The Evolution of a Region: A Sea Change for Durban’s Former Whaling Industry

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All words by Marie Harrington. Header photo by Sodurba.

The Bluff is a coastal suburb that forms part of the port of Durban on the eastern seaboard of South Africa. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty and, with its stunning landscapes and an abundance of wildlife on both land and sea, it’s considered a natural paradise. Nowadays, it’s a picture of serenity, but it wasn’t always like this. Almost 200 years of whaling that began in the late 18th century saw humpback whale populations decimated. Thousands of migratory whales were harvested and slaughtered in the area off Durban’s coast, which gave rise to one of the largest land-based whaling operations in the world. It is estimated that there was a maximum of only 600 humpback whales remaining when whaling eventually ceased in 1975. This was followed by a global ban on commercial whaling in 1986. Since then, these magnificent and charismatic mammals have started to recover in great numbers in this region after being hunted to near extinction.

The annual migration of humpback whales along the 1,200-mile coast of South Africa now provides some of the best whale-watching experiences in the world. At one time, not so long ago, it was unimaginable that this beautiful corner of the world would give rise to such a thriving responsible whale-watching tourist industry. In just two generations, whales in this region have gone from being relentlessly hunted to passionately protected. The Bluff’s rich heritage and long whaling history are forever captured in the museum that has been transformed from the old whaling station, which now serves to educate the public about wildlife and the importance of ocean conservation.

Photo of the old whaling station by Sodurba

The tide has well and truly turned, and the relationship between humans and cetaceans in this area has seen the most remarkable evolution from the hunter and the hunted to respectful co-existence. A tragic history has now been succeeded by the highest accolade in protection and conservation for both whales and dolphins.

This was an incredible two-year mission to achieve Whale Heritage Site status for The Bluff. A collaborative effort by a team of dedicated and passionate individuals and local organisations, working towards achieving positive change and the ultimate goal of putting The Bluff front and centre for the conservation and preservation of cetaceans.

And so, “Whale Coast” was born. Durban now celebrates its cultural heritage and connection to whales by hosting the annual ‘Welcoming of the Whales’ festival. Last year, the festival was attended by over 6,000 people. The streets are closed and families and communities come together to celebrate the iconic whales that grace their shores. Painted murals and sculptures are on show, many contributed by local artists who are afforded a popular platform to showcase their talents. A 3 m long humpback whale effigy, affectionately named “Destiny”, was unveiled at the most recent festival. The model has been decorated with recycled plastic bottle tops representing the eco-conscious values of the community and highlighting the rising problem of plastic in our oceans.

Photo of The Bluff’s first whale art piece by Sodurba

With the Whale Heritage Site accolade drawing increased attention to The Bluff as a premier destination for whale-watching, the focus is now very much on promoting responsible and sustainable tourism and building on the reputation gained by the hard work and tireless efforts of those who saw the potential. The marketing drive, spearheaded by Sodurba, will create many jobs, attract increased investment to the area and help to build partnerships.

The achievement of the Whale Heritage Site status is of immeasurable importance to the communities, authorities and organisations that represent this region. This has contributed to greater research on cetacean populations in the area and has helped to change attitudes towards the environment, ocean habitat preservation and the importance of protecting cetaceans. The increased regulations and guidelines from local governments to promote the effective management and monitoring of the whale-watching industry has raised the profile of The Bluff as a major tourist destination for whale enthusiasts.

Whaling once formed a lucrative trade and was a significant contributor to the local economy in this area. Now, an increased investment in whale-watching infrastructure that supports the growing eco-tourism industry will surpass that. Not only will the great whales themselves survive and thrive, but the local community will continue to benefit from all that is good about these remarkable creatures. “Conservation is a gift to my children and to theirs”: those are the poignant and inspiring words of Tim Choate, Chair of Wild Oceans.

Whales and dolphins will continue to face challenges. Pollution, entanglements, ship strikes and climate change are just a few of the numerous threats they face. The Whale Heritage Site certification is just one initiative that shows us that, with a local focus underpinned by global co-operation, we can promote awareness, affect hearts and minds and impact real change through education, sustainability and conservation.

It is hoped that examples set by The Bluff in achieving this gold standard in the protection of cetaceans and their habitats will inspire other coastal areas and communities to follow in their fluke prints. A country’s most valuable tourism asset is its image and, whilst the whaling legacy remains, the future is nothing but positive for this extraordinary region.

To find out more about the Whale Heritage Site initiative and The Bluff, Durban, contact us and visit the website.

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