Humpback whales on the Kenyan coast?! I have lived next to the Indian Ocean for over 20 years and never seen a single whale. You must be joking!” This was the common reaction of many people upon being informed that Kenya is home to these charismatic marine mammals for four months of the year. One might wonder however, how anyone can miss seeing a 15 metre long ocean giant weighing 30-tonnes, but as humpback whales spend most of their time underwater, surfacing only to breathe and to communicate, it is understandable.
The good news is that humpback whales have been observed migrating every year along the East African coast to Kenya for the past 15 years, probably as a result of population recovery since the ban on whale hunting in the Indian Ocean was enforced in 1979. This marine migration coincides with the famous terrestrial migration, as more than 1 million wildebeest arrive in Kenya from Tanzania's Serengeti. The lesser known journey is that of the humpback whales, travelling from their feeding grounds in Antarctica to East Africa and Kenya to breed and give birth. These whales prefer the warmer protected tropical reefs to have their calves, away from large predators such as killer whales. We now know that humpback whales travel as far north as Somalia, an impressive 7,000 kilometres from Antarctica. Both migrations peak between July and September, which means that Kenya hosts the “Twin Migration”, a unique wildlife phenomenon, incorporating both savannah and sea.
One of the best places to see whales is the Malindi-Watamu Marine National Reserve, where Watamu Marine Association (WMA) studies dolphins and whales.
Founded in 2008, WMA works with the Kenya Wildlife Service to help protect marine mammals, recycle plastic and marine litter, and to engage the local community, including ﬁshermen in eco- tourism activities.
The WMA team after 5 years of research, were keen to get on the scientiﬁc world stage to share the important new data from Kenya. They were invited to participate in the prestigious Humpback Whale World Congress (HWWC) in 2015 and 2017, which included eminent whale scientists from all over the globe. The focus of the forums included incorporating citizen scientists as important contributors. Michael Mwang'ombe, Marine Mammal Data Analyst working with WMA, said: “We have been studying the migration of humpback whales since 2011. It's exciting to see East African countries collectively searching for ways to help protect these migratory animals. Here in Watamu we welcome anyone to join us from our land based lookout position counting whales as they pass close to shore. It's science and fun.
Humpback tail ﬂukes have unique patterns and notches, as individual as a human ﬁngerprint. Comparing tail identiﬁcation photos will enable us to establish which animals make the East African journey along the coasts of Mozambique, Madagascar, and Tanzania to Kenya. Our ﬁrst 'match' was a whale called 'Snow White' because of her white tail, sighted in both Madagascar and Kenya, highlighting the great distances the whales travel”
From a tourism perspective, whale watching worldwide attracts visitors in the thousands to famous locations such as Canada, Alaska and California. In 2012, Hemingways Watamu became the ﬁrst hotel in Kenya to oﬀer whale watching excursions. As whale watching soon became a new and exciting tourist activity local sports ﬁshermen also started tours in Watamu and Malindi. This was made possible by the work of WMA and reports of whale sightings from the local community and sports ﬁshermen. Reports of humpback whales in Kenyan waters rocketed in 2017 with over 450 sightings between June and
October in the Malindi-Watamu Marine Reserve alone.
2018 sightings may surpass that ﬁgure, assisted by the growth of the Kenya Marine Mammal Network (KMMN). The KMMN is a collection of government organisations, marine businesses, universities, researchers and conservation groups which include, Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, the National Environment Management Authority, WWF Kenya, WMA, Wildlife Conservation Society, Watamu Sea Fishing Club, local operators and marine service providers. With a ﬂow of new members joining from universities, schools and the private sector that's a lot of eyes
on the ocean looking for whales!
For the visitor, watching whales in their natural environment leaping out of the water, sometimes in pairs, or in larger family groups, is an amazing and unforgettable sight. Humpback whales are among the most acrobatic of whales, and spend time leaping or 'breaching' to communicate, play,or give themselves a mini spa to remove unwanted barnacles. A recent guest to Watamu claimed that the experience is “more exciting than great white shark watching in South Africa” and “observing these magniﬁcent animals with young calves erupting like missiles out of the water is a natural beauty to behold.” Truly an
experience not to be missed.
The WMA Marine Mammal Project is supported by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife – Giraﬀe Centre. Special thanks also goes to Hassan Makame, local Watamu ﬁsherman and Pete Darnborough of Alleycat Fishing Watamu for years of consistent and accurate reporting of whales. Also, to Hemingways Watamu for continued conservation and research support.
Author : Jane Spilsbury is a member of Watamu Marine Association and has helped develop the Dolphin and Whale Research, Conservation and Ecotourism Project. WMA is a founder member of the Kenya Marine Mammal Network.