Few of us get to witness the rich and complex ecosystems that live below the oceans' surface—but for Zandile Ndhlovu, venturing deep underwater on a single breath is part of daily life. Lale chats with the South African free diver (who was recently featured on the 2023 Women Who Travel Power List) about her work running The Black Mermaid Foundation, witnessing coral bleaching first hand, weaving sustainability into her travels, and coming face-to-face with a shark. Plus, we hear from a New Yorker about restoring oyster reefs in and around the city.
Lale Arikoglu: Hi. I'm Lale Arikoglu and this is Women Who Travel. Today, I'm talking to Zandile Ndhlovu, South Africa's first Black female diving instructor and the founder of the Black Mermaid Foundation.
She's also featured on our Women Who Travel Power List, which came out last month. When she spoke with contributor Sarah Khan, she said something that has really stayed with me. “When I found the ocean, it felt like finding home,” and now through her work, she's committed to helping others feel the same way.
Zandile Ndhlovu: To feel at home is to feel free, just as you are. It is to not try and posture to live towards the bounded world, it is to feel wild and free and full, and that is home for me. I've always battled to fit in, and all of a sudden, there was this one place where the ultimate of my beliefs were affirmed. You don't have to look a certain way. Everything looks different and everything looks so different, there is no one normative in the ocean.
LA: You said that you had spent a long time feeling like you didn't fit in or couldn't find places where you felt like you fit in. Expand on that a little. Talk a little bit about what that meant growing up. You know, you grew up, from what I understand, in Johannesburg, and then you moved to Cape Town. What was fitting in for you?
ZN: When I was little, I didn't look like a girl enough, I didn't behave like a girl enough. This means that when we would go out and play with my sister, my sister comes back looking pristine and pretty, and I come back looking brown from top to bottom, and I would get a beating for it. Right? Later on in the workplace, what does it mean to be a Black person in a space that has always been violent on our bodies?
And so, as you experience the violence of racism, of prejudice, you're continuously saying, "But I'm not only Black and I am not only a woman. I'm a being with multiple ways of being. You just wish you could fold into what society recognizes as normal, but it just never arrived for me.
LA: You kind of discovered the ocean into adulthood, from what I understand, and your first snorkeling experience was when you were 28. You're now known as being somewhat of a mermaid. So, clearly, in quite a short space of time, you've become an expert diver, but what was that first snorkeling experience like? What did you see? What did it reveal to you?
ZN: It was the most beautiful experience I've ever had in my life. And so, just from jumping in, looking beneath the surface and seeing blue in ways I'd never imagined. You know, one of the images that I'll never forget is how the bottom of the ocean looked like. It was lit up from beneath. The way the sun was hitting the coral reef is still something that I will never, ever forget. That and these super yellow fishes and this moray eel that made its way in. It was, for me, just the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen in my life.
LA: I've been lucky enough to go snorkeling multiple times in some really beautiful places and every time, I always forget to bite down on the mouthpiece and inhale water and think I'm gonna die for about 30 seconds, and then I have a magical time, but I never learn.
ZN: Yeah, and I mean, for me, it's important to say I didn't even know how the mask and snorkel worked. There was a lady on the boat who was like check- "Have you ever been snorkeling before?" And I was like, "No," and she's like, "But why didn't you say anything?" And she's like, "You breathe in through this one. The mask is gonna close your nose, so you're not gonna be able to breathe through your nose. Don't panic." I legitimately think, had we not had that moment, that discussion, I don't know if we would be here having this discussion. [laughs]
LA: Well, thank God you did. [laughs] Lesson for everyone, say something on the boat before you jump in.
Tell me about the Black Mermaid Foundation that you founded.
ZN: So, from 2016, I go on this beautiful snorkeling trip. I come back to South Africa, learn to scuba, love it, but it's not quite it. Find freediving, and I know that that's where I need to be. I founded the Black Mermaid Foundation because, one, children are the future, and the whole idea is to just increase diverse representation in ocean spaces in hope that we will see more diversity in careers that are ocean-facing, recreationally, in sport. So, the whole idea is to take the kids on a journey that allows them to find home in the ocean enough to protect it.
LA: You teach them a lot about plastic pollution and over-fishing, preserving marine habitats. How do you think that educating people about things like climate change and pollution can intersect with other social issues? Everything is so much more linked, I think, than we often care to believe.
ZN: It's all linked, right? So, for me, I always think intentionality. Right? Intentionality in how we do anything, and everything matters. When I meet up with the kids, we're going over conservation. What are the challenges that the ocean is facing? We always come across plastic bottles, plastic packets, plastic everything, and what do we do? They see me go pick it up, and now, they will run and go get it. Right? And so, for me, again, conservation is not what we say but what we do.
LA: Describe what it's been like to actually have to kind of see coral bleaching and other kind of impacts of climate change and pollution yourself and also, do you think, even just in the years you've spent in the water, you've seen change?
ZN: I'll never forget the moment I saw a patch of bleached coral, because her reefs are pristine. I've never seen anything like it. And so, you realize that it starts little by little and it becomes bigger. I've only been in this ocean space for just over six years. Someone who was 20 years before, what would they see? What would they know? What is the change according to their eyes? And that makes me nervous, but aside from that, is always just how humans are battling to keep theirs out of the ocean. What does this mean?
This means that every time we were diving, we're stuffing down plastic through our wetsuits because it's everywhere. You're finding it at the bottom of the ocean. You're seeing it on the surface of the ocean, and you know that turtles come up, and they think that plastic is a jellyfish, or they think it's food. And so, you're always just grabbing plastic in the ocean.
Last, for me, is fishing line. I don't even know how, but I've seen so many sharks with hooks in their mouth, and then you see fishing lines on coral reefs. You see it on the bodies of seals. You see it everywhere. And so, we're not protecting the wildlife that lives in the ocean. We're not protecting the ocean, and I don't know if it's intentional, but I think we have work to do in changing how we consume in ways that allow us to not leave our waste in the ocean, if that means anything.
LA: What is your advice to people who do want to at- at least try and weave some sort of consciousness into the decisions they make, both on an everyday basis, and also, as travelers who are keen to leave minimal footprint on the places they visit?
ZN: I would say reduce, reuse, recycle. So, if you think of your single use plastic items, you want to replace that with something that's reusable. Your coffee cup, your water bottle, your lunch box. Those are three standards that you can ask anybody to pour into your own container, wherever it is that you are. Two, cutlery, these little forks and knives and straws that show up everywhere that are plastic. We can easily work around that. Get yourself a reusable cutlery set, travel with it everywhere. You're gonna feel amazing, but also, like, everything tastes better not on plastic. And three, the question is, "Do I really need it?"
LA: Your description of stuffing plastic into the sleeves of your wetsuits is a very visual one, and when I think about the amount of plastic that I see on a- any given beach that I've visited, for the most part, it kind of feels overwhelming to think that you could ever remove enough of it to make a difference. How do you stop yourself from feeling totally helpless?
ZN: It's easy to go to that place, right, the question of helplessness, but I feel like we have a responsibility to her. She gives us life. She gives us food. She gives us joy. She gives us wellness. She gives us mental health. She gives us- she gives me so much on the daily, that I could never give up while she's still giving.
LA: After the break, Zandile recounts the time she came face to face with a shark during a dive and explains what she did next. If you're enjoying this episode of Women Who Travel, then don't forget to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. I promise, we really do read every single one of them. We love to hear from you.
To freedive is to swim deep beneath the water's surface without the help of any scuba equipment. It's a way of exploring the ocean that's often described as just you, your lungs, and what you see for as long as you can hold your breath. When Kimi Werner, freediving spearfishing champion from Hawaii, came on the podcast a few years ago, she described how she uses breathing techniques to remain calm on a dive, even when she has an encounter with a shark. And when chatting with Zandile, I learned that she shared a similar experience in Cape Town's shark-populated waters.
I'm interested to know on your own dives, have you had any interesting under-the-sea encounters?
ZN: I would definitely have to say it was [inaudible 00:10:56] bull sharks. So, I often say all other sharks are like, "Hey, what's up? Keep it moving." Bull sharks are like, "Hi. Who are you?" And it's interesting. So, anyway, we're diving, and everyone says, "Hey Zan, do you see underneath that cloud? Just underneath it, there's a bull shark under there." I'm like, but you can't see it. It must have been about 10 meters deep. We're freediving. It's not all that deep.
Get through the little haze of water, and you see this bull shark. Right? Ooh, it's big. So, I whip out my camera and I'm like, ooh, I wanna see this, and let me tell you, in the side of my eye, I just see fish scram. They all just disappear on my left. All that means is a bigger shark has just entered the territory. So, in my head, I think, okay, turn, take it easy, keep an eye on this one while you look at the other one, and it's just this big mama bull shark.
As she gets closer, I'm thinking I need to calm down, but also, I can't freak out. And so, I begin to ascend and she ascends with me. Right? And that's the thing, bull sharks require that eye-to-eye contact. You don't just belt to the top. They do an eye-to-eye with you until they break the contact and they leave, and then you belt for the surface. All to say, that day, I could feel my heart in my neck.
LA: You had to maintain eye contact with that shark until they broke?
ZN: Yeah. Yeah.
LA: So, the world's worst staring contest.
ZN: [laughs] Yes. And the thing is, you have to keep yourself calm. Right? And she's just like, "I just wanna know, are you food or not? What are you gonna say for yourself?" Oh, my word. [laughing]
LA: Well, how did you stay calm?
ZN: I don't know. I think- I feel like it's always one of those things as a freediver, you need to learn to be in your body and just- and your freak-out- your freak-out can never look big and dramatic. You only have one breath. So, you're just kind of, like, chilling. "Hey, buddy, what's up?" You know, "You're gonna break the stare contest first."
I'll never forget that day and I'll never forget it just because once you see one and you see a second one come in, you realize how many are around you. Your eye immediately just taps into seeing more of them around you, and I guess that's what I've always said, by the time you see sharks is when they want you to see them. It's not the other way around.
LA: Oh, I'm gonna be haunted by that line...for some time. I love swimming in the ocean, but that's gonna give me pause. Uh... [laughing]
ZN: The- they're not into humans, if it counts for anything. They're not into us.
LA: Okay. All right. I will reassure myself with that thought. I'm pretty sure there aren't really any bull sharks in the ocean in New York, but who knows. In Cape Town, where are your favorite places to dive and swim?
ZN: I would say Windmill, Miller's Point, Smitswinkel. Cape Town has these beautiful nooks that are so special. The diversity of life there is different and beautiful and special in its own different way.
LA: Wait, describe these nooks to me. They sound so magical.
ZN: [laughs] If you picture Miller's Point, she's got these beautiful boulders and she's just got a large portion of pajama sharks, and you can also get gully sharks. So, it's a good shark spot, but it's also a place where people are allowed to spearfish and fish. So, it's got a different kind of energy to maybe a [inaudible 00:14:35], which is a protected space, and the protected spaces naturally have more life. But then, you see something like Smitswinkel, which is hard to get to.
You have to hike down, and then you get through these rocks, and then you eventually get to this place, and to access the ocean, you have to jump in at the right time, and- so that you don't break your bones over the rocks. But whatever it is that you forage in the water, you can bring it up, and you sit in this cave and- and have a little fire, and have food, and it's just these beautiful nooks that are pristine and magical.
LA: What sort of things are your foraging?
ZN: So, we forage urchins, kelp, fish. So, if someone's spearfishing, we can get some fish as well to make ceviche. Ooh, [inaudible 00:15:29], periwinkle.
LA: This all sounds so good.
ZA: Yeah. We can-
LA: You're describing, like, my dream lunch. Are you spearfishing?
ZN: We love- Yes. We love to forage. So, I'm not a great spearfisherwoman, but we do love to forage. Get a little bit of urchins, get a big of [inaudible 00:15:45], a little bit of kelp, little bit of everything, and you make a nice salad on land. You know which urchin is good, by its color. Right? The last thing you're trying to do is poison yourself. It's also just the most different taste you can imagine.
LA: Coming up, foraging for shellfish isn't exclusive to the sunny beaches of Cape Town. In New York Harbor, there used to be a thriving oyster population until it was all but wiped out by things like shore erosion and pollution. But one project is bringing them back through reforestation, seeding oyster beds, and encouraging school students to join the effort.
Ann Fraioli: My name is Ann Fraioli. I am the Director of Education at Billion Oyster Project. Billion Oyster Project got off the ground in 2014. We are restoration practitioners who are growing oysters, getting permits, getting oyster structures and baby oysters into the water. We have an entire department that is dedicated to engaging the community and getting community scientists involved with both monitoring oysters, monitoring water quality, and then we have, what I focus on, which is the education work and making sure that we're getting teachers and students involved in our work, all throughout New York City.
Oysters are a very integral part of New York City's history. They're back- you know, we always use the marker of the 1600s, before Henry Hudson sailed up the Hudson- the now-named Hudson River. So, if you imagine that period of time, there were tens of thousands of acres of oysters in New York Harbor, and it was not only a keystone species for the ecology of New York Harbor, but it was an incredibly important part of human life in New York City, and that goes from native populations, like the Lenni Lenape, that made New York City their home, and, you know, used oysters as an important food source, to early colonists that came and profited off of oysters.
Oysters were so plentiful that everybody ate them, and they were cheap, but they were also delicious. So, there's that piece. There's that cultural piece, which is super important, and then there's the ecological piece. Oysters build reefs. They kinda pile on top of each other and they stick to each other. That's part of their life cycle, and as they build this three-dimensional structure in the shallows of the water off the bottom, they're creating an incredible amount of habitat for other organisms.
Throughout the late 1800s, of course, the Industrial Revolution, we were throwing lots of garbage into the harbor. So, between pollution, over-harvesting, and also some amount of dredging, which is where you scoop out [laughs] the bottom of the harbor to make way for bigger ships, and then also, the landfill that filled in those shoreline and shallows areas. So, between all of these things, oysters became what we call functionally-extinct.
So, at Billion Oysters, there's a couple of reasons, other than being a lovely round number that just sounds great, we want to get enough oysters into the harbor so that they can self-reproduce in the harbor. We are seeing the fruits of all of our efforts that the oysters are reproducing in the harbor, and there are new, young baby oysters there that we did not put there, and we want to start counting those and tracking them, and seeing where they are.
So, when we go down, and sometimes, we do this with student divers or alumni of New York Harbor School, who are divers, go down and bring some video cameras to our underwater structures, the amount of life that you see on and around the oysters is night and day to what is 15 or 20 feet away from the structures.
LA: Zandile, you are currently in Costa Rica, which I feel like is a place that is often held up as an example of a country that is working hard on sustainability initiatives and projecting, at least, a messaging of eco-consciousness. What's brought you to Costa Rica? Are you there for work or for holiday?
ZN: It's a mixture of both because anywhere near the ocean is like home for me, it makes it better, but I'm actually here to up-skill myself. I'm getting my swim instructor's. Just allows me to be able to teach the kids back home how to swim, and we know that that's a very big thing, right, because in South Africa, the second cause of death is drownings. And so, getting my swim instructor's actively changes the trajectory of how we move with waters, one. Two is getting my dive master's, three is filming underwater.
Do you know what has made Costa Rica crazy for me? The way in which the people live so close to the land and the wildlife.
LA: Tell me about the wildlife. What have you seen? And also, how are you seeing people live so closely with it, and, I think, by doing so, probably treating it with great care.
ZN: Yeah. It is how the fisherman and the birds work together. Right? So, there's these vultures, there's these pelicans. It's the space- it just feels so rich. I don't know how to explain it. And so, for me, every single day with a morning or sunset, when I'm walking home, it's watching the fisherman fish, watching some of them catch fish and some don't, watching how the birds interact with the fisherman, and how they all kind of work together. It's a weirdish thing, but I love to see it.
LA: Describe the house you're in, that charming rooster in the background. Where are you in Costa Rica and what's it like?
Zandile Ndhlovu: So, I'm in a place called Guanacaste, Santa Cruz Potrero in Costa Rica, and it's so beautiful because I'm living with a family. So, I'm living with a Spanish family and I have a Spanish mom, and she cooks the most beautiful food, if you can imagine. We have beans and plantain and rice and all the good food. And so, it's this wooden-roofed house and it is filled with love. I don't know what else to say, but let me tell you this. We live right on nature. So, I'm woken up by chickens and cows and birds and every so often, the barking dog.
So, the space is very... I don't know how to explain it. Nature lives everywhere. The trees are massive. The birds are massive. The chickens are always on time, 3:50, 4:00 AM, they are up and why am I sleeping? They ask me about my life every morning. But I love it. [laughs]
LA So nosy.
ZN: Oh, my word. They're just like, "Who- who do you wanna be? You better wake up." But I- [laughs] I love it. It's beautiful and do you know what's crazy? The trees all have mango fruits on them. So, you can be walking and pick a mango off the tree and carry on walking on walking. It is something that is so different from where I come from, where, like, farms and food is behind gates, and in Costa Rica, everything is accessible. You can access nature and you can access food from the trees. It's- it's magical, and a two-minute walk up is the most beautiful sunset spot. Every single day, the full sun is, like, in full show-off mode and gets swallowed up by the sea.
LA: You've said something that's really stuck with me when you were talking about, through the foundation, teaching students to swim, and that's one of the reasons why you're in Costa Rica, and that it's the- drowning is the second highest cause of death in South Africa, and I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit more on that and how that insane statistic came to be.
ZN: So, here's the thing, a lot of people don't know how to swim. South Africa, it is said the current percentage says 15 percent of South Africans know how to swim, and of that 15 percent, it's mostly white people. It's not Black people. So, the fatalities are largest in Black communities, and when you think about holidays, when you think about when kids go to play, and even when you think of a rescue situation where a drowning is happening right in front of you, there's nothing that the parents can do.
And so, even lifeguards are not on every single beach. Lifeguards are mostly in the more privileged communities. And so, it's such a challenge when you look at how swimming, as a skill, should be a basic skill that everybody has, but in South Africa, it's severely lacking. And so, that number just grows on itself, and I think it kind of also maybe goes back to the narratives that we grow up around with water that says you shouldn't be anywhere near the ocean, near the river, near any large body of water because no one can save you.
And so, that's where we find ourselves as a country. And so, what does it mean to just change that trajectory, but also change that competency that could allow someone to be able to save someone else.
LA: To be able to overturn that fear and turn it into something that is empowering is invaluable, right? I mean, it- it really is life-changing.
ZN: Yeah. No, it's absolutely amazing, and if we get everything right and I get my swim instructor's, which I will, I can then certify other swim instructors in the community. Can you imagine the change that brings because you can't change the world as one person, right?
LA: You transported me so many places today, and sadly, I'm now back in New York, but I wish I was in Costa Rica or staring a bull shark in the eye, which I'm still haunted by.
Next week, I'm talking to the actor, Arsema Thomas, who has a starring role in the upcoming, highly-anticipated Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story on Netflix. She's lives most of her life in countries across Sub-Saharan Africa and has a whole host of travel stories to share as a result. Thanks for listening.
I'm Lale Arikoglu and you can find me, as always, on Instagram @LaleHannah and follow along with Women Who Travel on Instagram @WomenWhoTravel. You can also join the conversation in our Facebook group. Allison Leyton-Brown is our composer. Jennifer Nulsen is our engineer. Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer.