Home » The British lawyer who discovered whales in Kenya

The British lawyer who discovered whales in Kenya

by newsking24

(CNN) — Up till not too long ago, most vacationers, and even some locals, had no inkling of the aquatic mammals that occupy or cross by way of Kenya’s waters.

Known as a safari vacation spot, with the wildebeest migration within the Maasai Mara between July and September thought-about its pinnacle, the African nation’s expansive marine life was one thing solely fishermen knew the true extent of.

But largely due to the efforts of a former lawyer from London, the nation now has a burgeoning marine tourism business, with vacationers looking for out the coastal city of Watamu, situated 140 kilometers north of Mombasa, for its humpback whales.

The tide started to show round 10 years in the past, when Jane Spilsbury, who had been dwelling in Watamu together with her marine biologist husband for a number of years, started listening to tales from native fishermen of dolphin and whales sightings.

Determined to show their existence, the pair spent six months boarding native fishing boats armed with just some scraps of paper and an affordable digicam in an effort to doc and {photograph} any seen proof.

Whale looking for

Jane Spilsbury spent months recording whales sightings in coastal city Watamu, Kenya after studying of their existence from native fishermen.

Jane Spilsbury

“We literally came from a point of zero information and zero awareness, it seems ridiculous to imagine that nobody knew that the dolphins or whales existed here,” Spilsbury tells CNN.

The Spilsburys went on to assist discovered the Watamu Marine Association — a collaboration between lodges, native fishermen, divers and different members of the general public — in 2007.

Their intention was to simplify communication channels, in addition to work on conservation, however the pair discovered they have been continually being requested in regards to the nation’s marine life.

“People were asking us about our whale and dolphin situation in Kenya, and we just didn’t know because the cost involved in researching mammals was way too expensive,” she explains.

“So we spoke with some boat operators, and asked them ‘when you take people out snorkeling what else do you see?’ And they said ‘well, there’s dolphins out there too.’

“We have been amazed, as a result of no-one knew there have been dolphins on the market, not even the Kenya Wildlife Service.”

The discovery of humpback whales in the area has been a game changer, but Spilsbury says she learned about them in a similar casual way.

“It was so simple as speaking to a fisherman on the bar and asking if he’d seen any humpback whales and he stated ‘Sure, we have seen them for 30 years.'” she says.

‘Citizen scientists’

Finding whales in Kenya - images from Watamu Marine Association

197 humpback whales have been reported within the space in 2018.

Courtesy Watamu Marine Association

Labeling themselves “citizen scientists,” they began hitting the waters together in search of the migratory mammals, building a research database of their sightings.

“We did not actually know what we have been doing,” Spilsbury admits. “We weren’t scientists, however we every had our personal set of expertise.”

They were floored to discover a bountiful Indo-Pacific dolphin population — and then came the humpback whale sightings.

Over time, they were able to discern that the whales were making an annual pilgrimage past Kenya between July and September, traveling from the waters of Antarctica to Somalia to reproduce.

And so another tourism industry was born; one anchored on posters of the pristine, white beaches and azure waters of the Kenyan coast, and now, the odd image of a humpback whale leaping out of the water.

Their main information gathering platform is a WhatsApp group 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, with records and databases growing haphazardly, the team received a boost with the arrival of Michael Mwang’ombe, a young self-taught scientist from Taita in south eastern Kenya.

Mwang’ombe, who wasn’t scientifically trained either, had spent his high school years formulating a plan to get into marine research work and arrived in Watamu to begin working with sea turtles.

After meeting Spilsbury and learning of the research being undertaken, he convinced her to let him help with data collection.

“I keep in mind my first time seeing dolphins, I am unable to clarify the emotion that I felt then,” he says.

“But then with the whales, I used to be a bit disillusioned, as a result of in class we have been taught that they have been vicious and harmful and large.”

Working with locals

Researcher Jane Spilsbury and her team collecting data on whale sightings in Watamu, Kenya

Spilsbury and her group have documented at the very least 24 species of whales and dolphins within the space.

Jane Spilsbury

When Mwang’ombe returned house, he was disillusioned by the response from locals when he spoke of Watamu’s implausible marine life.

“I got here again all excited and was telling folks about my expertise however no-one believed me, even with the photographs,” he says.

“They thought I’d downloaded them from the Internet. That second modified my life — realizing these people who find themselves near the coast had no concept what was taking place on the market.

“People were asking if whales eat people, or if they attacked people. I knew this would be my next challenge — educating the locals.”

Mwang’ombe set about working with native fishermen and instructing them leverage the whale and dolphin populations as potential revenue streams for tourism.

Between 2016 and 2018, the fishermen have been supplied with cameras and requested to snap footage of any whale sightings whereas out at sea in an effort to support the group’s analysis.

“People were calling me all the time, they were loving it. It’s just these simple things that make me see the value of the work that I do,” Mwang’ombe says.

“And this from a community that doesn’t really trust anyone — they’ve tried to be directed into a new age before, when they don’t want that.

“For us it is about listening to them and giving them solutions, relatively than forcing them to do something.”

Local resort Hemingways Watamu soon came onboard, offering the team a boat and paying them to take tourists out on whale watching trips.

According to Spilsbury, this means research and sightseeing trips are one and the same, which is a novel experience for tourists.

The fishermen are also relied on to provide updates — a simple WhatsApp message if they see any action, so the boat knows where to head.

‘Whales to Wildebeest’

Finding whales in Kenya - photos from Watamu Marine Association

Travelers have been choosing to visit Watamu specifically for its whales.

Courtesy Watamu Marine Association

Over the years, the country’s tourism and research efforts have grown hand-in-hand. Both international and domestic tourists began flocking to Watamu for the chance of seeing humpback whales.

As a result, Spilsbury was able to convince the Kenya Tourism Board to try out the marketing moniker “Twin Migration — Whales to Wildebeest” for size, due to both occurring at the same time of year.

Up until that point, the nation’s white sand beaches were often an infrequent tag-on for international tourists on safari holidays.

The migration months were typically low season for the coast, as strong offshore winds blow in seaweed that coats the pristine beaches.

But this seasonal lull is experiencing an upswing, buoyed by the whales.

In 2018, 197 humpback whales were reported in the area, the highest number since records began.

That dropped to just 35 in 2019, due to environmental conditions, but sightings in 2019 have soared once again.

In August, the team at Hemingways had only one whale watching trip that failed to sight any mammals.

Most of these trips were populated by domestic tourists, as international tourists remain elusive in the midst of the pandemic, despite Kenya’s relatively low coronavirus cases.

Domestic tourism bonus

Melinda Rees, general manager at Hemingways Watamu, says the pandemic has “compelled Kenyans to discover their very own nation, and so they’re realizing how superb it’s.”

Pre-Covid, and whales, the hotel would experience 20% occupancy at this time of year, largely due to the unsightly seaweed.

But this September, occupancy levels were hitting 80 to 100%, with bookings almost exclusively from domestic tourists.

“We’re geared to having each markets in Kenya, if one disappears it creates an actual problem,” Rees says, noting that while domestic tourism has been a huge bonus, reinvestment into the hotel hasn’t been possible this year.

And while the advent of tourism has been heartening for Spilsbury, she remains focused on research and conservation efforts. The team has now documented 24 species of whales and dolphins in the area.

They’ve also been “embraced” by the global scientific community, fielding invitations to international marine mammal symposiums and receiving regular external funding.

“The scientists are saying that is actually native and vital information and it has unimaginable worth,” Spilsbury says.

“And right here we’re, simply peculiar folks with peculiar expertise.”

Now at the helm of the country’s growing marine tourism industry, Spilsbury, who worked for the UK government’s legal service before packing up and moving overseas, believes she’ll see out the rest of her days in Kenya, as “there’s an excessive amount of to do.”

“Local folks did not even know the place Watamu was [before],” she adds. “But there’s an enormous shift now. It’s thrilling.”

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