It was a sunny late November day with the ocean flat and calm in Mambrui, north of Malindi-Watamu Marine Park. “All around us green sea turtles were mating on the surface of the ocean,” relates Jane Spilsbury of the Watamu Marine Association. “And we were sailing close to shore, no further than two kilometres.”
Suddenly, out of the blue, a 50-foot Bryde’s whale surfaced to ''blow'' its breath more than six feet into the air, a mere 100 feet from the boat.
“The WMA team at first thought it was a whale shark, which is the largest fish at 40 feet or a humpback whale because this is the tail end of the humpback whale migration. Seeing a Bryde’s was heart-stopping,” says Spilsbury.
Another two were seen the following day further north in Lamu and also around Malindi-Watamu marine park, reported on WhatsApp by regular ocean goers who are part of the Kenyan Marine Mammal Network citizen science programme run by WMA and the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Bryde’s whale in Kenyan waters
The rare whale was first recorded in Watamu’s stretch of the Indian Ocean in February 2013 by George Allen on the Kenyan Marine Mammal Network.
Since then the species has been sighted only five times as far north as Lamu.
The Bryde’s whale (Balaenopetra edeni) was first discovered in the early 1900s by Norwegian Johan Bryde (pronounced Broo-dus) in South Africa, and to this date little is known about the species or its movements in Kenya and neighbouring Tanzania.
The IUCN has listed it as Data Deficient in the Red List of Threatened Species.
“There is an urgent need to understand more about the numbers and movements of the Bryde’s whale. We think there may be a distinct Kenyan or north East African population,” says Spilsbury.
Currently, there is a scientific discussion about the existence of two separate species of Bryde’s whale.
The first is found in East Africa and is 50 feet long. The second is the ''pygmy'' Bryde’s whale which is found in East Indian and Western Pacific oceans and its maximum length is 40 feet.
Bryde’s whales are dark grey with three prominent grooves down the centre of the head and two adjacent blowholes. The dorsal fin is curved and pointed towards the tail.
Kenya’s marine mammal research and conservation programme
It is a science programme run by WMA’s Michael Mwang’ombe, a self-taught Kenyan scientist and Steve Trott.
WMA was formed in 2007. In 2011, it set up the Kenya Marine Mammal citizen science platform gathering ''opportunistic'' data.
Since that time it has identified 24 different species of dolphin and whale in Kenya’s waters, out of the 33 species so far known in East Africa.
Dolphins and whales are marine mammals and protected under Kenya’s Wildlife (Conservation and Management) Act as are all marine life in gazetted parks and reserves. However sharks, being fish, are afforded less protection.
Marine life faces many threats from mainly humans that include accidental or by-catch in fishing or abandoned fishing gear and becoming entangled in abandoned fishing nets also called ''ghost'' nets.
With the new port planned in Kenya, there is the threat of noise pollution and ship strikes which will interfere with local feeding grounds, cause habitat loss and restrict the movement of marine animals along the coast.
Marine litter and plastic pollution continue to be worldwide problems for these animals.
Supported by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife – Giraffe Centre since 2011, WMA works with the International Whaling Commission, Indocet Reunion, Sarasota Dolphin Research Programme, Oceanic Society and Wildlife Conservation Society. Within Kenya, WMA works with KWS, KMFRI and Ministry of Tourism.
WMA aims to help conserve the marine protected areas and provide sustainable responsible economic benefits to the coastal community, working with the tourism, community, and environmental groups.
Guests travelling to the Kenyan coast can see:
• Humpback whale migration from July to September in Watamu.
• Dolphins can be sighted in the Watamu Marine Reserve in the north and Kisite-Mpunguti Park in the south of Kenya from November to March.
• Whale sharks can be seen along the Kenyan coast from September to January.
Recommended service providers for whale tours:
• Hemingways in Watamu,
• Alleycat Pete (Darnborough)
• Simba Big Game Fishing
• Unreel Fishing Kenya
• Turtle Bay Dive Centre
• Aquaventures Dive