Justin Fox says: Let’s not have any more ‘plastic whales’ in our oceans
As I sit here at my laptop, a southern right (who I’ve named Fred) is wallowing past my block of flats. This annual, winter visitation of whales from the Deep South is one of the great joys of living on the water in Cape Town. Having spent most of my life around False Bay or Table Bay, I’ve grown to anticipate the May arrivals. I’ve encountered southern rights while surfing, kayaking, sailing and swimming. And, on occasion, humpback and Bryde’s whales too. There’s such an amazing energy in the water when you get close to these gentle souls.
Southern rights are enormous creatures, over 15 metres long with an average mass of more than 20 tons. There are about 10000 of them, spread throughout the southern part of the Southern Hemisphere. They have strong bonds with certain locations, often following set migration routes. Which means whale tourism is big business in the Cape, especially in Hermanus, home to some of the best shore-based whale watching in the world.
Each evening, after a day at the office, I take a stroll along Sea Point promenade. At this time of year, my walk is often blessed with whales. Everywhere, people gather and point. It’s as though an intangible connection is formed with the sensitive, intelligent creature wallowing just metres away. The whales often come in pairs. There’s breaching, lobtailing (slapping a tail on the water), sailing (tails held aloft) and spyhopping (raising a head to see above the surface). Are they watching the tiny, awe-struck mammals on the promenade? And what do they think of us?
I recently learnt that southern rights can live for more than 100 years. Just imagine: some of these whales could have been visiting Table Bay since WWI. What would those old eyes have seen here back in 1918? Royal Navy warships protecting the Cape from the Kaiser’s raiders, or square-rigged grain clippers racing to England under full sail?
Today’s celebration of whales comes in the wake of centuries of slaughter. South Africa was at the forefront of the whaling industry. In many places, you can still see the vestiges of old whaling stations, such as at Donkergat, Hangklip, Plettenberg Bay and Durban.
By 1937, some 78000 southern rights had been slaughtered. Due to the devastation of the population, whaling of this species was banned that year and stocks gradually increased over the ensuing decades.
Last year, the story of Norway’s ‘plastic whale’ went viral. When the lethargic creature first appeared off Bergen, residents pushed it back out to sea. The next time, it was the fire brigade. But when it returned a third time, utterly exhausted, a marksman was called to euthanase it. Ingested plastic had resulted in its agonising death.
Like messages from our unconscious, whales are envoys from the deep, bringing to the surface evidence of what our greed and filth is doing to the oceans. That whale with a stomach full of plastic was not a once-off. It’s a powerful symbol that should galvanise us into action. Our rubbish is polluting every part of the ocean and at every depth. More than eight-million tons of plastic is dumped into the sea each year. It’s killing our marine life, from the smallest critter to the largest leviathan.
We need to heed the single-use epistles found in their stomachs. Manufacturers must design products that are easier to recycle, supermarkets must reduce plastic packaging and authorities must find better ways of collecting and processing waste. Single-use plastic should be banned.
Look, another whale has just bobbed to the surface next to Fred, but it’s a lot smaller. Praise be: it must be a newborn! Okay, maybe Fred isn’t a bloke after all. So it’s Freddina/Fredette, then.
Read more about whales, what you can do to help and where to go all along our coastline to spot them, on page 70.