For a Whale Song

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The animal kingdom is full of stories of migration – from humans leaving Africa to populate the earth, to birds flying up and down the continents, spanning the poles of the globe. The annual Wildebeest migration seems comparatively small when you consider the whales.

Humpback whales are great big marine mammals that can weigh 30 tonnes and reach some 15 metres in length, that’s at least two fully grown elephants lined up. They are passing Watamu now and we are yanked off our breakfast tables by our eagerness to spot them.

The captain is pointing at the horizon, they are really near by – I can’t see anything but a few keen guests who seemed to have seen something, also drop the rest of their sumptuous breakfast to jump into a deep sea fishing boat – small catamarans that we are assured are highly stable on the high seas.

This is my third trip in a fishing boat launched from Hemingways Watamu, who have been doing this sort of thing in their sports boats for over twenty years. Once you go through the channel which is always choppy, the sea is calmer, yes well the boat still bobs on the wave crests violently. But if you look out to the throng of sea birds squawking and skimming the water for fish, you’ll see even smaller skiffs, almost canoes, men standing without harnessing to their boats, fishing lines thrown out. Big fish, including dolphins and whales feed on the outside of tight shoals or schools of smaller, fodder fish, disrupting them and causing them to come up to the surface, which give the birds opportunity to dive for a meal.

The youngest amongst us quickly go to the top deck to join the captain whilst the rest of us stay close to the berths below. We’ve only been out for about half an hour when a blow is seen just off the side of the boat, then a fin and dive. After that, it seems there are a couple of whales swimming around us. We also see dolphins. The dolphins are seen here all the time and have been already been documented, being recognisable from their fins.

Male whales sing, haunting complicated communications that carry for thousands of miles underwater. It is now thought, that females also sing, almost inaudible to humans, low frequency pulsing vocalisations. We don’t hear any over the whirr, plash and howl of the boat in open sea.

Sometime this month, extreme sport lovers – expert scuba divers, will swim up to the whales and start tagging them, here in Watamu, so that us humans can understand exactly their comings and goings. It is generally believed that the humpbacks travel into the warm tropical waters close to the reefs, to breed. In October, they begin swimming back over 4000 km to the Antarctica, where the seas are richly populated with the shrimp like krill which they love.

My ten year old is a little concerned and asks me is we are chasing them. She’s seen a distressing documentary on irresponsible tourism where boats chase and drive into groups of dolphins, splitting family members, harassing them and disrupting their feeding. I ask the skipper if they’re scared of us, and he tells me they are, but they know that they are not worn out or hunted here, so they are not distraught.

And no, we are not chasing them, we treat them like the wild animals they are, keeping our distance, keeping the boat parallel to them and letting them live their life. For this we are rewarded by a flip and a dive by the young calf, who high tails it towards mama – three times to a chorus of three big sighs in conjunction with the leaps, from us observers.

Back on steady shore, we sit out on the terrace for lunch with our long cocktails, and I know that this is what’s so special about Hemingways – they have a swathe of sea right before them. That timeless, spacious bar with its long counter, above which hang replicas of marine game and the view directly over the lagoon in which bob their sea faring boats around two coral islands.

The shoreline here has always washed up weeds as it borders the marine park, but now the rising sea levels have encroached the beaches significantly. The snorkeling is still good, there’s scuba diving and Turtle Bay beach is to our left.

Hemingways Collection have spent considerable resources refurbishing the property. Listed as one of the world’s small, luxury boutique hotels, it is something between Thailand and Arabia in modern Africa with Scandinavian simplicity using contemporary, high quality fittings. The number of rooms has been reduced to include apartments and new pools.

Hemingways Watamu opened in 1988 and is named after the writer Ernest Hemingway who was an avid game hunter, loved deep sea fishing and had spent some time in Watamu, falling in love with the places he saw, he wrote “I could not convince myself that we had come to such a wonderful country, a country from which we had to come out of a dream, happy to have dreamed.” And, “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.”

East African folk lore tells of a King Sulemani who having fed all the animals and spirits of his kingdom, became full of hubris and asked god if he might be permitted to feed the rest of the earth.

God raised to the surface a whale so big, the size that no fisherman had ever seen. It rose up from the ocean like an island to a mountain.

King Sulemani fed it and fed it until he had used up everything edible in and around his kingdom, which became famished. And still, the creature asked for more, saying it was still hungry. Sulemani asked the monster if there were more like it, and it replied that there were seventy thousand of its tribe.

Sulemani fell to the ground humbled, understanding that every human endeavour had an end and that he could never do god’s job.

This morning, I was considering going off to see Gede, the ruins of the 13th century Arab town, whose deep wells I remember, as a child, with the same trepidation as the roughness of the high tide. And on its ebb, in Malindi, the blue bottled Portuguese man o’ war with its stinging tentacles. I will revisit the adventures of my childhood again soon, but am content for now.


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