Platform to collect data on whales, dolphins is critical to their survival

Tuesday July 06 2021

Humpback whales in Watamu. Locals are encouraged to photograph and report humpback sightings. PHOTO | COURTESY WMA


The waters off southern Somalia appear to be an important habitat for threatened marine mammals whose numbers are declining

For years, little was documented about humpback whales or different species of dolphins on the Kenyan coastal waters; or even the occasional killer whales.

Come 2011, several non-governmental and government agencies came together to change this and formed the Kenya Marine Mammal Network (KMMN) to provide a platform to collect data on marine mammals along the Kenyan coast, and identify key areas for dolphin and whale conservation.

One of the priorities of the KMMN is to establish the hotspots for dolphins, whales and dugong (as few as five remain in Kenya) to receive accreditation for Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) in Kenya under the umbrella of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Commission on Protected Areas, an initiative created in 2013.

The work of KMMN has been featured in peer-reviewed scientific journals, including Frontiers in Marine Science.

For example, the article “Cetacean Research and Citizen Science in Kenya,” published in the journal’s June 16 edition, reviews data on sightings and strandings for small cetaceans, mainly dolphins.


The article focuses on well-studied species whose “populations have become threatened with significant decline and, in some cases, extinction due to anthropogenic threats such as water-borne pollution, fisheries interactions, coastal development and maritime shipping and industrial noise.”

The KMMN data published in an International Whaling Commission Technical Report 2020 shows that from 2011 to 2018, there were 1,406 records of 24 species of dolphins and whales in Kenya.

These included the most frequently spotted inshore species like the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin and the rarely sighted endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphin.

Offshore species include killer whales, short-finned pilot whales, spinner dolphins and even the largest mammal on Earth, the blue whale.

Of these, lesser known species such as the pygmy sperm whale, melon headed whale, striped dolphin and Risso’s dolphin were recorded through stranding reports, meaning those found beached either dead or alive on the shore. 

While much ground has been covered in gathering information, the KMMN publications show how much more data is needed from under-studied areas in Ungwana Bay and the Lamu archipelago.

KMMN’s work has also featured at scientific and conservation meetings hosted by the International Whaling Commission and the World Marine Mammal Conference, raising Kenya’s status and increasing visibility on a global scale

Its data has been used to support the listing of three IUCN Important Marine Mammal Areas in the Watamu-Malindi Marine Protected Area and Watamu Banks, Kisite-Mpunguti and off-shore Lamu.

Notably the offshore IMMA was recognised as significant due to the presence of endangered blue whales reported by oil and gas Marine Mammal Observers that accompany seismic vessels as required by law to collect data and ensure operations do not interfere with the animals during surveys. The blue whales were recorded in 2014 and 2015 data collection aboard the ships.

The first time ever

It suggests that the waters of northern Kenya and southern Somalia are likely to constitute an important habitat for blue whales in the Indian Ocean during the South-East Monsoon period.

Since 2016, IUCN’s Marine Mammals Protective Areas Task Force has been identifying IMMAs using standard criteria in six marine regions, through regional expert workshops.

IMMAs are defined as important habitats for marine mammal species that have the potential to be protected and managed for conservation.

The rationale for developing IMMAs includes the fact that marine mammals have been overlooked by many national efforts yet they are indicators of the ocean ecosystem health.

They also migrate through vast ocean distances crossing international boundaries like the 30-tonne humpback whale (equivalent to six adult elephants). This gigantic whale migrates every year from the Antarctic to the northern tip of Africa, passing along the Kenyan coast and back again.

“IMMAs have come at a perfect time. Kenya is mapping marine areas that will help identify threats affecting marine mammals,” according to Michael Mwang’ombe of Watamu Marine Association and the project coordinator of Kenya Marine Mammal Research and Conservation.

“Dolphins and whales require more research to facilitate conservation planning and gazetting marine protected areas. We are collaborating with government agencies and local stakeholders in marine mammal research in the designated IMMAs.”