• Slideshow Conservation

Conservation and Research

Whaling off the KwaZulu-Natal coast - Compiled by Terry Hutson

The whaling industry in Durban had its beginnings in 1907 when the Norwegian Consul in Durban, Jacob Egeland, went back to Norway and, with fellow Norwegian Johan Bryde, raised money to start a whaling operation in Durban. The two men formed the South African Whaling Company that year and brought two ships for catching whales to Durban from Sandefjord in Norway.

Hunting began in July the following year and ended in mid-November, by which time the two catchers had killed 106 of the huge animals, mostly Humpbacks.

The original whaling factory was within the harbour entrance, near where the whale slipway can still be found. This was a popular bathing area at the time but because sharks were now attracted to the whale carcases, and on account of the smell produced, the whaling factory was forced to move around the headland to the ocean side of the Bluff – KwaZulu-Natal.

Here a second factory was also planned, the Union Whaling & Fishing Company with Egeland and Abraham Larsen  as partners, but this had yet to start operations. In the 1909 hunting season the whale capture rose to 155 whales, yielding 1070 tons of oil, 12 tons of whalebone and 148 tons of boiled bone. The latter was sold locally; the rest exported to Europe. By 1910 the Union Whaling & Fishing Co was in operation with three catchers and in that year killed 233 whales.

In the following years other whaling companies opened, each with a factory on the seaward side of the Bluff. Most of these soon closed down or amalgamated – among the latter were two companies that formed the Premier Whaling Company, which was taken over by Lever Bros in 1914.

Among those that closed were the South African Whaling Co and the Union Whaling & Fishing Co, although a new Union Whaling Co (UWC) would reopen in 1921, again with Egeland and Larsen at the helm and employing locally-raised capital. UWC took over the original Union Whaling & Fishing Co station on the Bluff and after a slow start went on to become the surviving whaling company in Natal. In 1931 Lever Bros sold the Premier Whaling Company to Union Whaling at a heavy loss, and with the other companies having all shut by then, the Union Whaling Company continued as the sole occupant of the Natal whaling grounds, although it operated both factories right through until 1953 when it located all factory operations in the former Premier premises.

The remains of this factory are all that is evident today, and although in a dilapidated condition they are worthy of being made available as a memorial to the men and women of the whaling industry, and the whales themselves that once performed such an important role in the economy of Natal.

A special train was used to take the carcases around the headland to the respective whaling stations. This practice continued right until the end of operations in the 1970s. The whaling season off the KZN coast lasted from March to September because whales would migrate northward past Durban at the start of the Antarctic winter and pass by on their way south again. During these months, the catchers could reap a rich harvest of whales without having to sail much more than 150 miles from Durban.

In the early years the majority of whales killed were Humpbacks but as the number of these migrating along the coast quickly diminished, other species including Sperm, Blue and Fin whales became important. By the 1930s the numbers of Blue whales were becoming less while Fin whales lasted until the 1960s. Attention then turned to hunting Sei whales but exploitation in the Antarctic was having a severe effect on the numbers of different species moving into warmer waters and by the end of whaling off the Natal coast in the 1970s the Sperm whale was the main target, with large numbers moving through the waters off the coast.

The end to whaling off the Natal coast came in 1975 and followed global pressure that led to calls for all whaling to be abandoned. Economic pressure increased when fuel oil prices skyrocketed in the early 1970s – whale catching ships burned between 8 and 16 tons of fuel oil a day, and whaling stations needed a lot of fuel to power steam winches and process carcasses.

Since the reduction of whaling in the Antarctic and the ending of whaling off the KZN coast, whale numbers have gradually increased, providing new interest and commercial opportunities involving tourism.  This has yet to be fully explored in KZN.

Acknowledgements: A Short History of Modern Whaling off Natal. R Gambell National Institute of Oceanography 1970




Increasing our knowledge and understanding of these extraordinary marine mammals’ biology and population structure, through the photographs you send us, will help to improve the accuracy of the data used in assessments of the population recovery and future conservation of these species.


Become informed about the legislation surrounding whales (see Marine Code of Conduct).


Any marine animal may be regarded as “stranded” if it is out of its element and is unable to return to its natural habitat under its own power or without assistance. The development of a set of procedures for the response to an animal's stranding is critical in order to facilitate:

a) timeous assistance for animals in distress,
b) euthanasia,
c) morphometric measurements as well as tissue samples if animals are dead/euthanised.
d) Disposal of carcasses.

In KZN, stranded animals include whales, dolphins, seals, whale sharks, penguins and various other seabirds such as gannets and cormorants. There is no single known reason why animals strand. They may be injured, sick or confused by the magnetic fields of the earth, or beach themselves through not realising how close they are to the shore and getting stuck on the sand/rocks.


If you find a stranded animal on the beach, please contact one of the following KZN Stranding Network members:

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife

083 380 6298

(24 hr hotline)

uShaka Sea World

031 328 8222(o/h) or 031 328 8060

(a/h, weekends & public holidays)



This programme aims to protect and restore marine habitats and reduce negative impacts on marine and coastal habitats among other things.


Sea Shepherds South Africa (who have a base in Durban) are dedicated to marine conservation.

Conservation Success Story – Defying Extinction – by Summer Newton

Near extinction

The intensity of whaling in the Southern Hemisphere, including off the coast of Durban, led to the near extinction of many baleen whale species, including both Humpback and Southern Right whales.

Humpback whales

Over the course of the whaling period, an estimated 28, 040 individual whales were taken from the East Coast of Southern Africa. These Humpback whales were hunted both during their migration and while in their breeding grounds; and for some time, even whilst at their feeding grounds in the waters near Antarctica. By the end of the whaling period, a post-exploitation population in the southwest Indian Ocean of as little as 340 individuals was all that was left – a mere 10% of the original population.

Southern Right whales

Hunting of the Southern Right whales almost destroyed the species. Fewer than 100 of these whales survived off the South African coast after whaling. Both Humpback and Southern Right whales were at this point listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN 1996 Red List of Threatened Species.

image whale diveRecovery

As a result of the decision made by the International Whaling Commission to ban whaling in the Southern Hemisphere by 1986, and the South African Governments decision to draft and implement legalisation to limit and govern boats approaching whales (see the Marine Code of Conduct), as well as the efforts of various conservation efforts that were made and are being made globally, these two species have partially recovered in some areas, and continue to increase their numbers every year.

Humpback whales

Surveys of Humpback whales have estimated that the Humpback whale population that migrates past Durban has increased from the mere 340 individuals to approximately 7000 individuals - an incredible recovery of approximately 77-84% of the original pre-exploitation stock. As a result of these recent population recoveries the Humpback whales, which migrate along the East Coast of South Africa through the coastal waters of Durban, are currently listed as “Least Concern”.

Southern Right whales

Astoundingly, the number of Southern Right whales has increased to over 1 000 off the South African Coast, at an encouraging growth rate of 7% per annum. At this rate, the population is expected to double within the next ten years. This is not only a success for South Africa, but is also one of the most important whale conservation success stories in the world. Southern Right whales in South Africa are now also listed as “Least Concern”.

Continuing Threats

Despite the increases in the populations of these species, there are still anthropogenic activities which pose a significant risk to the whale populations – including ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and shark nets, climate change, noise pollution, and plastic pollution. Addressing these challenges requires international cooperation amongst scientists, conservation groups, international organizations, governments, and the public i.e. - you!


Whale Time Humpback Whale research project – by Summer Newton

The current understanding of Humpback whale migrations along the South African East Coast is in need of attention. Photographic data is important and can be used to inform management and conservation plans. South Africa has no photo-identification catalogue for whales for the entire East Coast region, although some researchers have photo collections which require consolidation into a meta-regional catalogue system.

I have recently started a Master of Science project, based at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), to collate existing Humpback whale tail fluke images from the entire East Coast of South Africa, as well as new images, into a photo identification catalogue. The purpose of this catalogue is to gain a better understanding of the movement ecology and population dynamics of the South African East Coast Humpback whale migration stocks. One of the aims of the project is to determine the extent of mixing across the migratory destinations of Humpback whales in the Western Indian Ocean, as well as the interchange between the West and East African breeding stocks. In addition, I aim to develop a digital map of Humpback whale locations that can be kept up to date, and used to inform Marine Spatial Plans along the East coast of South Africa (new Marine Spatial Planning legislation is currently being developed). My supervisors are Prof. Ken Findlay (Cape Peninsula University of Technology) and Prof. Mandy Lombard (NMMU). Wildlands and Grindrod are also part-funding my research through the Blue Fund - Ocean Stewards Programme.

My hope is that this catalogue will ultimately become the integral part of a national catalogue for the entire South African coastline in the form of an easily accessible online website. This website will allow fluke photographs to be uploaded from the public (see Happywhale website as an example) and compared with the existing catalogue, to gain feedback of any information available on other sightings of that particular Humpback and others in the catalogue. This website will also allow contributors to be acknowledged on the website for their involvement and contribution.



“Whales are nature in its grandest form - massive, beautiful, powerful, and mysterious.  They are ancient, like living dinosaurs, managing so far to survive every planetary disaster and human-caused threat, from hunting to habitat loss to pollution.  But they are gentle, inquisitive, intuitive, forgiving, and sentient.” – Joel Reynolds, NRDC

Their story of recovery from levels that were arguably close to extinction shows that conservation clearly can and does work and that, in light of the trend of declining global biodiversity, should be celebrated as a symbol of hope for the health and continuation of both our oceans and the animals which call it home.