Chasing whales and catching kingfish – Kenya’s marine life makes for an epic sea safari

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Catch of the day: Writer Sadie Whitelocks with a kingfish

Sadly, it’s not a whale but there is a frenzy of excitement on the boat as one of our fishing lines pulls tight.

A young deckhand wrestles with the line and, with one final tug, a 4 ft-long kingfish flips and flaps on to the deck.

‘You can take that back to the hotel restaurant and they’ll cook it for dinner,’ Captain Alfred says happily, as he continues his own wrestling match with the barrelling waves.

After admiring our catch, I divert my attention back to trying to spot humpback whales, the main reason I have ventured to Watamu in Kenya.

The waters off the small town, about an hour’s flight from Nairobi, are home to the marine ‘Big Five’. The checklist includes dolphins, sea turtles, rays and sailfish, with the whales being the star attraction.

For decades, local fishermen have known about the graceful creatures congregating in the waters off Watamu during their annual migration from Antarctica. But it was only in 2011 that scientists became aware of the site and a research programme was born.

It is mid-September and I am a little late in the season, as the whales begin their return south in July, after enjoying a few months of sunshine.

But, ever the optimist, I booked a whale-watching trip after hearing that three whales were spotted the day before.

There are 12 of us on the tour and we are warned that the sea might be ‘choppy’. That is how Jane, an infectiously enthusiastic Londoner who moved to Watamu and changed career from lawyer to marine researcher, puts it.

She is right. An hour into the trip and the boat is strewn with pale-faced passengers lying full-length on seats.

We proceed for several hours, with the kingfish catch livening things up a little, then a small pod of bottlenose dolphins leap and weave around us. That’s one to tick off the Big Five list.

Captain Alfred calls to some of his fishermen friends to check if they have seen any whales. Unfortunately they haven’t, so we head to another area where a mother and calf were spotted a few days previously.

‘I hope we can see the whales, although I guess it’s a good reason to come back,’ says Brian, an American expat living in Nairobi, as he joins me on the top deck after tending to his seasick friend below.

The waters off Watamu are home to the marine ‘Big Five’. The checklist includes dolphins, sea turtles, rays and sailfish, with the whales being the star attraction

The waters off Watamu are home to the marine ‘Big Five’. The checklist includes dolphins, sea turtles, rays and sailfish, with the whales being the star attraction

The waters off Watamu are home to the marine ‘Big Five’. The checklist includes dolphins, sea turtles, rays and sailfish, with the whales being the star attraction

Most people on the tour, and at the ocean-hugging Hemingways Watamu resort where I’ve based myself, are from Nairobi, with Kenya’s domestic tourism booming during the coronavirus pandemic. But that all feels a world away as we bounce across the Indian Ocean with a salty breeze keeping us cool. The country is still open to international travellers provided you have a negative PCR test — although of course none of us is meant to be going anywhere at the moment.

After resigning ourselves to a no-show from the whales, we eventually head back to shore.

My partner and I are staying in Watamu in one of Hemingways’ bright and breezy private residences, the result of a multi-million-pound renovation two years ago.

But we hardly make full use of our spacious quarters, with so many activities to keep us busy.

Sadie checked into Hemingways Watamu resort, which had a multi-million-pound renovation two years ago

Sadie checked into Hemingways Watamu resort, which had a multi-million-pound renovation two years ago

Sadie checked into Hemingways Watamu resort, which underwent a multi-million-pound renovation two years ago

After our whale-watching adventure, we go on a snorkelling trip in the Watamu National Marine Park, which was established in 1968 as Kenya’s first such attraction.

I am surprised by the sheer abundance of fish. Black-and- white scissortail sergeants zip inquisitively through the turquoise waters, octopus lurch from the corals, and rays — another of the Big Five — hover timidly above the sands.

Our guide points out an enormous grouper — a stout fish with a huge mouth — camouflaged in the shallows, before his attention is diverted by a regal-looking lionfish.

Tropical paradise: Pictured is one of the Hemingways Watamu bedrooms, which has a spectacular ocean view and easy access to the beach

Tropical paradise: Pictured is one of the Hemingways Watamu bedrooms, which has a spectacular ocean view and easy access to the beach

Tropical paradise: Pictured is one of the Hemingways Watamu bedrooms, which has a spectacular ocean view and easy access to the beach 

TRAVEL FACTS 

B&B doubles at Hemingways Watamu (hemingwayscollection.com) from £233. BA (ba.com) London to Nairobi from £549 return, including the internal flight to Malindi with Jambojet. 

On day four, we tick another creature off our Big Five list with a trip to the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre.

Watamu is home to five species, with the green turtle being the most common — but they are quite shy and consequently difficult to spot. 

We meet Pole, though, a Hawksbill turtle that was impaled on the head by a speargun and rescued by local fishermen.

Taking a break from the ocean, we spend a rainy day exploring Gede, the remains of a 12th-century Swahili village, and then delight in the delicious gelato, pizza and pasta in Watamu town, which had a large influx of Italian residents and is now nicknamed ‘Little Italy’.

Our final night is spent at the much-talked-about Crab Shack, a restaurant set among the mangroves, where I try one of the more unusual delicacies from the Kenyan coast, mangrove oysters.

The molluscs, freshly plucked from the surrounding swamps, are smaller than their ocean-dwelling cousins but have a lovely sweet taste. 

They are best served with a squeeze of lime.

We bump into Jane the marine biologist and she tells me I will definitely have to return to Watamu one day.

Although we had seen three of the Big Five marine stars during our stay, ‘there’s nothing as beautiful as seeing a humpback whale, blowing or showing the flukes of its tail,’ she says, with a glint in her eye.  

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