The first Whale Heritage Site in Africa and joint first in the world
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, with stunning landscapes and an abundance of wildlife both on land and at sea.
The Bluff recently launched a Whale Watching Route and celebrates the arrival of humpback whales with the Welcoming of the Whales Festival every year.
The Old Whaling Station at The Bluff is being transformed by the Sodurba community tourism organisation into a Heritage Site and Eco Tourism Hub point where they can share their great history with tourists and guests. Their vision is to showcase how the local community has evolved to become protectors and admirers of their whales, and to educate the public about wildlife and the importance of ocean conservation.
The people living and working at The Bluff have a strong desire to retain their heritage and links with cetaceans through festivals, trails, guided walks, and whale watching opportunities.
Sodurba has also recently registered this destination as the Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) Whale Coast®, which will further strengthen and foster the community’s sense of pride and leave behind a legacy.
The Bluff became the world’s first certified Whale Heritage Site (along with Hervey Bay) in October, 2019.
- Region – Africa
- Country – South Africa
- Area/State – KwaZulu Natal
- Region – Africa
- Humpback whales
- Dwarf minke whales
- Southern right whales
- Sperm whales
- Bottlenose dolphins
- Humpback dolphins
- Long-beaked common dolphins
The Bluff Whale Heritage Site encompasses the Bluff, Merebank, Wentworth, Austerville, Treasure Beach, Jacobs, Clairwood and Wilson’s Wharf beach and ocean area.
As one of the main enclosing elements of the Bay of Natal, the Bluff Headland has extraordinary geographical, environmental and historical significance. It is visible from great distances, both inland and from sea, and must have provided early peoples with an easily recognisable landmark. For the past 150 years, it has been dominated by navigational and military usage. Fortunately, the latter ‘fortress’ use has allowed most of the ecological systems to survive. With water on three sides, it also has the qualities of an island. The Bluff ridge is a surviving remnant of an extensive coastal dune system which formed along the shoreline of Natal.
Cetaceans regularly seen
The best time to go whale watching in The Bluff is from May to December, when humpback whales make their migration along the east coast of South Africa. There are estimated to be over 7,000 humpbacks migrating through the waters of Durban now, compared to only 340 when the whaling station was closed in 1975. Similarly, the population of southern right whales has increased to over 1,000 individuals off the coast of South Africa.
Other whales that can be seen include sperm, minke and Bryde’s, while humpback dolphins and long-beaked common dolphins are also commonly sighted during the sardine run between May and July.
The Old Whaling Station located in The Bluff used to be one of the largest whaling stations in the southern hemisphere. Whaling started in 1907 and continued through to 1975, using harpoon guns. The whaling station then moved to the seaward side of the Bluff, due to the bad smell that saturated the area and also to protect bathers from sharks that were attracted by the blood during flensing.
In a way, whaling was a cultural practice for the people whose livelihoods depended on it. Emerging from this grim past, there is now a shift towards supporting conservation practices and celebrating cetaceans and their recovery.
Things to do
- Go for a harbour cruise or responsible whale and dolphin watching tour with Isle of Capri Cruises and Whale and Dolphin Tours, the two legal permit holders in this area.
- Attend the annual Welcoming of the Whales festival.
- Visit the WESSA Treasure Beach Environmental Education Centre. The roof of the building can be used as a viewpoint to watch whales and dolphins moving up and down the coast.
- Visit the Durban Maritime Museum.
- Follow the KZN Whale Heritage Route and stop at the land-based whale watching viewpoints.
Achieving Whale Heritage Site Status
Each Whale Heritage Site has a unique route to meeting the criteria set out by the WCA. Check out some of the highlights from the Bluff Whale Heritage Site:
Encouraging Respectful Human-Cetacean Coexistence
In just two generations, the coastal community has progressed from hunting whales to protecting them, and the relationship between humans and cetaceans in this area has evolved to respectful co-existence.
The responsible whale watching industry, which is effectively managed and monitored at a local government level, has helped to raise the profile of The Bluff as a major wildlife tourist destination.
The government-managed permit system encourages sustainable and respectful whale watching practices through clearly defined guidelines. The marine code of conduct is adopted and adhered to throughout the WHS. Only operators with valid boat-based whale watching permits, allocated by the South African Dept. of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, are allowed to conduct boat tours within the WHS.
The KZN Whale Heritage Route includes sea-based whale watching as well as land-based viewing, including five viewpoints with information boards situated along The Bluff coastline.
At the end of June each year, The Bluff celebrates its cultural heritage and connection to whales by hosting the ‘Welcoming of the Whales’ festival. The festival focuses on educating locals and tourists alike about cetaceans, marine life, eco-tourism, recycling and general protection of the ocean. The streets are closed for the festival and painted murals and sculptures are showcased, many of which are contributed by local artists.
Alongside the festival, there is an annual ceremony on the beach, which includes a ‘paddle out’ by local surfers while a poem is read. The poem was written by a member of the local community to Welcome the Whales and inform them (and us) that they are safe.
A three-metre-long humpback whale sculpture named ‘Destiny’ was unveiled at one of the festivals. Constructed by local people, including students, the model was decorated with recycled plastic bottle tops, representing the environmental values of the community and highlighting the rising problem of ocean plastic pollution.
Working Towards Sustainability
Achieving Whale Heritage Site status has been of immeasurable importance to the communities, authorities and organisations that represent this region. The WHS accreditation has helped to change attitudes towards the environment, ocean habitat preservation, and the importance of protecting cetaceans.
WILDTRUST started work at the Durban Port and adjacent beaches in 2017, collecting waste from the beaches and waterways. All of the collected waste is monitored and tracked to help improve understanding of the movement of waste in the port. To date, the team have collected and recycled more than 96,000kgs of waste. Plastic waste collection in the Bluff National Park Golf Course canal has recently helped to prevent plastic pollution from entering the ocean.
Durban Tourism has an invested interest in promoting the destination and ensuring that it’s sustainably managed, while The Bluff stakeholders have a plan in place to support conservation and responsible tourism. Tourism projects are also in place within the community to promote business and employment opportunities.
Additionally, the Youth Employment Services programme has partnered with WILDOCEANS (and their WhaleTime initiative), as well as Whale and Dolphin Tours, to offer workplace opportunities for young, unemployed people in the local community.
Developing Research, Education and Awareness Programmes
Whale watching operators in The Bluff have a unique collaboration with WILDOCEANS, who manage school programmes to educate local children about protecting the planet and cetaceans. WILDOCEANS also run the WhaleTime project, encouraging local ‘citizen scientists’ to capture and upload photos of humpback whales spotted out at sea, which are then identified by experts. This ultimately contributes to a bigger census that will help researchers to understand more about the whale population.
The WhaleTime guides project also collaborates with the Port Natal Maritime Museum, the KZN Coastal College, and boat-based whale watching operators to train new tour guides, giving them practical skills in the workplace and creating employment opportunities.
The WESSA Treasure Beach Science Centre has recently been registered as a Coastal Science Centre, where both sponsored and self-funded programmes are offered to schools and universities who visit the centre and run STEM and STEAM workshops. The Cetacean Project will form part of this, with whale watching scopes, ID guides, and migration monitoring activities offered onsite.
WESSA On WHEELS (WOW) programme is a mobile classroom that travels along the eThekwini Beach Front, meeting school and university groups, and conducting curriculum-based fieldwork and monitoring programmes on the Coastal and Marine Environment. This includes the use of whale watching sites to observe, identify and research cetaceans in the area. The programme is run in collaboration with the eThekwini Education and Awareness unit.
Who is leading the process locally?
The Steering Committee members are:
- Helga du Preez & Suzette Niemand (Sodurba CTO)
- Masha Ramsamocch (WILDOCEANS)
- Amanda Janse Van Rensburg (Isle of Capri)
- Josh Thomson (Whale and Dolphin Tours)
- Dave Nielsen & Emil Unger (Whaling History)
- Melissa Lee (Marketing)
- Zoe Solomon (Local Councillor)
- Durban Tourism Representative
- Kevin Lakani (WESSA)
Find out more about the Bluff Whale Heritage Site here.
Actions and Recommendations
As part of the awarding of WHS certified status, the Independent Review Panel (IRP) set out a series of actions and recommendations for the site to complete before or by the end of Year 2 of WHS certified status.
As a priority, The Bluff Steering Committee should seek to develop a more integrated approach to research, conservation, and educational initiatives, and to encourage projects that improve the economic, social and environmental sustainability of the Whale Heritage Site.
The Committee should consider the value of dedicated research and citizen science opportunities, and further opportunities to engage with academic institutions and community groups. Mechanisms should be put in place to encourage ongoing reduction of environmental impacts in order to enhance the social and educational benefits from watching cetaceans.
Before the end of Year 1 WHS certified status, the Steering Committee will provide a draft action plan with measurable goals to achieve objectives agreed as the highest priority.
The judges also noted that The Bluff Steering Committee might consider the establishment of a whale museum/education/visitor centre, a model that has worked very well elsewhere (e.g. Friday Harbor, San Juan Islands, Maui, Hawaii; Rarotonga, Cook Islands etc.). The local university in Durban could be a key partner, with student placements/internships supporting research, education and outreach. The centre could also encourage further interest in the renovation of the Old Whaling Station.
Further development of responsible whale watching practices
The Steering Committee should continue to work with local whale watching companies to encourage further responsible practices. Evidence for further progress in three of the six options below will be requested at the end of Year 1 WHS certified status:
- Staff exchange visit with seasoned responsible whale watching business in South Africa.
- Joining one or more eco label certification programmes.
- Continuing the process of guides training through the WILDOCEANS programme.
- Encouraging further scientific output by granting academic students access to whale watch boats as platforms, or engaging in citizen science projects linked to ongoing research such as that carried out by WILDOCEANS.
- Encouraging further engagement between whale watching businesses and local community members, such as free trips for local schools.
- Collaborative projects run by both whale watching businesses in partnership.