Above: Humpback whale in Watamu, Kenya coast, Indian Ocean, doing its back flip
Copyright Jane Spilsbury/Watamu Marine Association
Published 13 October 2018 Nation Saturday Magazine
The waves surged, heaved and fell at full throttle, grey and dark with the wind howling. In the raging ocean, with a lurching stomach, l kept my eyes glued on the equally dark, grey heavy clouds threatening to burst at any point. And they did.
Honestly, we couldn’t have picked a worse time to go out whaling. The boat rode the waves bravely with her men at the helm – Jackson Safari the captain and his two-men crew of Chivatsi Chai and Daniel Kiraga. Totally unfazed by the rough seas, and once out of the protective reef and into the deep ocean, they tagged the lines in hope of catching a deep sea fish. It was only secondary to what we were here for – the migrating humpback whales that in recent years are becoming as popular as the Mara migration of the wildebeest. And because the whales and wildebeest come at the same time in Kenya, it’s now dubbed the twin migration.
The whales more specifically the humpbacks had been seen the previous day and all the days making great waves not only in the water but also on social media with amazing footage on Whatsapp, instagram and every other app in the world.
And here we were drenched to the skin in raging winds in the very place of the giants of the sea. Two hours later with no whales but a fast changing tide it was time to exit the mlango (opening in the reef) and back into safer waters. Otherwise we would be stuck in the deep sea for hours which would have perhaps been better.
Because Murphy’s Law prevailed. The boat behind did get stuck in the ocean as the tide ran out and didn’t get back till hours later. But they got to see a humpback mother and her babe who delighted them for an hour breaching – an unforgettable sight as the whale raised her fluke out of the water and brought it crashing down hard and fast that literally slapped the water loudly.
So on my bucket list whale watching is scheduled for next year as the humpbacks are leaving now for the Antarctica to go eat, eat and eat.
“These animals are smart,” remarks Jane Spilsbury of Watamu Marine Association that’s monitoring the whales. “They come to tropical waters for sea, sun and sex.”
Humpback whales migrate from the cold waters of the polar oceans – the Arctic and Antarctica where they feed on plankton, krill and small fish by sucking in gallons of water and exhaling the water with such force that the solid matter is left behind the sieve-like baleen teeth. Well-fed with stores of fat they then begin the migration of more than 5000 kilometers. The Antarctica population swims along the southern coast of Africa to arrive in the cusp of our coast in July and leave in September with the females ravenous after delivering and their pups suckling copious amounts of milk. During the migration, females live off their fat stores.
Whales in Kenya only began to be seen in 2011 when reports reached WMA of sightings at sea. Whales had been hunted almost to extinction by the 20th century. The international ban on whaling in 1979 has seen the gentle giants recover.
“People out fishing came back and said to us ‘You won’t believe what we saw.’” This was in 2011.
“So we got into a boat and raced off,” recalls Spilsbury. “There was a mother and her baby. As soon as we stopped the boat, she just swam around and around the boat with her calf for half an hour before swimming off in a straight line.”
It took a while before people began believing the story but today Kenya’s firmly on the whale watching map with Michael Mwangombe of WMA performing an autopsy on a sperm whale that was washed ashore at Watamu a few weeks ago. Mwangombe started off as a volunteer, became a citizen scientist and performed the autopsy being instructed on Whatsapp – something that’s never been done before – by doctors from Italy and the USA. Trained in IT and an artist, he’s now referred to as Dr, presenting the work of WMA at international meeting on the same platform as scientists.
“Much of the data collected is by tourists doubling as citizen scientists,” tells Spilsbury, a lawyer by training. A Kenyan research programme will be tagging some whales with satellite chips to monitor their routes while this year the team has recorded humpback whale songs with hydrophones under water. It’s only the males that sing.
The more we know about the more we can do to create a safer world for them.
For a Whale of a time get read more on Watamu Marine Association facebook.
Research of whales and dolphins in Kenya is supported by Africa Fund for Endangered Wildlife – Giraffe Centre
Hemingways Watamu organizes whale watching trips.
And there’s tons more to do – spas, deep sea fishing, yoga, snake parks, riveting restaurants and shopping.