While in Watamu, a visit to the marine park is always worthwhile. Also known as a haven for the green turtles, Watamu Marine Park is a favourite for spotting dolphins and whale sharks during their peak migratory seasons. The Kenyan coast boasts rich marine life with up to 24 mammal marine species recorded. We were elated to spot numerous Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin pods during our recent visit to the park.
Our morning cruise into the reefs was characterised by calm water and cool temperature thanks to a few clouds scattered across the sky. As our two crew members, Omar and Mohammed steered us further into the sea, I was excited to catch sight of little jellyfish which were bouncing buoyantly inside the blue waters with the occasional colourful fish swimming underneath our boat as we sailed deeper into the sea.
“Look at that!!” someone screeched in excitement as they pointed towards the water a few metres away from our boat. We spotted a pod of dolphins playfully riding through the waves as they sequentially jumped out of the water; I was awed by their large number. Omar commented that we are very lucky to have come across a huge sighting of these majestic creatures. It then became a spot-and-chase affair since the dolphins momentarily hid beneath the water before jumping out in a different spot. There are times the navigators brought the boats and engines to a complete halt as we waited in silence to spot them again.
Speaking to Mr Mwang’ombe, the Marine Mammal Project Coordinator at Watamu Marine Association, he informed me that Kenya’s first commercial dolphin watching tours were offered in the 1990s. They mainly concentrated in the central and southern coastal areas that included the Malindi Watamu National Marine Park and Reserve and the Kisite -Mpunguti National Marine Park and Reserve. These areas were traditional fishing towns until tourism took over as the main source of revenue in the 1970s.
According to the International Whaling Commission’s Whale Watching Handbook of 2018, Marine tourism at the Kenyan coast was initially focused on diving and snorkelling. However, a number of fishermen who were accustomed to spending hours on the water carefully watching for signs of productivity and good fishing realized that they could supplement their income by using their vessels to take tourists to see the resident populations of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins that were known to frequent the area. As of 2017, there were 40 boat operators offering dolphin watching and snorkelling activities for domestic and international tourists in the Malindi-Watamu National Marine Park and Reserve and 10- 12 in the Kisite-Mpunguti National Marine Park and Reserve.
The Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins are the main resident marine mammals in Malindi Watamu and Kisite-Mpunguti Marine Protected Areas with a population of about between 141 and 168 individuals per site. They are considered to be endangered due to threats arising from overfishing and increased human coastal activities.
You can also spot the Indian Ocean humpback dolphins which are found inshore and at the entrances to creeks. They have been sighted swimming along the coast from Kisite to Malindi. They are frequently seen with the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins who feed in larger family groups. This, as Mr Mwang’ombe explains, could be a survival strategy.
Humpback whales migrate from their feeding grounds in Antarctica along the East African coast to breed and calve. Kenya has witnessed a general increase in numbers, especially in Watamu. As a result, the tourism industry is highly marketing whale-watching expeditions. Combined with the Mara wildebeest migration, this makes for an attractive unique wildlife experience in Kenya dubbed “The Twin Migration – Whales to Wildebeest” as both migrations coincide from July to August.
It is amazing to note that the Watamu Marine Association together with other stakeholders work with a group of citizens and marine users to report sightings through social media and Whatsapp.
After watching the dolphins, we headed back towards the eroded coral ledges to do some snorkelling. The underwater world is spectacular and for a split second I imagined myself on a mini-quest to find Dory.
Interesting Facts About the Bottlenose Dolphins
There are two species of bottlenose dolphins in Kenya: the smaller 2.8m Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin and the larger (3.9m) common bottlenose. The latter is found offshore and the former dwells close to the coast.
They are the species of dolphin you are most likely to see if you go dolphin watching in Kenya
They are aggressive and are known to attack other species of dolphins
They are highly social mammals and are closely bonded in family pods
Young dolphins remain with their mothers until fully weaned at two years.
Where we Stayed
The Dolphin watching experience can be arranged as an excursion while staying at Turtle Bay Beach Resort. Voted one of the best all-inclusive hotels in the TripAdvisor Traveler’s Choice Award, the resort is perfect for family stays as well as conferencing. The 145 club rooms and suites are suited for various kinds of travellers. With two amazing swimming pools, the resort prides itself on having a water sports centre as well as a kids club. There are four restaurants to dine in, our favourite being the Weavers Nest which offers delectable pizzas. Turtle Bay Beach Resort is also Kenya’s first hotel to be awarded the Gold eco-rating by the Ecotourism Kenya due its commendable eco-policy.