How local fishermen helped uncover the ‘other’ great migration

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Whale researcher Jane Spilsburg and local fisherman Hassan Makame have been working together to document the whale migration in Kenya. (Image: Joni Els)
Whale researcher Jane Spilsburg and local fisherman Hassan Makame have been working together to document the whale migration in Kenya. (Image: Joni Els)

Every morning at 6:00 am, as the rising sun casts its golden light over Kenya’s east coast, Hassan Makame drags his fishing boat out into the waters of Watamu.

Makame has lived in the small fishing village for most of his life, spending long days out at sea as a fisherman. And this is how he came to know the ocean’s migrating whales.  

Today, the whale migration is one of the greatest tourist attractions along the East African coast, taking place between the months of June and September. Humpback whales feed in Antarctica and then make their way up to the safer, warmer waters of the Indian Ocean to breed and have their calves. 

However, until recently, it was only fishermen like Makame who knew of the whales and their migration patterns. 

Power of the people 

In 2011, when the Watamu Marine Association (WMA) began studying the area’s whales, little was known about the humpbacks and their presence along Kenya’s coast. Their migration came as a surprise to many. 

“There had been no research at all in Kenya or very little research,” explains Jane Spilsbury, a researcher with the Whale Researcher at WMA. “Nobody really believed there were whales or dolphins here at all.” 

With little funding for research, the most reliable sources of information for WMA were the local fisherman and marine users who had already spent decades out in the ocean. 

“We started asking questions among marine users, local fishermen, sports fishermen, about what they are seeing out there, and lo and behold, they told us they were seeing humpback whales, migrating between July and September,” explains Spilsbury.  

“This is where the power of the people really comes in. Because without our fishermen, our marine users, our divers, we wouldn’t have important offshore information.”  

Locals like Makame were eager to lend a hand and a strong dynamic soon formed between fishermen and researchers. When Makame sees a whale out in the water during his days fishing, he immediately calls Jane and reports the sighting, providing valuable insight into the area’s ongoing whale research. 

“I knew Jane was looking for whales and I liked this because I don’t want people to kill them or make them suffer, so we tried to help. When I see whales I am happy. Many times I report to Jane,” Makambe says.  

The twin migration 

Once knowledge of the whale migration started spreading, the local tourism industry recognised a unique opportunity to draw visitors to the coast with the concept of the ‘twin migration.’ With the whale migration taking place at the same time as the famous ‘Great Wildebeest Migration,’ the two marketed together offered a unique experience. 

As news of the migration spread, a growing number of tourists started coming to the coast to witness the spectacular sight of these 18 meter long creatures moving through the water. 

In 2012, 5-star beach hotel, Hemingways Watamu – with the support of research and conservation from WMA and KWS – became the first hotel in Kenya to offer whale-watching excursions.  

“We can offer whale watching along with the local community researchers, so it’s a benefit to both of us,” explains Melinda Rees, manager of Hemingways Watamu Hotel. 

Running the boats is usually very expensive, but by accompanying guests on Hemmingway’s whale tours, whale researchers and conservationists are able to head out into the ocean and monitor the whales. Meanwhile, guests benefit from having by a researcher on board whose knowledge of the ocean mammals adds value to the tour.

Alongside conservation, the growth in whale watching has helped to contribute to Watamu’s growing sustainable tourist activity, in turn working to benefit the local community with an income through eco-tourism. 

And this has provided further incentive for the growth of citizen science and community involvement in the protection of the area’s whales. “For me, I know it is important because of the tourists. They are not coming here to visit our houses, they are coming for nature,” Makame explains. 

Local fisherman inform whale researchers on the mammals’ migratory patterns. (Image: Joni Els)

Looking forward 

However, while whale migration has proved to be a success for local tourism over the last few years, the migration this season has raised some concerns. August is usually the peak season for the whale migration but this year’s sightings have been few and far between. 

“For us, we are only seeing around 4 whales a week, when normally we would be seeing around 10 a day. So we are getting a little bit worried,” says Spilsbury. 

One of the theories for the changing migration patterns is the impact of climate change. As the temperatures in the Antarctic waters rise, crill – the whales main food source – are not growing to full size. Researchers believe that without enough sustenance, whales are now too weak to make the long journey to the east African coast. 

While these are just theories, the effects of climate change and a decline in research funding does bring into question the future of whale conservation. However, Spilsbury remains hopeful, looking to the collaborative nature of the various parties who have come together, united in the cause of whale conservation. 

“As scientists, citizen scientists, marine users, we are all coming together to research and promote ecotourism. Everyone is involved and interested in protecting whales because they are invested.” 

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