We have been travelling for an hour in a speedboat from Pate Island in Lamu when at 11am, we suddenly come to a stop in the middle of the vast ocean. Omar Mohammed has been vigorously chewing a large piece of gum. When we come to a stop, he puts it in his ear.
We were looking for a spot where the reef rangers can begin their work, and this place, known as Pethali Reef might be it, and he will need gum in his ear for the dive.
Another ranger, Misbahu Ali, suddenly jumps off the boat and into the ocean.
Twenty nine-year-old Omar is always making fun and he remarks, “Mzee Kijana!” - Misbahu dives with an agility that belies his age. Misbahu is a Lamu native and has worked as a fisheries officer for 38 years.
The officer does not hear the compliment, having disappeared under the water to see if it is clear enough to do what brought them here: collect data on fish and coral.
Omar adjusts the gum in his ear as he and his colleagues wait for Misbahu’s signal to go in as well. To catch lobster legally one has to snorkel, which entails floating on the surface, face down in the water.
There was a time when one could catch 10 to 12 lobsters in two hours, but it now takes four hours to catch just two lobsters. They are disappearing, and fast, just like fish, prawns, crabs and other sea species that provide livelihood for fishing communities at the Coast.
For this reason, Omar now works as a reef ranger. His job entails monitoring and protecting the reef - and requires the same snorkeling and swimming skills he had as a fisherman. The difference is that he does not catch lobsters, but counts them instead.
After a few attempts, Misbahu sends a signal that they can go in. Omar adjusts his ear-gum. “I have a problem with my ear, so this helps with underwater pressure and also prevents water from getting into my ear,” he says. Having put on snorkeling gear, he grabs a clipboard known as an underwater slate, which he will write on while in the water and dives in.
He then lays a 50-metre tape measure known as transect along the ocean floor and starts collecting data on the number of species he sees along the transect; he does not count all organisms, just certain types that are either a food source, endangered or important for maintaining the habitat.
Omar and his team also assess the state of coral reef by indicating whether they are dead, live or soft coral. The process takes three hours. By the time they are done, they have counted fish and other organisms on a 50 metre by five metre area. “Monitoring fish and corals will help repair damage that has been done to reefs,” says Omar.
George Maina, marine project coordinator at Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) in Lamu says statistics on the state of the ocean are scarce, and the data Omar and the rest of the rangers are collecting will be useful in gauging the condition of marine life.