In February 2018, a group of ocean sportsmen in Watamu off the coast of Kenya spotted a small pod of killer whales, also known as orca. Orcas are not whales despite their name but a type of dolphin and, according local fishermen, show up in Kenya every three to five years.
But scientific knowledge of dolphins in Kenya has been wanting.
So the residents of Watamu took matters into their own hands and started a citizen science initiative to record them. Since 2010 residents and visitors in Watamu have photographed big marine mammals they spot in the ocean and shared them with WMA. The objective is to create baseline information about the dolphins and whales in Watamu.
“It started through social media, Whatsapp and events such as ‘Tracking the Marine Big Five’ on Easter weekend,” explained Jane Spilsbury, the WMA – Watamu Marine Association – committee advisor and marine mammal project coordinator.
WMA observations show that the most common dolphin species are the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, spinner dolphins and the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins.
The main species of whale in Watamu is the humpback. They are not resident to Kenya but migrate from Antarctica in the south, between July to September, swimming up warm waters along the coast of South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia. “They come to East Africa to breed and calf and they stay close to shore for protection,” says Spilsbury.
Recognising specific dolphins is an important part of the photographic records programme. The research team focuses on studying the dorsal fin of a dolphin which is as distinct as a human fingerprint. The shape of the fin, nicks, cuts and other distinguishing features allows them to identify individual dolphins. WMA has recorded 141 separate bottlenose dolphins and 8 humpback dolphins as of 2016.
With humpback whales, which can grow up to 18 metres and weigh 40 tons, individual photo-identification is based on a distinct pattern of markings on the underside of their tail flukes.
The Watamu Marine Park is listed by the United Nations as World Biosphere Reserve because of its rich marine life. Other species of big marine mammals recorded by WMA are the false killer whale, Longman’s beaked whale and the blue whale, the largest animal on earth.
These are exciting discoveries but it opens up more questions about ocean mammals. Watamu researchers want to understand their preferred habitats, patterns of movement and the status of different species.
“We also need information about the extent of deaths and injuries from by-catch, the negative effects of oil and gas exploration, and also marine debris.” Such information can be used to develop a comprehensive national marine management strategy. Says Spilsbury.
WMA is part of the Kenya Marine Mammal Network (KMMN), that includes the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Kenya Marine and Fisheries, and the National Environmental Management Authority. KMMN has identified 20 types of large marine mammals in Kenya.
KMMN conducts research trips in Watamu between November and April to better understand the region’s marine life and the effect of human activities. The organisation is also looking to expand beyond photo-identification research which can be a time-consuming process. “We are looking for funding to get acoustic devices to monitor and identify species through their calls.”
Alongside developing a database of dolphin sightings, WMA and partner organisations work to promote community awareness on ocean pollution and proper waste management. A beach clean-up event in September 2016 collected over 5,000kg of debris in Watamu and much of it plastic waste.
An estimated 100,000 marine mammals around the world die every year from plastics entanglement or accidental ingestion. It highlights the real problem of ocean trash that originates from coastal communities, travels downriver from the interior or is carried thousands of miles across the seas. Beach trash in Watamu is taken to Ecoworld Watamu, a collection centre where waste material is sorted out and some of it recycled into arts, crafts and building materials.
With growing interest in large marine mammals, dolphin and whale watching by boat is now a popular tourist activity. It is not unusual to see dolphins leaping out of the water or swimming alongside boats in a friendly manner. Whale watchers can enjoy humpback whales because of their habit of breaching (jumping into the air) with acrobatic grace and slapping the water with their tails and fins.
Historically, the economic mainstay of Watamu has been fishing so tourism provides alternative employment and income-generating opportunities. However, there is concern about boat excursions getting too close to dolphins. Says Spilsbury, “While dolphins are naturally curious, humans are an alien presence and seen potentially as a predator that can cause an interruption in feeding or other behaviour.”
In a study of the Kisite Mpunguti Marine National Park in the south coast of Kenya, scientists and the KWS concluded that human behaviour had caused dolphins to move away from certain areas.
The Wildlife Conservation and Management Act of Kenya outlines penalties for “extractive or damaging activity in a marine protected area.” However, without active governance, marine life remains vulnerable to habitat destruction and overfishing.
While dolphins are not traditionally hunted, they do get trapped in fishing nets in which case they are consumed. The Indian Ocean humpback dolphin, which was formally recognised as a distinct species in 2015, is particularly prone to by-catch fishing.
Consequently, conservation solutions need to involve and benefit the seaside communities.
As part of their goal to promote responsible marine use, WMA organises workshops to train on best practice guidelines for fishing and boating excursions. The guidelines are based on international standards and have been approved by the KWS. Overall the response from boat operators has been good but, says Spilsbury, “More involvement in education on the commercial value of the animals is required.”
WMA is a non-profit organisation comprising of conservation partners, hotels, local businesses and community self-help groups. WMA was formed in 2007 to tackle environmental threats and bring people together to find solutions to conflicts around natural resources in or around Watamu Marine National Park.