The Whale Time Girls

When 27-year-old Nondumiso Chili and four colleagues from Umlazi enrolled for training as whale tourism guides, they got teased and ridiculed in the township. 

“They said we had thrown away our money by studying tourism at KZN Coastal College only to end up teaching people about whales,” says Chili.

But Chili is not phased. She believes in the adage that those who laugh first, laugh last –  and that those who laugh last, laugh best.

It was five months ago that Chili, Nokuthula Ngwane 25, Bongiwe Mthethwa 24, Nombuso Nzama 27 and Thandeka Ziqubu 24, were enrolled for training by the ocean expedition agency, SeaQuests.

None of them had ever set foot on a boat before. None of them had ever seen a whale.  None of them had heard of a harpoon gun.

They had all, though, heard of superstitions about whales, mostly about people being swallowed whole.

Three months training by SeaQuests soon put such superstitions to rest and the five young woman now run WhaleTime educational tours at the Port Natal Maritime Museum, providing insight into Durban’s blubbery and blood-soaked whaling past.

Under the supervision of SeaQuest volunteers, Nina Hoffman (front) and Thor Erickson, five KZN Coastal College tourism graduates embark on their first expedition to the old whaling station on the Bluff as part of their training as  WhaleTime guides. They are (from left to right) Nokuthula Ngwane,  Nombuso Nzama, Thandeka  Ziqubu, Nondumiso Chilli and Bongiwe Mthethwa.

Chatting not far from a cannon-sized harpoon gun, Chili said she was very nervous the first time she had to facilitate a tour.

 “There was that fear. I couldn’t remember anything I had been taught. Now it’s become second nature. I speak freely about what I know,” said Chili.

Ngwane had previously not known that several species of whales had been hunted to near extinction along Africa’s eastern coastline. She said that by the time South Africa stopped whaling in 1975, it was estimated that there were as few as 340 humpback whales and less than 100 southern right whales left in the southwest Indian Ocean.

Mthethwa provided insights into how hunts took place: the whales killed with metal harpoons loaded with explosives, then pumped full of compressed air for towing back to shore. The bloated carcasses were then heaved up a slipway of the whaling station on the Bluff for processing.

Nzama talked about how every last fragment of the huge creatures, from bone to skin and flesh, was used for something:  lubricants for machinery, candles, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals. Whale meat extract was also used to make instant soup.

“The sperm whale was popular for its vomit (ambergris) which was used by perfumers as a fixative allowing the scent to last much longer,” said Nzama.

Through on-going conservation efforts, whale numbers have increasingly significantly with as many as 7000 humpback whales and more than 1000 southern right migrating past Durban each year.

Nzama said members of the public could assist in monitoring this migration by uploading photos of whale sightings on the WhaleTime website –

She said whales still faced many mad-made threats, including increased shipping traffic and oil and gas surveys which use active sonar (Sound Navigation and Ranging). These sounds travel considerable distances underwater and are known to harm marine mammals, sometimes with tragic and deadly costs, including mass strandings.

Chilli said river pollution also posed a big threat to marine life, and that much education needed to be down about this.

Assisted by Wildlands and Durban Tourism, The WhaleTime girls, as they have been dubbed, now hope to register a company and become part of a broader “Whale-Route” initiative being planned by the South Durban Tourism Association (SODURBA).

They also hope to take part in forthcoming World Whale Congress happening in Durban in June.

“Learning about whales has opened lots of doors for us. Let’s see what the people who laughed at us, have to say now,” said Chili.

  • This story, also published in today’s Sunday Tribune, forms part of Roving Reporters Ocean Watch series supported by the Human Elephant Foundation. WhaleTime is supported by The Blue Fund  – a Wildlands-Grindrod Bank initiative that promotes various marine conservation projects.

Now read: World Whale Congress planned for Durban


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