The British lawyer who discovered whales in Kenya
(CNN) – Until recently, most travelers and even some locals were ignorant of the aquatic mammals that occupy or traverse Kenya’s waters.
Known as a safari destination, with the wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara as its highlight between July and September, the African nation’s extensive marine life was something only fishermen knew of the true extent.
But thanks largely to the efforts of a former London attorney, the country now has a burgeoning marine tourism industry with tourists scouring the coastal town of Watamu, 140 kilometers north of Mombasa, for its humpback whales.
The tide began to turn about 10 years ago when Jane Spilsbury, who had lived in Watamu for several years with her husband, a marine biologist, heard stories from local fishermen about dolphin and whale watching.
Determined to prove their existence, the two spent six months boarding local fishing boats armed with just a few scraps of paper and a cheap camera to document and photograph visible evidence.
Jane Spilsbury spent months recording whale watchings in the coastal town of Watamu, Kenya, after learning of its existence from local fishermen.
“We literally came from a point of no information and no awareness. It seems ridiculous to imagine that no one knew the dolphins or whales existed here,” Spilsbury told CNN.
In 2007 the Spilsburys helped found the Watamu Marine Association – a collaboration between hotels, local fishermen, divers and other members of the public.
Their goal was to simplify channels of communication and work on conservation, but the couple found that they were constantly being asked about the land’s marine life.
“People asked us about our situation with whales and dolphins in Kenya, and we just didn’t know because the cost of studying mammals was way too high,” she explains.
“So we spoke to some boat operators and asked them, if you take people snorkeling, what else do you see?” And they said, “Well, there are dolphins out there too.”
“We were amazed because nobody knew there were dolphins, not even the Kenya Wildlife Service.”
The discovery of humpback whales in the area changed the game, but Spilsbury says she found out about it in a similar casual way.
“It was as easy as talking to a fisherman at the bar and asking if he’d seen humpback whales and he said, ‘Sure, we’ve seen them for 30 years,'” she says.
In 2018, 197 humpback whales were reported in the region.
Courtesy of the Watamu Marine Association
They referred to themselves as “citizen scientists” and began to go into the water together in search of the migrating mammals in order to build up a research database of their sightings.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” admits Spilsbury. “We weren’t scientists, but everyone had their own skills.”
They were on the ground to spot a rich Indo-Pacific dolphin population – and then came the humpback whale sightings.
Over time, they discovered that the whales made pilgrimages past Kenya annually between July and September and traveled from the waters of Antarctica to Somalia to reproduce.
And so another tourism industry was born; one that is anchored on posters of the pristine white beaches and azure waters of the Kenyan coast, and now the strange image of a humpback whale leaping out of the water.
Their main platform for gathering information is a WhatsApp group that was set up to encourage locals to regularly report sightings and strandings of marine mammals.
Between May 2011 and December 2019, the group, which now has 100 members, reported a total of 1,511 sightings.
In 2014, the team got a boost with the arrival of Michael Mwang’ombe, a young self-taught artist from Taita, southeastern Kenya.
Mwang’ombe, who was also unscientific, had spent his school years formulating a plan for marine research and had arrived in Watamu to begin working with sea turtles.
After meeting Spilsbury and learning about the research being done, he convinced her to let him help with the data collection.
“I remember seeing dolphins for the first time. I can’t explain the emotions I felt at the time,” he says.
“But then I was a little disappointed with the whales because we were taught in school that they are vicious and dangerous and huge.”
Work with locals
Spilsbury and her team have documented at least 24 species of whales and dolphins in the area.
When Mwang’ombe returned home, he was disappointed with the reaction from locals when he spoke of Watamu’s amazing marine life.
“I came back very excited and told people about my experience, but nobody believed me, even with the pictures,” he says.
“They thought I had downloaded them from the internet. That moment changed my life – when I realized these people near the coast had no idea what was going on out there.
“People asked if whales were eating people or if they were attacking people. I knew this was going to be my next challenge – educating the locals.”
Mwang’ombe set out to work with local fishermen and teach them how to harness the whale and dolphin populations as potential sources of income for tourism.
Between 2016 and 2018, the fishermen were equipped with cameras and asked to take pictures of whale watching at sea to aid the team’s research.
“People called me all the time, they loved it. It’s just these simple things that make me realize the value of my work,” says Mwang’ombe.
“And from a community that doesn’t really trust anyone – they’ve tried before to be led into a new age when they don’t want to.
“For us, it’s about listening to them and making suggestions instead of forcing them to do anything.”
The local Hemingways Watamu hotel soon got on board, offered and paid for a boat for the team to take tourists on whale watching tours.
According to Spilsbury, this means that research and sightseeing tours are one and the same, which is a novel experience for tourists.
Fishermen also rely on providing updates – a simple WhatsApp message when they see action, so the boat knows where to go.
“Whales to wildebeest”
Travelers have chosen to visit Watamu specifically for its whales.
Courtesy of the Watamu Marine Association
Over the years, the country’s tourism and research efforts have grown hand in hand. Both international and local tourists flocked to Watamu to see humpback whales.
As a result, Spilsbury was able to convince the Kenya Tourism Board to test the marketing nickname “Twin Migration – Whales to Wildebeest” for size, as both performed at the same time of year.
Up until then, the country’s white sandy beaches were often a rare companion for international tourists on safari vacations.
The migratory months have usually been off-season for the coast as strong offshore winds blow in kelp covering the pristine beaches.
But this seasonal lull is experiencing an upswing carried by the whales.
197 humpback whales were reported in the area in 2018, the highest number on record.
Due to environmental conditions, that number dropped to just 35 in 2019, but sightings in 2019 have risen again.
In August, the Hemingways team only had one whale-watching trip that resulted in no mammal sightings.
Most of these trips have been populated by local tourists as international tourists are difficult to pinpoint despite Kenya’s relatively low cases of coronavirus amid the pandemic.
Domestic tourism bonus
Melinda Rees, general manager at Hemingways Watamu, says the pandemic has “forced Kenyans to explore their own country and they are realizing how amazing it is”.
Before Covid and whales, the hotel would be occupied to 20% at this time of year, which is mainly due to the unsightly algae.
This September, however, the occupancy was 80 to 100%, with the bookings being made almost exclusively by local tourists.
“We’re geared to have both markets in Kenya. If one goes missing, it’s a real challenge,” Rees says. While domestic tourism was a huge bonus, reinvesting in the hotel was not an option this year.
And while the emergence of tourism has been encouraging to Spilsbury, it continues to focus on research and conservation efforts. The team has now documented 24 species of whales and dolphins in the area.
They have also been “welcomed” by the global scientific community by being invited to international marine mammal symposiums and receiving regular external funding.
“The scientists say this is really local and important data and has incredible value,” says Spilsbury.
“And here we are, ordinary people with ordinary skills.”
Spilsbury, who is at the forefront of the country’s growing marine tourism industry and who worked for the UK government’s legal service before packing and moving overseas, believes she will see the rest of her days in Kenya as “too much to do” . “
“The locals didn’t even know where Watamu was [before]”she adds.” But now there is a big shift. It is exciting.”