One of Durban’s biggest money-spinning industries of the past – whaling – is opening new doors into ocean conservation education and potentially lucrative eco-tourism enterprises. A growing number of environmental stakeholders, associated investors, archivists and tourism operators, believe Durban’s blubbery and blood-soaked whaling past should be turned into a signature eco-tourism enterprise for KwaZulu-Natal.
Given that Durban once had the biggest land-based whaling station in the world, some argue that no other city could beat Durban in offering unique educational insights into how Durban’s whaling past is now inspiring young people to promote whale conservation. This includes five young tourism guides from Umlazi, who, having no previous experience at sea or knowledge of marine life, are now running pilot WhaleTime tours at Durban’s Maritime Museum.
Various stakeholders are also punting for Durban’s old whaling station on the Bluff to be converted into a landmark heritage site offering unique cultural, social and conservation education. Among them are Andrew Venter, Wildlands CEO and producer of the award-winning documentary, Blood Lions.
“There is a movie in the making here,” said Venter, soon after watching three separate pods of dolphin bow surf alongside the research vessel, the RV Angra Pequena, one and half kilometres offshore of Durban’s old whaling station on the Bluff.
“There is a deep, rich tapestry of stories here,” said Venter. “If documented properly, it will become a fascinating conservation success story on how experiences of those once involved in whaling have inspired whale conservation”
Grindrod executive director, David Polkinghorne, agreed, recalling days as a young child in the 1960s when his father took him on harbour cruises passed the old whaling station, then situated near the entrance to the port.
“I will never forget all the blood and blubbery muck in the water – and the stench,” said Polkinghorne.
Venter and Polkinghorne are the brains behind the Blue Fund – a joint Wildlands–Grindrod initiative that is supporting marine conservation, including an Ocean Stewards programme and Wildlands’ recently launched WhaleTime project.
Launched last year, the Ocean Stewards programme has seen more than 32 marine science students take part in offshore research expeditions along the KZN coast, mapping rich biodiversity zones for inclusion in an expanded network of Marine Protected Areas. The associated WhaleTime project involves “citizen scientists” in monitoring the annual migration of whales along the KZN coast.
People participate by simply posting photos of whales they see on the website, www.whaletime.co.za, along with the GPS position of where each photo was taken and other information about each whale encounter. The theme of the project is “shooting whales the eco-friendly way”.
Already enjoying a following of 2,900 people, WhaleTime provides useful information about species of whales along the KZN coast, and hopes to develop a whale identification catalogue featuring individual whales being monitored by scientists.
Given that several species of whales had almost been hunted to local extinction by the 1980s, Polkinghorne reckons that the challenge for Durban city should now be to create as much employment as whaling once did through conservation of whales and associated eco-tourism.
Nikki Chapman of Sea Quests, which manages the WhaleTime project, reckons this would be possible if the old whaling station on the Bluff was converted into a museum.
Currently in a derelict state, the old whaling station is used by the military for target shooting training. But with plans in place for the site to be revamped for shooting events in the 2022 Commonwealth Games, leading Durban tourism representatives reckon this could open the doors to including the old whaling station in bigger tourism scene beyond 2022.
“It will be absolutely wonderful to create a museum there,” said chairman of South Durban Tourism, Helga du Preez. “At this stage the military cannot allow public access as it’s a live shooting range, but we are in discussion with them and they are aware of our plans,” said Du Preez.
Inspired by the first series of WhaleTime tours, Du Preez said Durban Tourism plans to extend the activities to comprehensive tourism packages covering the history of whaling, whale watching (land and boat-based) and associated whale conservation and education. Partners include B&B’s on the Bluff with whale watching sites, the Durban Maritime Museum, and the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA).
“Ultimately, it would be great to also take people to where it all started with the hunting of whales,” said Du Preez, who also wants to involve Durban families deeply connected to Durban’s whaling past.
At a recent event at the Durban Maritime Museum, Emil Unger, the grandson of the Abraham Larsen, a Norwegian national who helped pioneer Durban’s whaling operations, talked of a life-changing experience on board a whaling boat as a teenager in 1975.
Even though Unger had grown up at the whaling station eating various forms of whale meat, he had no real sense of what he was about to see and witness until he was placed behind a 120mm explosive laden harpoon gun, a whale lined up in its sights.
“The thump and explosion as the harpoon hit the whale was hectic,” said Unger. “Then I was placed behind the gun. It was a moment I will never forget – the explosion of whale, all that blood and noise. I very quickly changed from being laissez fare about whaling to becoming the active environmentalist I am today.”
Unger now works in the renewable energy sector.
“I am trying to make up for that whale,” said Unger. “But we must also embrace what whaling did for Durban. It provided thousands of jobs. It was the anchor industry and mainstay of the port of Durban.”
Whaling operations in Durban ceased in late 1975. Amid growing concerns about extinction threats, a worldwide ban on commercial whaling was introduced in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission. Whaling still continues in Norway, Japan and Iceland under the auspices of research.
* This story forms part of the Human Elephant Foundation’s Ocean Watch series. To book on a WhaleTime tour call Bongiwe Mthethwa on 0710047119.