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Africa's award-winning mermaid teaches children a love for the ocean

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

South Africa's black mermaid is inspiring a new generation of ocean guardians.

by Biénne Huisman, bird story agency

"Do dolphins bite? Are there ancestors living under the water?" These are the sorts of questions Zandile Ndhlovu (34) answers during bi-monthly snorkelling excursions with kids from Langa, an informal settlement in Cape Town, South Africa.

"I pick up the kids from their homes, normally four at a time… We learn about the challenges the ocean is facing, and we learn about what we're going to find in the water. Then we kit up, and we go explore," says Ndhlovu.

With most of them, it's their first time seeing beneath the surface, so there's lots of fear. And then somewhere along the way, they calm down, and someone says: 'Look, it's a starfish!'" Ndhlovu understands this. She was born in Soweto in Johannesburg, nowhere near the ocean.

She was 12 when she first saw the sea. "My mom's family was in the Eastern Cape [province]. They saved up and we went to East London, where I first saw the ocean."

Zandile Ndhlovu the Black Mermaid posing for a picture. (Photo : Jacki Bruniquel)

Her mostly land-based existence continued until 2016 when Ndhlovu, a corporate consultant, took a trip to Bali, where she fell in love with snorkelling. Three years later, free diving captured her heart. In 2020, she qualified as South Africa's first certified black free dive instructor through the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Presently, she can hold her breath for four minutes and 15 seconds. She is training to reach six minutes by the end of the year. It's a remarkable achievement, but she still has a way to reach the global women's record of 18 minutes and 32 seconds.

To date, Ndhlovu's free diving record is a depth of 35 metres.

"The free-fall is amazing," she says. "From about 12 metres you become negatively buoyant and that means that without finning [with flippers] you just start dropping to the bottom of the ocean floor. What happens in this free-fall is that you feel like you expand. And, of course, you're wearing a lanyard and you're on a rope so there are no surprises."

Zandile Ndhlovu the Black Mermaid snorkelling under water. (Photo : Jacki Bruniquel)

Ndhlovu also founded the Black Mermaid Foundation in 2020, the culmination of her free diving qualification, through which she educates on the importance of ocean sustenance.

"I hope to place a little bit of the ocean in each of these young bodies," she says of her lessons to pupils. "These kids, when they do subject choices one day, maybe they will choose marine biology. Maybe they will start partaking in ocean sports, right? While making the ocean accessible for wellness, it is also about creating a new generation of ocean guardians."

Earlier this year, she turned her hand to filmmaking when she documented the sardine run at Port St Johns on South Africa's Wild Coast, highlighting the plight of poverty-stricken local ocean-facing communities for the conservationist streaming platform, WaterBear.

When we speak, Ndhlovu is far away from her usual swathe of the Atlantic Ocean, with its kelp forests and sea lettuce beds. She is speaking from a hotel room in New York City, where she's just attended the 100 Most Influential People of African Descent (MIPAD) recognition week for 2022, hosted at CNN's headquarters at Manhattan's Hudson Yards.

At the glittering awards dinner, she met New York City mayor Eric Adams and was one of four MIPAD nominees selected to address the assembled crowd. Over Zoom, Ndhlovu bubbles with enthusiasm.

"It has just been beyond mind-blowing hearing what other Africans are doing across the world," she says. "I love talking about changing narratives and protecting our planet. I'm an ocean person, so I always bring in the ocean. We find ourselves with climate change and our oceans changing. In Africa, we will feel it the most. A United Nations statement on climate action notes that rising greenhouse gas emissions are warming the ocean. The temperature change leads to ice-melting, sea-level rise, marine heatwaves, and ocean acidification."

Commenting on oil giant Shell's controversial plans for seismic blasting along South Africa's Wild Coast, Ndhlovu says:

"It's a duality, right? I am a black woman who comes from a tough past. And so, I recognise that there's a need for jobs, and this Shell exploration could lead to more jobs for poor people along the coast. But I also recognise the detriment of destroying the health of our oceans. The question is, how can we share this natural value with the local ocean-facing communities so that they see a physical, tangible benefit to the protection of our oceans? We want to protect our oceans, but how are we creating opportunities in the most vulnerable communities?"

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