Whales strike a deeply resonant chord with the past

As a hip hop enthusiast, environmental journalism is not Zamo Phungula’s first calling, but a recent visit to Port Natal Maritime Museum certainly struck a chord, inspiring her first Ocean Watch blog.

Setting out on this assignment, I’m an hour late. I haven’t quiet mastered the art of waking early. It’s scorching hot. I have three heavy bags on my shoulders. I’m sweating like a lunatic, my anxiety growing. My hands start dripping. I’m about to shake someone’s dry hand, sweat flooding off the top of my nose, my temples, my cheeks, maybe even my eyelids too. I wonder whether I will, like a snail, leave a trail of my essence on the palm of the person’s right hand.

At home a few nights before, my brother Sphe, had excitedly called me to come see a documentary on TV. It was about a Megalodon, a creature described by Wikipedia as an extinct species of shark that lived more than 20 million years ago. Fossil remains suggest it grew up to 18 metres in length – almost one and half times bigger than a bus. This sensationalist seeking TV crew were setting out to prove that a Megalodon had been sighted in the ocean near the Cape. The Megalodon reminded me of mystical creatures I grew up learning about, including an all-knowing, powerful being, said to be a serpent residing in the ocean, and some rivers. It is believed to be responsible for initiating the most powerful of healers. It will snatch you from the shore and take you under the water for the time necessary to impart knowledge on the chosen. “Leave the Megalodon alone!” I thought to myself.

Now, making my way to Port Natal Maritime Museum to meet four young women from Umlazi who recently became WhaleTime guides, I imagined a vessel docked by the museum, ready to take me out to sea. After a safety briefing, I would strap on a life jacket and sail out to visit the favourite hang-outs of rare whales. I would take a few snaps (photos) and go home with a T-shirt letting everyone know that I’d spotted one of these giant beings at close range.

Instead, I was in for a shock. The centre piece of the WhaleTime tour  – where the experience begins and ends – is what I first thought to be a cannon from battlefields of old. It’s a massive harpoon gun that was once used to kill whales right here off Durban’s shores.

Zamo Phungula (centre) at work on her first Ocean Watch assignment, discovering how Durban’s whaling past is being turned into a signature eco-tourism enterprise in KZN. She is pictured here with WhaleTime guides, Nombuso Nzama (left) and Bongiwe Mthethwa at Durban’s Port Natal Maritime Museum.

My guides, Nondumiso Chili, Bongiwe Mthethwa, Nombuso Nzama and Nokuthula Ngwane, told me what whales had to deal with in the past as they migrated up from the Cape, passed Durban and Richards Bay to breed in warmer waters.  They showed me artefacts like oil, accessories and ornaments made from whale carcasses. I learned, for the first time, that several species of whales were once almost killed out of existence. I found this sad and depressing.

The WhaleTime Girls, as they have been dubbed by Roving Reporters, told me how they had been trained and selected to become WhaleTime guides after completing diplomas at KZN Coastal College. Having grown up in Umlazi, it was a very new experience for them. Like me, none of them had previously seen a whale or known much about them.

Nondumiso soon broke of out her shell and started telling me about things like ambergris which is whale vomit and how it was used to make fixative for perfumes, making the fragrance last longer. Almost every bit of whales – from tail to head, bones to teeth – were used for something. Even bony parts of their ears were made into dolls!

The girls also talked about their typical work day, the different personalities they encounter, travelling home by taxi, and financial challenges they face at this early stage of establishing their tour guiding enterprise assisted by Wildlands, Durban Tourism and Nikki Chapman of Sea Quests.

They talked about trying to get into the old whaling station on the Bluff which was shut down in 1975 and is now used by the military for shooting practice. They were initially not allowed in, but through Nikki’s determination, perseverance and persuasion they got inside, getting a visual reference of what they teach people about. This clearly helped. They can now talk about the whaling station as if they had been there before it was shut down.

They also gave insight into how, through ongoing conservation, whale populations along our coast have since increased significantly.  But there are still many man-made threats. There is pollution of the oceans. There is drilling of the seabed for gas and oil. The mining surveys also use SONAR. These sounds are said to drive whales out of the water.

Zamo and Nikki Chapman

Chatting to Nikki, I was struck by her breezy, sky blue aura and easy going manner. But behind all this, there clearly is a steely-Margaret-Thatcher-like will.  She brought these girls into foreign territory, guiding them through difficulties they have faced during their training, including dealing with conservative people in the conservation business. She takes them to relevant meetings, forcing them to engage with other stakeholders. She’s given them tough love and skills to become legendary WhaleTime guides.

At the end of the day, though, it is their own efforts that will determine how far they will go. There’s a saying in isiZulu:Ingane engakhali ifela embelekweni”. Literally this means that a baby that doesn’t cry while in pain when strapped to her mother’s back, will die on her mother’s back. Figuratively, it means that person who does not make themselves heard, will not progress.

For me, my WhaleTime tour was also a new beginning. I learned a lot about whales that I had not known before. Now, when I see whales in the ocean for the first time, I’ll respect the struggles they have faced to survive. Perhaps whaling played an important and practical role in society. I won’t know that until I talk to people who were directly involved. I’m just glad that whales are still around. I hope, too, that generations to come will also witness their celestial presence – that whales do not become Megalodons of our time.

  • Zamo Phungula, a journalism graduate from CityVarsity  is currently serving an environmental journalism apprenticeship with Roving Reporters supported by the Architects Collaborative.

Our Ocean Watch series is sponsored by

Roving Reporters Ocean Watch series was inspired by the award-winning Makotikoti Arts Project supported by the Human Elephant Foundation.

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