“It is synchronised whale watching along the Indian Ocean Coast. Today, we are all searching for whales from Mozambique to Kenya,” said Michael Mwango’mbe, the marine mammal project coordinator at Watamu Marine Association (WMA).
We are on a speed-boat with Michael, Rob Heller, a skipper who has been taking guests for deep-sea fishing for 25 years, and the Turtle Bay Resort General Manager, Damian Davies, along with his family in search of whales.
I never knew of the existence of these spectacular creatures until I saw the recent Twin Migration campaign by the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife. It was aimed at promoting both annual migrations of wildebeests in the Maasai Mara and that of humpback whales in Watamu.
Both take place between July and September every year. This small town of Watamu in Kilifi county is said to be the perfect spot for viewing the humpbacks since they swim close to the shore and can even be seen from land.
There are no direct flights to Watamu so I took a flight to Malindi courtesy of Silverstone Air, which has added “the little Italy” town amongst its destinations. From there, you can either arrange for a transfer to the lodge, which is around 25 minutes, or go by a matatu to Watamu ndani.
The waters were choppy and our speed-boat tossed to and fro with the kaskazi winds. I sat with the skipper, keenly looking out for any traces of the whales, my camera at the ready to ensure that I don’t miss the moment.
Michael recommended very early in the morning or late in the evening as the appropriate time to watch the whales. The morning glare would make it impossible for them to come out.
At this time my mind wandered back to a book I’d read on the Maori people and their incredible connection with the whales. These indigenous people of New Zealand narrate of an incredible story of a great whale called Tahora, who carried the ancestor Paikea on his back all the way to New Zealand after his canoe sunk while on a trip from Hawaiki, the ancestral home of the Māori.
In Māori cosmology, whales are held in high esteem and are seen as the descendants of the great god Tangaroa, god of the Oceans. The story inspired Witi Ilhimaera’s book dubbed, Whale Rider, which later on became an award winning film.
Since 2013, the migration has been monitored with the whales being spotted in 2013 and 2017 being 550 and 390 in number respectively. Consequently, in 2010, WMA (Watamu Marine Association) together with the Kenya Wildlife Service identified an urgent need to gain a greater knowledge and more comprehensive data set for the whale and dolphin species.
These gigantic mammals span up to 18 feet and weigh 40 tonnes swimming thousands of kilometres from Antarctica along the coasts of Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia. Humpback whales are extremely active above the surface and often breach or slap the water with either their fins or tail flukes.
It is said that they migrate to tropical or subtropical waters to breed and give birth, fasting and living off their fat reserves. Michael tells me that the males also sing mostly to serenade the females and their songs can be heard from as far as almost 20 km away.
At this point he wishes that he carried some of the whale songs in his recorder, which he uses to draw the whales whenever they are out searching.
“Shut one eye and look into the horizon, not the waters,” Michael advised noticing how dizzy I looked. I tried his trick and it worked for a while. This made me connect why in all the pirate cartoons and movies such as Sinbad the sailor, most pirates have an eye patch! It is recommended that one take sea sickness medication, which assists in making your stomach hold firm.
“ We’ve caught a big yellow tuna fish,” says Rob, one of the crew members, as he struggles to reel it back in. I rushed down stairs to look at the gigantic creature before taking a photo with it. At least, we did something while searching for the whale, right?
The Turtle Bay Beach Club offers whale watching as one of their activities and after a brief with the marketing manager, Ms Sabine Pruess, I headed to my room, which had a view of the ocean and free WiFi.
The resort has 143 Swahili styled rooms set on 10 acres of tropically landscaped gardens with some having the spectacular view of the Watamu beach, while others with a lush garden view. I also loved their friendly staff, tantalizing cuisine and the fact that it’s an all inclusive family resort with lots of activities that kids can enjoy while adults have their fun.