Above: Humpback whale in Watamu, Kenya coast, Indian Ocean, doing its back flip
Copyright Jane Spilsbury/Watamu Marine Association

Published: The East African Nation media 2-9 July 2021

Since 2013, the global community is charting the way forward for Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) to safeguard their vital oceanic world

By Rupi Mangat        

Until a decade ago, few Kenyans were aware of humpback whales in their coastal waters or of the different species of dolphins or even the occasional killer whales passing through.

In 2011, several non-governmental and government agencies established the Kenya Marine Mammal Network (KMMN) to provide a platform to collect data on marine mammals along the Kenyan coast, and identify areas of importance by engaging fishermen, divers, tourists and other marine users for dolphin and whale conservation.

Dolphins and Fishermen Watamu courtesy WMA

Identifying Marine Hotspots

One of the priorities of the KMMN is to establish the hotspots for dolphins, whales and dugong (as few as five remaining in Kenya)  to receive accreditation for Important Marine Mammal Areas in Kenya under the umbrella of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), an initiative created in 2013. 

Already the work of KMMN has been featured in peer-reviewed scientific journals  including the most recent publication in ‘Frontiers in Marine Science’, dated 16 June 2021, the paper titled ‘Cetacean Research and Citizen Science in Kenya’. It reviews data on sightings and strandings for small cetaceans, mainly dolphins and their increasing threats, due to human activities, sourced from dedicated surveys, and opportunistic sightings  from more than 100 contributors in the KMMN data base. The article focuses on globally well-studied species whose “populations have become threatened with significant declines and, in some cases, extinction due to anthropogenic threats such as water-borne pollution, fisheries interactions, coastal development and maritime shipping and industrial noise’.    

The KMMN data published in an International Whaling Commission Technical Report 2020 shows that from 2011 to 2018, there are 1,406 records of 24 species of dolphin and whale in Kenya ,including the most frequently seen  inshore species like the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin and the rarely sighted endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphin. Offshore species include killer whales, short-finned pilot whales,  spinner dolphins and even the largest mammal on earth, the blue whale. A full grown adult blue whale weighs 150 tons compared to the 30 ton humpback whale. An adult male elephant, the largest land mammal, pales at seven tons.

Of these, lesser known species such as the pygmy sperm whale, melon headed whale,  striped dolphin and Risso’s dolphin were recorded through stranding reports, meaning those found beached either dead or alive on the shore. While much ground has been covered in gathering information, the KMMN publications show how much more data is needed from under-studied areas in Ungwana Bay and the Lamu archipelago.

KMMN’s work has also featured at scientific and conservation meetings hosted by the International Whaling Commission and the World Marine Mammal Conference, raising Kenya’s status and increasing visibility on a global scale

Blue whale offshore Lamu , Courtesy of Rachael Barber and Maja Nimak – Wood

Most importantly, its data has been used to support the listing of three IUCN Important Marine Mammal Areas namely the Watamu-Malindi Marine Protected Area and Watamu Banks, Kisite-Mpunguti  and Off- Shore Lamu. Noteably the offshore IMMA was recognised as significant due to the presence of endangered blue whales reported by oil and gas Marine Mammal Observers (MMO) that accompany seismic vessels as required by international law  to collect data and ensure that operations do not interfere with the animals during surveys. The blue whales were recorded during the 2014 and 2015  data collection on board the ships. This was possibly the first documentation of blue whales in Kenyan waters which caused great excitement in the conservation and science world.

It suggests that the waters of northern Kenya and southern Somalia are likely to constitute an important habitat for blue whales in the Indian Ocean during the South-East Monsoon period.

Important Marine Mammal Areas

Since 2016, IUCN’s Marine Mammals Protective Areas Task Force (MMPATF) has been identifying IMMAs using standard criteria in six marine regions, through regional expert workshops.

IMMAs are defined as important habitats for marine mammal species that have the potential to be protected and managed for conservation.

The rationale for developing IMMAs includes the fact that marine mammals have been overlooked by many national efforts yet they are indicators of the ocean ecosystem health. They also migrate through vast ocean distances crossing international boundaries like the 30-ton humpback whale (equivalent to six adult elephants). This gigantic whale migrates every year from the Antarctic to the northern tip of Africa, passing along the Kenyan coast and back again.

“IMMAs have come at a perfect time when Kenya is in the process of mapping marine areas that help identify threats affecting marine mammals,” states Michael Mwang’ombe of Watamu Marine Association and the project coordinator of Kenya Marine Mammal Research & Conservation. “Dolphins and whales require more research to facilitate conservation planning and gazetting marine protected areas. So, we’re collaborating with government agencies and local stakeholders in marine mammal research in the designated IMMAs. We’re also partnering with communities in the Lamu Archipelago (not to be confused with off-shore Lamu) which is not yet an IMMA because there is not enough data for it to qualify. Hence, it’s important that fishers, conservationists, NGOs and government agencies continue to collaborate in this understudied area that is developing into a major port and trade hub.”