Who is Zandile Ndhlovuis? Meet the fearless Great White shark-wrestler nicknamed the Black Mermaid
South Africa's first black freediving instructor, Zandile Ndhlovu, is dedicated to exposing underprivileged youth to the ocean world. Dubbed the black mermaid, Ndhlovu says she wants to diversify ocean spaces because they have historically excluded Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Through the Black Mermaid Foundation, she facilitates snorkel excursions for children living in Langa. She's also part of a powerful, multi-skilled all-female team who are giving macho, male-dominated shark 'wranglers' a run for their money.
The 33-year-old, holding her breath underwater for four minutes at a time, bravely gets up close and personal with menacing great white sharks to undertake a treacherous, turbocharged investigation into the mysterious disappearance of the endangered species. Along with shark biologists Alison Towner, 37, and Leigh de Necker, 31, sporting striking thigh-skimming blue braids, Zandile doesn't just free dive with sharks in the murky depths of their feeding zones. She also single-handedly wrestles the sharks to hold them on 'bait ropes' to tag them and observe their new migration patterns.
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Zandile told Cape Talk, " I work in Langa and I take the kids out on snorkel excursions and it goes back to the fact that when I grew up I didn't realise that there was a life that existed underwater in that way. My whole work is to create access to ocean spaces, particularly to marginalized communities, recognising that proximity doesn't equate to access and so what does it mean to bridge the gap. I grew up in Soweto, we grew up far away from the ocean. In 2016, it was actually my first experience out at sea and seeing beneath the surface."
A @SharkWeek first! Since 1988, this is the first show to have an all Women cast, what a time to be alive! 10pm ET on @Discovery @discoveryplus #SharkWeek #SharkWeek2022 pic.twitter.com/m4sXn26kN4— Zandile Ndhlovu (@Zandithemermaid) July 29, 2022
Entering the great white capital of the world, South Africa's Shark Alley, known as 'the McDonald's drive-through' for sharks, would be a nightmare for most. But as a new television documentary that is part of Discovery's 'Shark Week' reveals, this perilous dive is a thrilling challenge. Her mission is to recover an acoustic receiver lying at the bottom of Shark Alley which has been gathering data from any tagged sharks passing through. According to Daily Mail, Zandile explains, "When you're underwater, there are no words to describe how massive great white sharks are. They are no child's play. Anything can happen and if it's your time you will know it". "I will not lie, I was scared. I've never been so nervous. People think that the kelp forests prevent great white sharks entering the space. But that's not true and I was terrified because you're in this place with an abundance of food and you don't want to be right next to the food truck when one turns up. I came face to face with pajama sharks and leopard sharks. But every single moment, when this strong swell comes through, you don't know what else is coming. I recognize every time I enter the ocean that I'm on borrowed time", she continued. One of the best ways to find an apex predator like the great white is to follow its prey, so Zandile takes a perilous dive into the kelp forest where great whites regularly patrol. It's peak hunting season and the waters are dark. She describes her 'superpower' as being able to hold her breath for four minutes underwater.
Meet the Team! Me, a Freediver searching for clues as to where the Great Whites have gone, Alison Towner a Great White Shark specialist, and Leigh de Necker, a shark nutritionist 💙 Shark Women, Ghosted by Great Whites! 10p ET @SharkWeek @Discovery @Discovery @waddellmedia pic.twitter.com/BidJEoN3xk— Zandile Ndhlovu (@Zandithemermaid) July 29, 2022
"It's called free diving and its enables you to get closer to nature, in silence and with no bubbles and the distraction of shiny diving equipment for the marine life. You need to find a way to react if anything dangerous approaches as sharks taste with their teeth," explains Zandile. "So you have to able to manage your heart beat because the minute your heart is racing you are burning valuable energy and oxygen reserves. So whatever happens that freaks you out, you need to pause, calm down and get out of it safely, often with a slow ascent so as not to alarm the sharks."
For 15 years, her colleague Alison, who was born in Lancashire in the UK, has studied, tagged, and written about hundreds of great white sharks. She has a particular connection with the observation of six of them but in 2017, the great whites began to mysteriously disappear from the Gansbaai coast, a world-renowned place for spotting this legendary shark. As such she is determined to track down her missing killer family so the team attempts to implant a satellite tag onto a passing large great white shark to provide invaluable information about her movements in real-time which could potentially lead them to the others. After some time, the female team hit gold and tagged a massive female shark, weighing around two tons. Leigh takes the responsibility for working the bait line and luring a great white to the boat, while Zandile is in the shark diving cage taking research photos while Alison uses all her strength to get the satellite tag into a female white shark.
Great whites typically aggregate in the waters around South Africa due to the large population of Cape fur seals that are the predator’s main source of food. However, what used to be up to 900 sharks has dwindled down to no more than 522 and it is because this predator has become the prey. News broke in 2019 that great whites had mysteriously vanished from Cape Town, South Africa and all evidence pointed to the migration of Orcas in the region. Between 2010 and 2016, shark spotters recorded an average of 205 great white sightings, a year in a 600-square-mile section of the Atlantic Ocean. In 2018 there were only 50 and so far this year not a single one of the much-feared great white shark has been spotted.