shark or they weren't.

It came down to luck and timing. It wasn't a matter of swimming faster or having a solid plan. And those that escaped - then what? All that effort just to end up in a tin.

In that pack of billions there had to be one lone sardine that worried about what would happen. That would be me. If I were a sardine, I'd have problems.

I'd hate being jostled. I'm not good in crowds. I'd want to question where everyone was going and how long it would take. Then the shoal would dump me. They'd take off and leave me behind. I'd try to catch up but I wouldn't know where they were. I'd get lost.

Either that or when the predators showed up, I'd be so sure I was doomed that I'd swim towards the shark to get it over with.

If Sir David were observing me for a Nature's Great Event - what kind of show would it be? I can hear it now: "It's a desperate journey. This soon to be endangered species is trying not to get eaten. She never leaves her apartment."

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

As for the mating habits - nothing there to observe. He would explore my natural habitat for a while. "There she is in bed watching TV," and "There she is again - flossing." He might comment on how that activity is new. But then he'd get bored and move on.

The great event that takes place would be leaving the house for my annual migration to the gym.

Along the way I would make exciting stops at the post office, the dry cleaners and the organic coffee shop.

I'd appear to be undertaking a perilous journey and he would say, in a sympathetic voice: "It may seem like a few shorts steps, but for the lesser-spotted Leve, it's a mountain to climb."

The music would swell. He'd praise my perseverance and celebrate that I made it home.He'd ponder a future of what life on earth would be like if I didn't exist. There would be a pause. Then he would speculate about my chances for survival and conclude: it's not good.