Wendy Watta goes deep sea fishing in Watamu and recounts the much anticipated humpback whale sighting that doesn’t go quite as planned.
Photos: Brian Siambi
A humpback whale in the Indian Ocean off Watamu on 27th August 2018. Humpback whales migrate from Antarctica to the Kenyan Coast betwen July and September to breed their young in the warm tropic waters.
Imagine sitting in a catamaran on a windblown Indian Ocean surrounded by nothing but blue as gulls call out above. Perhaps you’re out amateur sportfishing and because you see some ripples in the water, idly wonder what might have been caught in the skipper’s line. Without warning, out jumps a 30 ton humpback whale propelled by a massive fluke, and it is almost as big as the PSV buses you see around Nairobi. Like an acrobat performing a well rehearsed trick at a circus, it lands neatly on its back setting off a tremendous splash which rocks your vessel as you stare on, dumbfounded.
Imagine then that a second humpback whale slowly lifts its head out of the water and peers inside your deck like a nosy neighbour, and you can almost swear that it just winked at you. Because it is your lucky day, the water explodes a couple of feet away as two whales break the surface and launch straight into the air with shocking agility, rotating about in an invisible spot before slapping back into the sea. Just as you finally stir out of your stupefied state and take out your camera to snap a few pictures, you see the pod swimming away, singing out to each other in complex melodies that echo in your head for weeks to come. The catamaran is surrounded by nothing but blue yet again, as contented gulls caw above.
I had watched enough videos of these majestic mammoth creatures and read up some material from Watamu Marine Association, and my imagination was running wild. According to the association which published responsible whale watching guidelines to aid commercial vessels at the coast, humpback whales pass through the Watamu Protected Area from as early as June making their migration north from Antarctica to warmer tropical inner reefs during breeding and
birthing. In October, they then swim over 4,000km back to seas teeming with sardines or krill. By the time we drove down to Watamu for the last two days of our trip around Kilifi County, I was unable to even sit still enough to eat. I don’t remember ever being that excited even for a first date. Not even having recently watched Jason Statham’s 2018 movie, The Meg, with a brother who kept taunting me about a prehistoric 75-foot Megalodon shark that might be lurking underneath our boat waiting to attack was enough to deter me. I wanted to see humpback whales breaching!
Our maiden five hour whale watching trip takes place in September with Hemingways who pioneered such excursions at the coast in 2014 before other companies literally jumped on board. I’m not prone to seasickness but take some medication the previous night nonetheless, having been advised by a manager at Hemingways that the sea has been particularly choppy lately. There are four guests and we all hop aboard a speedboat which takes us to a 30 foot sportfishing boat where our three crew members of the day are waiting.
The sea is dark and moody. About two hours later and still no sighting, the boat continually rocks up a few feet before swinging down with each passing wave and much like a baby in a crib, I am simply unable to stay awake. I slip in and out of sleep enough to fill my lungs with the fresh salty air and catch yet another squall clearing on the horizon. The other guests have also been lulled into slumber and only the crew, who are setting up the fishing tackle, remain alert. There are no excited shouts that jolt me awake or frantic scrambles for photography equipment to capture a spectacle out at sea, and as I doze off, all I hear is the endless sound of crashing waves and lapping water reverberating through the boat’s hull, drowning out even my own thoughts…
My first deep sea fishing experience was with a group of Swedish sailors at Kiunga Marine National Reserve in the Lamu archipelago, with a small speedboat from Mike’s Camp in Kiwayu. It had no overhead cover and I remember not only having to contend with the sun’s harsh reflection off the water but also with its scorching mid-day rays. I was the only female on board and we went out for about seven hours in which ciders were drunk and the only way to pee was over the edge of boat and into the sea. Ah, such good times!
Watamu is said to be one of the few places where three kinds of marlin, sailfish, broadbill swordfish and short bill spearfish are all in abundance, and Hemingways actually pioneered the ‘tag and release’ practice with billfish at the Kenyan coast. Depending on the season, you can spot blue marlins as they follow shoals of tuna in the deep sea, drift in the night to catch broadbill with light sticks on the leader and squid weighted to various depths, and more.
Deep sea fishing
There is still no whale in sight but the crew has been trolling for about an hour when they catch something in their line and quickly reel it in. “What fish is that?” I ask animatedly, peering at the small beautiful fish with colourful vertical stripes and forked tail, excited to finally see some action. I spent part of my childhood around Lake Victoria and in all the time, fish never got as bold or vibrant as this.
“It’s a frigi!” shouts back one of the crew members as he dexterously hooks it to the end of a rod and casts it out at sea as live bait for whatever will bite. He tells me that frigi is Swahili for mackerel, but seems a little uncertain about his translation prowess. A few minutes later, he shouts that there is something bigger caught at the end of the line, gestures for me to sit in the fisherman’s chair and reel it in fast while sweeping the line from side to side, which is no mean feat. With some help, we pull it close to the boat and the crew leans over the edge emerging a few seconds later brandishing a fighting giant trevally that might as well be about 7kg!
As we approach the reef, the water and winds get quite rough and the captain decides to manoeuvre us back to land. Five hours and no sighting. My disappointment is so intense that I spend the next hour lounging alone in my room. That is however the way of the wild- you cannot set up an appointment with wildlife. You simply book a trip and hope for the best.
About two a week later when I am finally over the disappointment, I chat up photographer Mwangi Kirubi who spotted humpback whales in Watamu about a week before our trip on the same boat and with the same crew. “We saw ten whales and two breached eight times. We had actually only been in the ocean for about 30 minutes,” he says. Lucky chaps! “They were far and near. We actually also saw dolphins and turtles, but the whales were the star of the show. For me it was mostly just shocking that this has been happening since Adam and this was the first time I was hearing about whales migrating through Kenya.”
Needless to say, it has now become an almost obsessive thought that I must see humpback whales in Watamu. Better luck next year, I suppose.