The annual wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara between July and September is a well known phenomenon. But a lesser known mammal migration happens at the same time at the coast.
Every year, humpback whales journey into Kenya between July and August. Unlike the well documented wildebeests we are only just beginning to understand the nature and habits of these ocean giants.
Spanning up to 18 feet and weighing 40 tonnes, these gigantic mammals swim thousands of kilometres from Antarctica along the coasts of South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia.
The small town of Watamu in Kilifi County has become the perfect spot for viewing humpbacks because they swim close to the shore and can even be seen from land.
An average of 70 humpbacks appear during the two-month season, according to Michael Mwang’ombe, marine mammal project co-ordinator at Watamu Marine Association (WMA).
He joined the WMA in 2014 with no background in marine sciences but trained as an IT specialist. “How IT comes into play is by looking at the bigger problem of the data needed to create informed decisions,” says Mwang’ombe.
As a child, Mwang’ombe was fascinated by documentaries about humpback whales seen in other countries but found little data on Kenya. At WMA, he taught himself photography and found that his technical skills were useful for conducting land-based surveys of whales.
In the early days, Mwang’ombe would go out with fishermen hoping to see and photograph whales in the deep sea. He spoke with local people to better understand their traditional knowledge about the “huge creatures” that seasonally appeared and sometimes got tangled in fishing nets.
He says that initially, people did not believe the large sea animals were whales. But continued interaction between him and the community has inspired a broader understanding of humpbacks and the need for whale protection.
One idea is community-managed tourism initiatives. “We suggested whale watching tours to take tourists out, show them these whales and tell the traditional stories about them,” said Mwang’ombe, who grew up in Malindi, the largest town in Kilifi.
Whale watching tours offer an alternative source of income for the primarily fishing communities of Watamu and ensure protection of whales. Hotels and sports fishing have also initiated whaling tours.
“Young Kenyan scientists act as guides on the whale watching boats, thereby introducing the concept of research tourism,” says Jane Spilsbury, committee advisor to the WMA.
Humpbacks delight onlookers with their habit of breaching (leaping out of the deep and slapping the surface with their massive fins and tails). Research has shown that water slapping is a method of long-distance communication.
Beyond the excursions, research programmes are underway to document the humpbacks of Kenya. Ms Spilsbury says that in certain parts of the Indian Ocean, humpbacks have declined by up to 70 per cent in the last 13 years.
But now, a citizen science initiative of WMA since 2010 encourages residents to photograph and report their sightings of whales to WMA.
While it has not been scientifically established, researchers believe humpbacks come to East Africa to give birth in the safe, warm tropical waters.
Individual whales can be identified by the pattern of marks on their tail flukes which are as individual as fingerprints.
The years 2013 and 2017 were bumper years for sightings. “The reasons are unknown; however, they could be current and temperature related,” said Spilsbury.