Justin Fox says: Let’s not have any more ‘plas­tic whales’ in our oceans

Getaway (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

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.

Justin Fox

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