Above: Restaurant at Hemingways with life size caste models of deep-sea fish and aquarium with coral fish. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: 24 February 2018 Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper
What’s in Watamu?
Whales and snakes, ocean and forest, creeks and sultanates and endless beautiful days.
“Watamu comes as a package,” tells Melinda Rees of Hemingway, the iconic seaside resort that’s world-renowned for its deep sea fishing with life-size cast models of the big billfish adorning the walls of its famous bar and restaurant. I’ve only ever seen one of them in real life – the sailfish, a handsome fish taller than me with a sail-like dorsal fin and pointed bill. With the black, blue and striped marlins – some over 1,000 kilograms – these giants of the oceans are fascinating.
“November to March is when the bill fish are running and the ocean is calm,” continues Rees.
“The main ones for sport fishing are the five billfish – Black, Blue and Striped marlin; Sailfish and the night feeding Broadbill. We also have fantastic dorado, tuna, wahoo and if looking for the table, great Red Snapper.”
And they are all up on the walls and painted on the bar deck and l study them studiously in the hope that if l ever get to go deep-sea diving, l’ll know what l’m looking at.
Rees has a treat arranged for the ocean-huggers – a sail to the reef in Watamu Marine National Reserve to a stretch of reef between the two landmarks – Turtle and Whale rocks.
Soon l’m immersed in the most colour-filled space of the blue ocean – the reef. It’s alive with spectacular corals in amazing shapes and patterns and the fish that swim in and around them. I’m guided by Kenga Keingu who pops up every few minutes to blurt out the fish seen from the miniscule electric blue fry fanning in and out of the tentacles of the sea anemone to the dazzling parrot fish seeking food and safety.
In the deeper reef, gigantic hump corals stand solid against the strong current forming a solid base for the smaller ones to anchor on like the mushroom, stag horn and just to make you gush – more than 250 other species.
It’s this diversity of corals that makes the reef so rich in fish – about 1,300 recorded around Watamu.
Shoals of sweetlips in electric purple lips swim through the coral passages, a ray skims the sandy floor, wispy-threadlike seahorses float close to the corals, a puffer fish stays as immobile as the sea cucumber while my all-time favourites – the Moorish idol and butterfly fish swimming this way and that.
The hour passes in a whiff of a wave and l have to be fished out of the water much to my chagrin but a sand scrub on the exposed shining white sandbar cheers me up leaving my skin unbelievable smooth while a pair of local fishers haul out an octopus for the plate.
As the tide ebbs it leaves the rock pools around the huge rock islet in front of Hemingways exposed. There’s more drama here.
Peering down one, a pair of slithering moray eels swims the shallow channels in a hide and seek game. George Kazungu the local ‘rock pool’ guide leads us on a walk around in the hope of showing King George the biggest of them. King George isn’t around but stepping too close to the edge of a rock pool, a cheeky eel plunges out to take a bite off my toe – l step back a.sap!
Kazungu then carefully picks up a – what looks like a sponge – that squirts out a red liquid that is supposed to be a defence mechanism. In another pool, we’re treated to a sea cucumber without which the ocean floor would be much dirtier.
With a whale-sized appetite we head to Papa Remo’s down the beach for a leisurely afternoon of seaside pizzas and mango-filled ginger drinks before boarding the dhow for a sunset cruise around the mangrove-laced Mida Creek that’s a home for many water-birds and a nursery for little fish and turtles before swimming into the big sea.
The newly re-furnished Hemingway https://www.hemingways-collection.com/watamu/ has a range of suites and self-catering apartments all facing the ocean. It’s a haven for sea-sport lovers so check out the fishing calendar on its web including the whale-watching season and dolphin research with Watamu Marine Association http://www.watamu.biz/.
The Kenyan coast around Watamu is one of the few places in the world with all the big fish – Sailfish, Broadbill Swordfish, Short bill Spearfish and the three species of marlin – the black, blue and striped – and these are the ones that earn the fishermen points in the competitions.
Most are tagged and released – some seen as far as Australia.
About corals – never touch or step on them. In the last 30 years, we’ve lost 50% of corals globally. Climate change is now their greatest threat and it is estimated that only 10% can survive past 2050. Without urgent action, coral reefs face extinction.