Coast KZN

19 Sep 2016

KZN whales put in peril

Roving Reporters


Recent offshore gas and oil exploration along the KwaZulu-Natal coast adversely impacted on this year’s whale migrations, leading marine scientists – who have gathered in Durban – have warned.

While their three-day science session at Grindrod Bank covers a wide range of ocean-related research, deep sea gas and oil exploration along KZN’s coastline is bound to become a talking point, in particular the Schlumberger Survey.

This survey included gas and oil exploration offshore of the uThukela Banks – a richly diverse marine environment identified for inclusion in an expanded network of marine protected areas.

In June, it was discovered that the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (Pasa) had granted rights for the Schlumberger Survey to extend into this year’s peak whale migration period.

Head of Ezemvelo’s KZN Wildlife’s scientific services division, Dr Jean Harris, said this decision was problematic.

Other scientists, who asked not to be named, said that the Schlumberger Survey extension was contrary to agreements negotiated between the petroleum industry and environmental agencies during the “fast-track” presidential Operation Phakisa initiative.

Launched in 2014, the first phase of Operation Phakisa plans to unlock the economic potential of South Africa’s oceans. It had also clearly defined “closed windows for seismic surveys in whale migration and breeding seasons and localities”, said Harris.

Responding to queries, Pasa’s environmental compliance manager, Phumla Ngesi, said the Schlumberger Survey between Durban and Richards Bay had been completed in mid-July – a month-and-a-half into the peak whale migration period.

Ngesi said an environmental management plan ensured that potentially harmful impacts ranged “from very low to insignificant”.

“As far as we are aware, no adverse impacts were caused,” said Ngesi.

But marine scientists are not convinced, and reported lower than usual sightings of whales during the start of this year’s whale migration along the KZN coast.

So too did Advantage Tours, which takes people, including scientists, on boat-based whale watching cruises off St Lucia and Durban.

“The whales only started coming through in large numbers in late July (after the Schlumberger Survey stopped),” said Advantage Tours’ St Lucia-based skipper, Berno Phillipson.

While Ngesi said the results of the Schlumberger Survey were not yet known, marine scientists and ocean-based tourism operators were concerned about what might happen if massive oil and gas reserves had been located.

“My guess is money will win over conservation. We see it happening every day,” said Phillipson.

It was not so long ago that the whales were almost hunted to extinction worldwide. Whales now face new threats, including seismic surveys used by the petroleum industry to locate oil and gas reserves deep under the sea bed.

The surveys use active sonar (sound navigation and ranging). These sounds travel considerable distances under water and are known to harm marine mammals, sometimes with tragic and deadly costs, including mass strandings.

A recent documentary, Sonic Sea, scheduled for screening today at Grindrod’s Ocean Stewards Science Session, reveals how marine animals depend on sound to mate, find food, migrate, raise their young and defend against predators.

Interfering with this could have dire consequences, the long-term impacts of which are not yet fully understood.

People have been invited to help monitor whales migrate along KZN’s coastline by uploading photographs of whale sightings on The Blue Fund’s WhaleTime website (, along with the GPS position of where each photo was taken and information about each whale siting.

The envisaged outcome is an interactive, public data base on whale populations, behaviour and habitat use.

Boost for students

Leading South African marine scientists will this week help a new wave of ocean stewards understand challenges that lie ahead in protecting marine environments under threat.

The Ocean Stewards Science Session, organised by The Blue Fund, is a joint enterprise between Grindrod and Wildlands. It aims to inspire environmental science students to pursue careers in the marine sector, offering ongoing mentorship and participation in research projects on board the research vessel, the Angra Pequena.

Launched last year, the first two years of the Ocean Stewards Programme has enabled 24 final-year undergraduates, eight Honours students and six Master’s students to participate in offshore research cruises along the South African east coast.

This has included filming the sea floor using BRUVS (baited remote underwater video stations) and ROVs (remotely-operated underwater vehicles).

Most of these students had never been out to sea or worked on a boat before. This week they will interact with top marine scientists in discussing offshore conservation research projects and also receive career guidance.

Presentations at the three-day session, which started today, include the latest in whale, dolphin and turtle research, fisheries management, biodiversity conservation amid climate change through to marine spatial planning in a crowded ocean, communicating science and writing for the media.


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