A bevy of huge gyrating whales congregates in the waters of Indian Ocean. As they dance the shimmy, it is a rare spectacle that attracts tourists to Watamu.
Every year, humpback whales migrate from Antarctica to warmer climates, congregating in Kenyan waters between July and August to calve and mate.
After spending two months breeding and nursing their calves, the whales then make their journey back to Antarctica around September.
In East Africa, the whales travel up to 4,000 kilometres to reach their chosen area to take care of their newborns; be it in Mozambique, Tanzania or Kenya. One whale was recorded travelling as far north as Somalia.
When they reach Kenya, tourists wait for them expectantly.
The humpback whales have grabbed the attention of Kenyans and overseas visitors, as they are among the most acrobatic of whales, and spend time leaping or ‘breaching’ to communicate, playing, or giving themselves a mini spa to remove unwanted skin parasites.
Visitors mostly watch the whales from covered sports fishing vessels accommodating up to eight people for a trip costing between Sh5,000 to Sh45,000 per person, depending on the operator.
Sue Canney Davison is one of the tourists who travels to watch whales. Her last whale-watching cruise was last year, an adventure she describes as exhilarating and refreshing to the soul.
From the mainland, they headed out into the rough July seas in a private boat that cost Sh25,000 per person.
“I shared the boat with Eunice Wang, a Chinese conservationist tour operator. It was such a special event for me that I had to save up for it,” she says.
Whale watching is a waiting game. It can take more than four hours or the whole afternoon at sea, where tourists watch vigilantly to catch a glimpse of the serenaders, especially if they sing to attract the opposite sex.
For Sue and her friends, six whales together with a calf came out of the water and kept going back in and out every six minutes, to breathe.
Being the foreigners in the sea world, Sue and her friends kept a safe distance and followed as the whales plunged and flowed so effortlessly through ever-increasing waves.
“The dolphins were also playing in their wake and turtles swimming by. Shoals of fish were breaking the surface of the sea in a spectacular dance of life under the huge open blue Watamu skies and lofty white cumulus clouds,” says Sue.
While she had previously hung out with humpback whales in Boston, USA in 1990, seeing them again was as magnificent as then.
“It reconnected me to the majesty and wholeness of nature and filled me with awe and wonder. It also reinforced their magnificence and the wonder of Kenya,” she says.
“These amazing creatures are just off shore between July and October and most Kenyans are yet to know about them,” she says, adding that a traveller can combine seeing wild animals in Tsavo East National Park that is just a few hours away, with the surreal sightings of humpback whales.
Whale watching is a tourist attraction in Canada, Alaska, California, Hawaii, Sri Lanka and South Africa. The number of whales sighted off New York City has also risen over the years.
Sue, who works as a director in a project finance and management firm, has been passionate about whales and dolphins since she was young and follows them globally.
“If I can find others, I would like to go again next week when I will be in Watamu for a few days,” she says.
In some uncanny way, she explains, whales connect humans to nature.
“I feel they connect us to the depth and wholeness of the sea as compassionate social creatures, singing different songs to each other each year and communicating through their voices over hundreds of miles. I am moved by the tales of their leading lost seamen out of the fog and more,” she says. Sally Harrison, who lives in Watamu is another whale-watcher. She says she learnt about whale watching in Kenya from social media.
“I got interested because I had heard so many stories about whales and when I learnt that the humpback whale migration was happening in Watamu, I didn’t want to lose a chance of seeing them,” she says.
Together with a friend, they paid Sh10,000 to sail for the sightings.
“The trip was awesome. I was amused how large whales are and that despite their large size they are actually harmless. They jumped in the water and it would actually divide like the story in the bible. I learnt that whales are actually semi-aquatic and they largely feed on fish and marine invertebrates. They can swim very quickly and some travel at 25 kilometres per hour,” says Sally.
To get the best experience, hire a deepwater boat with a skilled professional skipper who will co-ordinate with the fishermen so as to know where exactly the whales are, accurately judge the weather and tides. Sometimes, it may take hours to sight them.
“It is pure chance if and when you see them. That way, any sighting is a gift and exhilarating,” says Sue.
Also, go with a group to make the trip exciting.
Watching from land
For those who do not relish bobbing up and down on the choppy deep sea waters for hours, they can opt for land whale watching.
Knowing the sightings and migration route can win an onshore bystander exhilarating glimpses of the whales, which are 18 feet and weigh about 40 tonnes.
Armed with a pair of binoculars and a good viewing spot, Charlotte Beauvoisin, a British travel blogger who lives in Uganda sat at the shore watching the whales from land.
“I got a sneak peek from behind the scenes with the Watamu Marine Association land research team,” she says.
There are plenty of lookouts and fishermen, locals and research teams report the sightings.
“If a whale watching boat does not see the animals, a guide or researcher will communicate with the land base which increases the chance of visitors to see whales. When I was with the land team, it was early in the season so we couldn’t see the mother whale and calves that come as close as 500 metres from the shore. However as I was watching there was a call from one of the boats, Alley cat, to tell me that I was looking at a whale just slightly outside out of range. In the next few hours, seven whales were seen from the boats in the ocean,” Charlotte says.
She has always been fascinated by whales; their size, grace, the eerie and their unusual songs.
“I’m terrified of deep water so I have immense respect for how whales live and the many thousands of miles they swim every year as they migrate,” says Charlotte.
During the peak month of August, humpback whales can even be seen from bars and hotels such as Hemingways and Ocean Sports while sipping on morning coffee or a sundowner.
Jane Spilsbury of Watamu Marine Association is excited that whale watching in Kenyan coast is gaining more following.
She says although the whales seem to congregate most in Watamu, they can also be seen in Lamu, Kilifi, Diani, and Shimoni.
Beyond the excursions, research programmes are underway to document the humpbacks of Kenya and the potential of whale watching as an exciting new eco-tourism activity.
Watamu Marine Association Marine Mammal Project has been studying humpback whales in Kenya with Kenya Wildlife Service since 2011.
“We have observed that the migration of these whales typically starts in Kenya at the beginning of July and ends in September. This year, the migration started early in the middle on June with a few leaders. It is expected that the whales will start to increase in numbers as the migration peaks in August,” says Jane.
Numbers of whales passing through Kenya seas have varied with boom years observed in 2013 and 2017, with reports of over 550 and 390 animals respectively.
“As numbers seem to be increasing and migrations may be getting longer, last year a few whales were seen in Kenya in November. Scientists are speculating that possible population growth is a recovery after hunting whales was stopped in 1986,” Jane adds.
In 2012, Hemingways Watamu, became the first hotel in Kenya to offer whale watching excursions.
A guest to Hemingways Watamu once described the experience; “more exciting than great white shark watching in South Africa” and “observing these magnificent animals with young calves erupting like missiles out of the water is a natural beauty to behold.”