Watamu's big five, dolphins and conservation efforts

Travelling around East Africa exposes one to the warmth of the people in this region. In places where Swahili is the language of choice a departing guest will likely hear the phrase, “Karibu tena.” It is an initiation to return and pointer to how welcoming we are as a people.
A mural of a dolphin made with bottles picked from the beaches. / Allan Brian Ssenyonga.
A mural of a dolphin made with bottles picked from the beaches. / Allan Brian Ssenyonga.

Travelling around East Africa exposes one to the warmth of the people in this region. In places where Swahili is the language of choice a departing guest will likely hear the phrase, “Karibu tena.” It is an initiation to return and pointer to how welcoming we are as a people.

So when I visited the Kenyan coastal town of Watamu the first time and left with my Karibu tena, I made it a point to return to this amazingly beautiful place once again.


My second trip to Watamu was more comprehensive and it made me feel more like a research student than a tourist. On the first trip, the moment I arrived in Watamu we set off for snorkelling and other activities and we did more seeing than learning if such a distinction can made. On the second trip I felt like I was in a class most of the time. Nodding my head as I listened to the different members of the Watamu Marine Association (WMA) explaining to us what they do and how they do it. 


We started off the day with an excursion into the sea to find dolphins. Yes Kenya does have dolphins in its Indian Ocean waters. In fact it is not just dolphins, it actually has what they call the Big Five of the ocean or the Marine Five. At the marine parks in Kenya, one can see giant manta rays, humpback whales, dolphins, tiger sharks and of course the turtles. The coral reefs are a sight to behold.


Seeing the dolphins 

Our guide that morning was the amiable Jane Spilsbury, a fast talking and cheerful lady who assured us that we would be lucky to see the dolphins since we had showed up at the time they embark on their breakfast. Jane knows this because her life is basically all about marine life including dolphins. 

A keen eye could not fail to notice that even the jewellery Jane had on that day was all dolphin themed. I am sure if the dolphins were to start a new language, Jane would have that on her resume somewhere as one of the languages she speaks. Anyway we headed out to the sea in a boat whose owners recognised me because by some stroke of luck it was the same boat we had used on my previous visit to the marine park. 

The writer tries out some sea food at Crab Shack restaurant. / Courtesy

The difference this time is that for dolphin spotting we had to sail out much farther on rougher waters. Our boat seemed to struggle keeping up with the huge waves and I must admit it was a bit scary at some point and some of the people on board had to chew on some lemons that Jane had carried to tame the resulting nausea. 

We kept on looking out for that sign – a pointed fin of a dolphin or even a shark, as it swims about. Eventually we saw about three of them just by the side of the boat. We were all excited but my stubborn mind could not hesitate throwing me scary scenarios like what if the dolphin knocks our small boat over. I decide not to think of that and focused on enjoying the beautiful sight of the dolphins swimming as we sailed close by. 

Those with real cameras took snapped away but were not so lucky to get that signature spectacular shot where the dolphin jumps out of the water. I think they only do this stunt when trying to get the attention of the opposite sex dolphins and it was still too early for that. I am not sure but that is what came to my mind to be honest.

Saving marine life

This beautiful marine ecosystem is however under threat from the destructive ways of humans especially the pollution with plastics. We are addicted to plastics and our disposal of the same leaves a lot to be desired. Many species suffer from this kind of pollution and therefore the people at the Watamu Marine Association (WMA) have embarked on an effort to clean up the environment in this area so as to save marine life. 

Much as tourism is a huge cash cow for the different governments in East Africa, it is also a very fragile sector that needs as much investment to exploit opportunities as well investment in conservation efforts to protect the fragile biodiversity. The good folks at WMA which brings together over 40 groups and organisations that are involved in tourism, conservation and community development are all working together to solve the problems that threaten the paradise that is Watamu. 

We got a chance to visit a community recycling centre where we saw what the trash collected from the water and the beaches is turned into or used for. It can be disturbing to see how much trash humans leave at beaches and in the water especially plastic soda bottles and old sandals. At the centre, all the waste is made useful by recycling it into crafts and curios to sell to tourists, and many other things including bricks! 

All these activities have gone a long way in keeping Watamu Marine Park clean but also providing employment and income to the community members involved in the cleaning u and recycling of the waste. It is also a great way of getting the community to develop a sense of ownership in the tourism activities that happen in this area.

Trying out some sea food 

WMA is not all about dolphins and taka taka waste. They also have a snake farm and a crab farm. A visit to their establishment around Mida Creek will blow you away. If you can, make it a point to take a guided tour in the canoe and listen to the birds and marvel at the mangrove trees. You may even catch the sun setting beautifully like a hot ball being lowered into water. 

Steve from WMA explains the recycling process. / Allan Brian Ssenyonga

There is also Dabaso Crab Shack restaurant. To get to it you have to walk on a boardwalk that meanders into the mangrove and gives you a spectacular view of the ocean. Here you get to also taste some tasty seafood and other coastal dishes. When it comes to food I often prefer to stick to what I know and can pronounce. However when I go out for wildlife trips there is always a small voice that tells me to try out things. 

I remember trying out something while in the Masai Mara and spent a lot of time touring the toilet. While at Dabaso Crab Shack that same voice spoke but the good thing is that this time my stomach was up to the challenge. I settled for prawns and coconut flavoured rice with some fries. At this restaurant you get to eat lots of sea food that you are sure was caught just a few metres from where you are sitting. 

There is something cool about eating food that was hunted just a few meters away. I am sure other predators peep and think to themselves, “These bloody humans are always cheating in this hunting game with their equipment.” Anyway we had a lot of fun, ate so much food that we could barely move after the meal. 

At the end of it all we had eaten a lot and learnt so much about sea animals and the conservation efforts being done to ensure that the East African coast remains another top destination for visitors. By the way, just like the animal migration from Serengeti to Masai Mara, even the marine park has its own migrations. The Humpback whale which is about six times the size of an adult elephant also migrates from one place to another and therefore if you want to see this huge creature you have to find out from the guys at WMA about the whale migration patterns. 

All said and done, we have to sustainably exploit our tourism resources or else we shall not have it as a sector for very long. We should be able to tell our visitors, Karibu tena and mean it. So next time you are visiting a tourism facility please do not litter the place. This is true for all East African countries because tourism is a key economic sector.

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