Above: The 2005 photograph of Cuvier’s beaked whale starnded on Lamu Island Kenya. Courtesy Louis Van Aardt and Tim Collins Wildlife Conservation Society

Published: Daily Nation 23 Feb 2022

A recent chat between long time Lamu resident Louis Van Aardt and Wildlife Conservation Society marine mammal expert Tim Collins, revealed a momentous marine report.  On 18 March 2005, the Lamu fishing community and Van Aardt chanced upon a strange looking stranded whale floating listlessly in the shallow waters opposite Kizingo Lodge on Lamu Island. The distinctive rusty brown 3-0-foot long whale with what appeared to be two tusk like teeth at the tip of its lower jaw was an unexpected sight for all present. Fortunately for the disorientated animal, help was at hand with over 15 people who manoeuvred the 2,300kg whale into deeper waters from where it swam off. Fortunately the photographs that were taken were preserved for posterity and filed away.

What has now come to light is that these old photographs have set a new record for Kenya. The bizarre looking marine animal turned out to be a Cuvier’s beaked whale.

To the rescue of Cuvier beaked whale stranded off Lamu Island Kenya. Courtesy Louis Van Aardt and Tim Collins Wildlife Conservation Society

“The Kenya Marine Mammal Network (KMMN) is pleased to announce a 25th species of marine mammal identified in Kenya, Cuvier’s beaked whale,” states KMMN’s Michael Mwang’ombe, headingthe marine user group of whale and dolphin reporters in Kenya since 2010. “Beaked whales, a remarkable group of deep diving species have been recorded in Kenya before; Longman’s beaked whales have been sighted in northern Kenya and a stranding of a dead Blainville’s beaked whale at the Sabaki River mouth, originally mistaken for a hippo, was reported in 2004. We were keenly waiting for a report of a Cuvier’s as they are the most widespread species of this remarkable family”  

Today, reports from fishermen and other marine users are treated as extremely important to establish the species of dolphins and whales in Kenya and their whereabouts

“We know very little about these whales in Kenya as they are offshore whales found in deeper waters,” continues Mwang’ombe, “but this is a fantastic rescue story in itself with the Lamu community pulling together.”

He explains: “The message is that many fishermen and other ocean goers have historical data to add to our (KMMN) catalogue of species. This is an opportunity for everyone to dig deep into the back of your cupboards for old photos, or raise that conversation you heard as a child of dolphins and whales in your area. There is a tendency to assume that we know everything and individual observations don’t matter, but with the KMMN the opposite is true. Every story or sighting counts.”

Humpback whale along Indian Ocean coastline. Copyright Chloe Corn with Watamu Marine Association

Although  humpback whales were first scientifically recorded in a KWS aerial study in 1996 in Kenya’s coastal waters,  fishermen had been observing them for 30 years, and started reporting to the KMMN in earnest since 2010

Today, Kenya is known for her whale-to-wildebeest migrations between July to October, boosting the country’s tourist circuit.

In East African coastal waters more generally a total of 33 species of marine mammal so far recorded.

The Cuvier’s beaked whale

In 2006, Van Aardt saw another Curvier’s beaked whale near Kinyka Island in the Lamu archipelago. Then in 2017 and 2021, KMMN received reports of two more sightings but these could not be verified without photos. In the water, beaked whales are difficult to identify or distinguish.

Cuviers Beaked Whale

Cuvier’s beaked whale is the most widely distributed of the beaked whales, Named for Georges Cuvier, a French zoologist, the species is found in deep temperate and tropical oceanic waters around the world.  Cuvier’s beaked whales are deep-diving pelagic whales that inhabit offshore waters of all oceans 2002 being this species the most cosmopolitan of all beaked whales and classed as vulnerable (IUCN Red List) in some parts of the world  It is protected by several international and regional agreements, although their main threat is noise pollution. They are considered the deepest diving mammal on earth, and researchers in California.recorded have recorded at least one dive that went to at 9,816 feet (2992 metres) deep and lasted 137 minutes. Subsequent work in New England extended the record for the longest dive by this species to 222 minutes (3 hours, 42 minutes). The species dives to this great depths in search of squid, which they find using ‘echolocation’ sound waves. that are generated in the ‘melon’, which is the bump on top of its head.

Cuvier’s beaked whale are known extremely sensitive to underwater noise created by humans, and are particularly affected by some types of sonar. Strandings have occured in association with naval exercises where sonar may have been in use. In the Canary Islands, strandings of these whales stopped when the naval exercises using sonar were banned. In the Mediterranean, strandings continue with conservationists seeking a ban on sonar use.

Nevertheless, it faces the same threats like other marine mammals, including our increasingly noisy seas, accidental drowning when caught in ‘ghost’ nets and the plastic pollution that is increasingly finding its way into our oceans and marine food webs.