Whale migration attracts more tourists to Watamu

Humpback whales around the Indian Ocean waters at the Coast.
Hundreds of tourists are flocking to Watamu in Kilifi County to watch the annual humpback whale migration.

According to the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers, hotels have recorded up to 60 per cent bookings.

“This is likely to improve as the high season progresses,” said Sam Ekwaye, the association’s executive officer for the Coast region.

Every year between July and September, the marine giants swim in their hundreds from the Antarctic to Kenya to breed in East Africa’s tropical waters. Although this phenomenon occurs at around the same time as the wildebeest migration from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, it has been largely overshadowed to the point that it has come to be referred to as “the other migration”.

Migrations peak

Both migrations peak between July and September. This means Kenya hosts a twin migration, one in the Maasai Mara and the other in the Indian Ocean. One of the best places to see the sea mammals is the Malindi-Watamu Marine National Reserve, where the Watamu Marine Association (WMA) has studied dolphins and whales since 2011.

“We work with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to help protect marine mammals,” said Steve Trott, project manager at WMA and one of the officials involved in the ‘Other Migration’ venture.

According to Mr Trott, watching the 15-metre, 30-tonne giants leap out of the ocean is a breathtaking experience.

“Watching whales in their natural environment leaping out of the water, sometimes in pairs or in larger family groups, is an amazing and unforgettable sight,” he said.

He said the humpback was among the most acrobatic of the whale species and spends time leaping from the water to communicate, play or simply remove unwanted skin parasites.

Trott said whale watching attracts thousands of visitors to famous locations such as Canada, Alaska and California.

In Kenya, whale watching is picking up, thanks to joint efforts between the Government, researchers and the private sector through the Kenya Marine Mammal Network (KMMN).

Formed in 2011, KMMN brings together Government agencies, non-government organisations, marine businesses, universities, researchers and conservation groups.

Members include the KWS, WMA, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, National Environment Management Authority, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, Watamu Sea Fishing Club, local operators and marine service providers.

Whale watching

In 2012, Hemingways Watamu, a 5-star beach hotel and a major conservation and community supporter, became the first facility in Kenya to offer whale watching excursions as well as support research through KWS and WMA.

“This collaboration between tourism and research organisations meant the beginning of an exciting new tourist activity at the Kenya coast,” said Trott.

As interest in whale watching increased, more businesses started to provide whale watching tours, including local and sports fishermen.

According to WMA, sightings of humpback whales in Kenyan waters rose sharply in 2013 and again 2017 in the Malindi-Watamu Marine Reserve alone.

The Government, through the Ministry of Tourism, is spearheading a campaign to popularise whale watching.

The ministry is popularising the campaign as a twin migration package - where visitors are encouraged to sample the wildebeest migration in the Mara and humpback whale migration in Watamu.

Tourism Cabinet Secretary Balala is expected in Watamu next week as part of efforts to publicise whale watching on the Kenyan coast.

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