The girl who helped reveal whale migration in Kenya
(CNN) – Until recently, most travelers, even some locals, had no indication of aquatic mammals occupying or passing through Kenyan waters.
Known as a safari destination, with the craziest migration to the Maasai Mara between July and September being considered its culmination, the extensive marine life of the African nation was something fishermen knew the real extent.
But thanks in large part to the efforts of a former London lawyer, the country now has a growing maritime tourism industry, with tourists looking for the whale coastal town of Watamu, 140 kilometers north of Mombasa.
The tide began to turn around about 10 years ago when Jane Spilsbury, who lived in Watamu with her marine biologist husband for several years, began hearing stories from local fishermen with dolphins and whales.
Determined to prove their existence, the couple spent six months boarding local fishing boats armed with little paper waste and a cheap camera to document and photograph any visible evidence.
Search for whales
Jane Spielsbury spent months recording whale sightings in the Kenyan coastal city of Guatemo after learning of their existence from local fishermen.
Spilsburys continued to help establish the Watamu Marine Association – a partnership between hotels, local fishermen, divers and other members of the public – in 2007.
Their goal was to simplify communication channels as well as work for conservation, but the couple found that they were constantly asked about the country’s marine life.
“People were asking us about the condition of whales and dolphins in Kenya, and we just didn’t know why the cost of mammalian research was too high,” he said.
“So we talked to some boat operators and asked them, ‘When you take people out for snorkeling, what else do you see?’ And they said, “Well, there are dolphins out there.”
The discovery of humpback whales in the area was a game changer, but Spilsbury says it learned about them in a similar casual way.
“It was as simple as talking to a fisherman at the bar and asking if he had seen whales and he said, ‘Sure, we’ve seen them for 30 years.’
197 humpback whales were reported in the area in 2018.
Courtesy of Watamu Marine Association
Identifying themselves as “citizen scientists”, they began pounding the waters together to search for migratory mammals, creating a research database for their observations.
“We did not really know what we were doing,” Spilsbury admits. “We were not scientists, but each of us had our own skills.”
They came together to discover an abundant population of Indo-Pacific dolphins – and then came the whale spectacles.
Over time, they have been able to spot whales making an annual pilgrimage after Kenya between July and September, traveling from Antarctic waters to Somalia for breeding.
And so another tourism industry was born. anchored in the posters of the pristine, white beaches and turquoise waters of the coast of Kenya, and now, the strange image of a humpback whale jumping out of the water.
The main information gathering platform is a WhatsApp team created to encourage locals to report marine mammal observations and strands on a regular basis.
Between May 2011 and December 2019, the group, which now has 100 members, reported a total of 1,511 comments.
In 2014, with files and databases growing randomly, the team received a boost with the arrival of Michael Mwang’ombe, a young self-taught scientist from Taita in southeastern Kenya.
Mwang’ombe, who was not scientifically trained, had spent his high school years making a plan to do research at sea and arrived in Watamu to start working with sea turtles.
After meeting Spillsbury and learning about the research, he persuaded her to let him help with the data collection.
“I remember the first time I saw dolphins, I can not explain the feeling I felt then,” he says.
“But then with the whales, I was a little disappointed, because at school we learned they were bad and dangerous and huge.”
Collaboration with locals
Spilsbury and its team have documented at least 24 species of whales and dolphins in the area.
When Mwang’ombe returned home, he was disappointed by the reaction of the locals when he spoke about the fantastic marine life of Watamu.
“I came back very excited and told people about my experience, but no one believed me, not even the photos,” he says.
“They thought I would download them from the Internet. That moment changed my life – realizing that these people near the shore had no idea what was going on out there.
“People were asking if whales were eating humans or if they were attacking humans. I knew that this would be my next challenge – to train the locals “.
Mwang’ombe began working with local fishermen to teach them how to use whale and dolphin populations as potential incomes for tourism.
Between 2016 and 2018, the fishermen had cameras at their disposal and were asked to take pictures of any whale sightings while at sea to help the team research.
“People called me all the time, they love it. It’s just these simple things that make me see the value of the work I do,” says Mwang’ombe.
“And this from a community that really does not trust anyone – they have tried to lead to a new era before, when they do not want that.
“For us it is about listening to them and giving them suggestions, instead of forcing them to do anything.”
The local Hemingways Watamu hotel soon arrived on board, offering the group a boat and paying to take tourists on whale watching trips.
According to Spilsbury, this means that research and sightseeing trips are the same thing, which is a new experience for tourists.
Fishermen also rely on updates – a simple WhatsApp message if they see any action, so the boat knows where to go.
“Whales to Wildebeest”
Travelers choose to visit Watamu especially for whales.
Courtesy of Watamu Marine Association
Over the years, the country’s tourism and research efforts have increased in parallel. Both international and domestic tourists flocked to Watamu for the opportunity to see whales.
As a result, Spilsbury was able to persuade the Kenya Tourism Council to try out the “Twin Migration – Whales to Wildebeest” marketing for size, both of which occur at the same time of year.
Up to that point, the nation’s white sand beaches were often rare labels for international tourists on safari holidays.
Migration months were usually low season for the coast, as strong offshore winds blow into the algae that cover the unspoilt beaches.
But this seasonal relaxation is experiencing a rise, fueled by whales.
In 2018, 197 whales were reported in the area, the highest number since records began.
This decreased to just 35 in 2019, due to environmental conditions, but the spectacles in 2019 have increased again.
In August, the Hemingways team had only one whale-watching trip that failed to see any mammals.
Most of these trips are inhabited by domestic tourists, as international tourists remain deceptive in the midst of the pandemic, despite the relatively low incidence of coronaviruses in Kenya.
Domestic tourism bonus
Melinda Rees, general manager of Hemingways Watamu, says the pandemic “forced Kenyans to explore their country and realize how amazing it is.”
Before Covid, and whales, the hotel will experience 20% fullness this time of year, mainly due to unsightly algae.
But in September, occupancy rates reached 80 to 100%, with bookings almost exclusively from domestic tourists.
“We are ready to have both markets in Kenya, if it disappears it poses a real challenge,” says Rees, noting that while domestic tourism was a huge bonus, reinvesting in the hotel was not possible this year.
And while the advent of tourism has excited Spilsbury, it remains focused on research and conservation efforts. The team has now documented 24 species of whales and dolphins in the area.
They have also been “embraced” by the global scientific community, sending invitations to international marine mammal symposia and receiving regular external funding.
“Scientists say it’s really local and important data and it has incredible value,” says Spilsbury.
“And here we are, just ordinary people with ordinary skills.”
Now heavily invested in the country’s growing maritime tourism industry, Spilsbury, who worked for the British government legal service before packing and moving abroad, believes he will spend the rest of his days in Kenya, as “there is a lot to do . “
“The locals did not even know where Watamu was [before]”, he adds.” But there is a huge change now. It is exciting.”
Correction: A title in an earlier version of this story overestimated Jane Spilsbury’s role in finding whales in Kenya. It was crucial for documenting their migration. An earlier version of the story also included two excerpts from Spilsbury that overestimated her role. These excerpts have been removed.