Treasures Of The Sea. Watamu, Kenya

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Snorkelling in Watamu, Kenya

(Published first in Outlook Traveller, Oct 2016)

“It is no problem my friend. You just jump”, declares the snorkelling guide gesticulating wildly towards the ocean. We are about a kilometre from the Watamu coastline in Kenya and he has forgotten the life jackets.

I stare at him through the smudgy snorkelling mask, and try to grimace. But my mouth is already twisted awkwardly on the breathing piece, through which I hear myself breathing hard.

I have flippered, cold feet. I am not sure if the rocking of the anchored boat on the choppy waters is making me giddy or his absurd suggestion.

But I had, in an impulsive airport-buy bought the latest GoPro especially for this underwater event and I have to make it look good.

The tiny camera is at the ready, encased in its waterproof housing, stringed tightly around my right hand wrist.

“Are you going or what? he says with something of a rising irritation. I take the proffered ring buoy and descend into the Indian Ocean.

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The zebra fish mill about for any scrap of bread the boatmen throws

Clasping that buoy for dear life with one hand, the other clinching the GoPro, I keep my head down for over an hour until the guide wriggles up with the creatures of the ocean and coerces me back aboard.

It isn’t  as if I had not been surprised before in Africa. Five years ago I had made an impulsive trip to Zanzibar from Tanzania with my fiancé. I had read about the archipelago’s ancient trade routes that ferried slaves and spices but no one told me about the dazzling beaches, the centenarian giant tortoises and other marine life.

Indeed, when you think of Africa you seldom think beyond the ‘Big Five’. At best you picture the marauding wildebeest and zebra herds. Africa as the place of pristine soft sand beaches and turquoise waters that hides incredible marine life, or Africa as a place of our origin with evolutionary links dating back to 17 millions years, (Proconsul fossil housed in Nairobi Museum) is lost in the mad touristy ticking –the- animals-off-the-list game.

In Africa, the spectacular terrestrial creatures overwhelm the senses completely and anything else on the continent is just a bonus.

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The snorkelling guide showed off some diving stunts

Just a few days before in Maasai Mara and Lewa Downs we had had our moments with the Big Five in the less than half hour of the airstrip to camp drive by. But there were no herds. It’s an awful time to visit the savannahs when the herds are gone. It was late December and having grazed up the Mara plains, the wildebeests and zebras had swept across to the wider expanse of the Serengeti.

And as if to make up for the missing zebras, the Watamu reef below me bubbles with zebra fish, named so for their black and white stripes. With every bread morsel the boatman chucks into the ocean- not recommended, since this interferes with the fish’s regular feeding patterns- schools of zebra fish appear from nowhere, gobbling up the morsels greedily.

The Indian Ocean stretching from South East Asia to East Africa is an astonishing cornucopia of marine life. But unfortunately compared to the other oceans there hasn’t be an adequate research on its species, many of whom, scientists believe, still lie undiscovered and many that could be going extinct in the havoc of climate change, vanishing without documentation.

Circulating in labyrinthine coils in that distance are the ocean currents. Therefore any rubbish emanating in the Indian coast can wash up on the beaches of East Africa and visa versa . “We have been doing some research. We haven’t so far got any rubbish from India but we have from Malaysia and Thailand. So its really interesting how the currents work”, says Steve Trott a marine zoologist, Chairman of Watamu Marine Association.

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In the tropics nutrient deficient waters, you can see a long distance off in the ocean

The water is nutrient deficient in the tropics making for great underwater viewing. In Watamu, you can’t just wade into the ocean from the beach and find the corals in the shallows, as you can in the beaches of Indonesia or the Maldives. Here you have to take a boat a kilometre or two into the ocean to hit a reef.

The reef I hover over, mainly has boulder brain corals. These, as the name suggests, are brain-shaped with many tiny rifts, ridges and valleys in which tiny fish seem to play hide and seek. Because of their slow growth and sturdy shape, they are somewhat resistant to coral bleaching compared to the other delicate corals. Coral bleaching is a phenomenon triggered by global warming. The warm waters force the corals to expel the algae living on it. The corals then look white or bleached. The El Nino event in 1998 had bleached almost 70 percent of the corals in East Africa save the boulder brain corals.

The marine wildlife to really look out for in Watamu waters is the green and the hawksbill turtles. But as elsewhere in the world, rampant beach development is encroaching on their traditional egg laying sites on Watamu beaches. Evolution has designed the hatchlings to make for the ocean as fast as possible using the light of the horizon as a beacon. But the bright lights of the resorts confuse making them waddle the wrong way, becoming easy prey to predators.

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In Watamu, they take you a kilometre or so from the coast for diving

A visit to Watamu is incomplete without exploring the Mida Creek. It’s a 32 square kilometres tidal inlet that comprises a mangrove forest. There is a boardwalk that takes you through this forest. Its not the sort of polished primed boardwalk you have at Santosa, Singapore. Here wooden planks are strung together in a rough and ready way, with many of them missing and many rotting. Some of the heavier members in our group worry about crashing the planks as they wobble, flailing at the rope railing.

At the end of the boardwalk is a bird-viewing platform from where one can feast ones eyes on a host of migratory birds fleeing the  European winter. Flamingoes congregate in huge numbers in the vast mudflats fringing the creek. However in the midday sun we see only a smattering of birds. “If you come one hour before high tide you can see a great aggregation of sea birds. They say it’s the largest aggregation of sea birds in east Africa. They number over ten thousand and more. September to April is the best time to come. You just need to time the tide”, says John our guide.

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A visit to Watamu is incomplete without a visit to the Mida Creek

We descend on the mudflats to reach our dugout boats anchored in the shallows. The walk forms a fascinating 20-minute study in marine biology. Every now and then John swoops down to dig out or point an invertebrate. He scoops up a triangular shaped organism. It’s a razor fish and like most organism here, it’s a mollusk with a razor sharp shell.

“They say one square meter of this mudflat has the same energy as a full chocolate bar. I mean there are so many organism living here”, he says patting the loamy earth where we see nothing. But he scoops up the earth from right under and points to some squiggly, squirming organisms, exclaiming excitedly, ”See its so full of life. See”.

The dugout boat is made out of the hollowed out trunk of the Boabab tree, a bottle shaped tree that dots the coast liberally. You sit one behind the other in the narrow hold with the boatman rowing with a long pole behind you. And as our boats move the boatmen sing.

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The dugout ride in the creek is surreal

There may yet be a lot to sing about in this part of Africa which is comparatively serene and unpolluted but it is not exactly safe from the scourge  of overdevelopment. Biggest danger to marine biosphere in Watamu, as elsewhere, apart from climate change, is overfishing. For example the overfishing of the predator fish and mollusks often leads to the proliferation of sea urchins here. The sea urchins then feed on sea grass unchecked. This destabilizes the sea bed, leading to more wave action. With no buffer the waves erode the beaches. And so it goes.

But many marine conservation organisations such as Watamu Marine Association have stepped up to the challenge and from waste management, to recycling to educating the fishermen, they are fighting to protect the unique marine biosphere of East Africa so it becomes more than just an off beat destination for the African traveller.

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The boardwalk at the Mida Creek is just some planks put together in a rough and ready way.

How to get there.

Kenya Airways has two flights daily to Nairobi from Mumbai. From Nairobi one can take the Safarilink aircraft to Malindi. Watamu is over 20 kilometers from Malindi by road.

Where to stay.

Watamu is just like any other beach town. All the crowded markets selling touristy bric-a-brac are inland, while the fancy resorts and hotels face the sea. At the high end is the Madina Palms built with persian architectural elements. It is situated a stone’s throw from Watamu beach. Budget tourists can find the cosy Hossana Guesthouse welcoming, though its on the Watamu main road and a bit of a walk from the beach.




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Fascinating marine life exists on the coast, like this razor fish.

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But unfortunately most travellers have eyes only for these big guys.

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