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Whaling Industry in Durban

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.

image-whale-diveHunting 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.

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South Durban Basin

The South Durban Basin is the industrial hub of Durban situated in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. KwaZulu-Natal Province. It stretches from the Port of Durban in the north to eZimkokodweni in the south and is home to 2 large petrochemical refineries (Sapref and Engen), a large paper mill (Mondi), motor manufacturers and at least 5000 businesses, 22 000 households and 200 000 residents.

It includes the residential areas of Bluff, Clairwood, Wentworth, Merebank, Isipingo, and Lamontville and the Industrial areas of Jacobs and Prospecton.

The South Durban Basin also plays an important part in linking the residents of the South Durban Basin to the greater economic, recreational and social facilities in the rest of the municipality. The overall vision of the South Durban Basin: Area Based Management (SDB ABM) is to improve the quality of life of its customers both residents and businesses.

Did You Know?

Prior to the development of city, the Bay of Natal was a large estuary which stretched from Virginia in the north to Isipingo in the south. Fed by several rivers, the bay included islands, like Salisbury. The ocean side was fringed by the Bluff and the Point forming a shallow entrance channel which dominated the making of a safe harbour for many decades. The edges of the Bay were densely wooded, in places with mangroves.

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Bayhead Natural Heritage Site

Durban’s bay and extensive harbour is home to a remaining 15 hectare stand of mangroves – where formerly there were extensive mangroves (438 hectares) right around the edges of the bay – that is today a protected natural heritage site.

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Known as the Bayhead Mangrove Swamps it is home to the mud-skipper fish, various crabs, including the one talon bigger than the other fiddler crab, red mangrove crab, and the mangrove kingfisher – more than likely attracted by the amazingly high number of crabs that make the mangrove swamp their home.

It may lie in the middle of the city but the area attracts a surprisingly high number of waterbirds and Durban’s bay has recorded 120 species of aquatic birds. Put aside at least an hour and you can almost guarantee sightings of at least 30 different birds.

The adjacent tidal flats also attract an amazing number of birds – pelicans, gulls, terns – and a waterbird hide overlooking the flats makes viewing, particularly between low tide and the high tide when birds end up concentrated right in front of the hide as they lose ground.

There is a lovely boardwalk that winds its way through the mangroves in similar fashion to Durban’s Beachwood mangroves.

Because of where it lies, in the harbour, these mangroves are under constant threat from environmental pollution, such as the recent cooking oil spillage from the Africa Sun Oil fire in Mobeni. The fire ruptured one of the pipes resulting in the leaking of unprocessed oil into nearby canals, ending up in the mangroves.

Bayhead Natural Heritage Site is a 20ha nature reserve, which protects a pocket of mangroves and coastal grassland within the Durban Bay. Three species of Mangrove occur within the reserve, as well as an area of coastal grassland. A number of water birds and crabs can be seen on the intertidal mudflats.

Managing Agency: National Ports Authority

(Source: OpenGreenMap)

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SA Sugar Terminal

Embarking on the development of the largest sugar terminal in the world, this silo vouches for the growth and confidence of the local sugar industry as an exporter in the 1960s.

Constrained by site limitations alongside the wharf, the 250-metre long and 27-metre high barrel vault could not precisely echo the profile of a sugar pile, resulting in the bent profile, the lower portion retaining the pile. Following the ‘three-pin, tied arch’ structural principle, 3 000 precast concrete scalloped sections, each three metres wide, make up the 80 arches, which are kept in place by post-tensioned cables threaded through the ribs.  Built alongside the wharf, the arches rest on edge beams, which are themselves supported by steel roller bearings affixed to the caps of the deep caisson piles. The use of neoprene synthetic rubber resolved the constructional and operational challenge of keeping the “giant sugar bowl” dry in the face of the humid sub-tropical climate and the structure’s proximity to the sea.

Guided tours of the South African Sugar Terminal feature a fascinating wide screen film presentation on the production, processing and refinement of sugar. Sugar terminal tours run daily at 08h30, 10h00, 11h30, and 14h30, however no tours are conducted on Fridays.

Tours: (031) 365 8153

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Whaling Station

Explore another side of Durban’s fascinating history on a whaling tour. The whaling history of Durban started in 1907 when the Norwegian Consol in Durban raised money to start an operation.
The operation began with a few steam driven whalers hunting migrating whales off the Natal coast and it went on to become the largest land based whaling operation in the world.

Part of the old Kings Battery on the Bluff, looking south, note the elaborate concrete camouflage built into all the coastal batteries on the Bluff.

Tours take place in the old whaling station on the Bluff Headlands as well as one of the largest collections of pictures, memorabilia, newspaper clippings and old footage of the whaling days.

A whale eardrum is one of several interesting artifacts on display at the new whaling museum opened by Bluff local, Dave Nielsen, who has decided to share the memorabilia he has kept from his father’s heyday as a whaler.

The museum displays a vast range of pieces from whale teeth, whale ribs, a harpoon gun casing, old photos, newspaper clippings, a flensing knife and an old compass from a whaling boat.

The connection between Durban and whaling is a huge topic starting in 1909 and ending in 1975. Not only did it have an influence on Norwegian settlers, but also on the residents of the Bluff and Durban and on the maritime industry.

Many of the younger people living in Durban won’t know that it was once a busy centre of the whaling industry. Thousands of migrating whales were caught in the seas nearby and towed back here to be processed into a number of products which were highly prized by consumers, both local and overseas.

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