Tag Archives: Kenya

One in a thousand

a baby green sea turtle

The scramble starts instantaneously. Tangled in a horde of siblings, she climbs and claws her way to the top. There, light and air tell her that she’s free to go and up and out she goes. Standing on her brothers and sisters, she scrambles up and out. There, she breaks into a frantic run through the sand, climbing over shells and seaweed until she reaches the water. Once there, she breaks into a top-speed swim through the crashing surf out into the open water.

She has a one in a thousand chance of making it.

Watamu is one of the most important turtle nesting sites in Kenya, and hundreds of green sea turtles lay their nests on the beach each year. Each nest has around a hundred eggs in it. With those success odds, only a handful of adult turtles will come out of each year’s crop of nests on the beach.

Helping the odds are the Watamu Turtle Watch, a nonprofit organization who monitor, record and assist with nesting and hatching turtles, as well as with adult turtles caught accidentally (or not) in nets or injured in various ways. They monitor the nests and assist at the hatching to help the turtles avoide the beach dangers of crabs, seagulls and more. By helping the turtles reach the sea unharmed, they improve their odds of success somewhat. They also help by educating locals and visitors about the turtles – spreading information about these wonderful endangered animals and helping them be valued as more than a meal.

baby turtles scramble from their nest

We had the good fortune to witness a hatching just in front of our house. Hundreds of baby turtles came out of a nest just above the high tide mark in the twilight hours and made their way to the Indian Ocean. (The nest had been relocated to the spot by the Turtle Watch. With erosion on the beach, most turtles can’t make it up the meter-high sand cliff that lines much of the beach. The Watch monitors the egg laying turtles and when a clutch gets laid in an area that might become exposed to predators by the surf, they dig up the eggs and put them higher up away from the sea.)

Watching the hatchlings scramble through the sand and the washed-up piles of sea grass, it’s hard not to marvel at the animals furiously making their way to the water. These tiny baby reptiles, with their first exposure to the elements, are programmed to quickly get themselves into the (somewhat) safe environment of the ocean. In the process, they have to avoid obstacles and predators, climb over driftwood and piles of sea grass leaves much larger than themselves, even navigate the pitfalls of beach erosion. This particular bale of turtles had to start with a tumble down a meter-high sheer cliff of sand, a fall over ten times their own length.

It’s a thrill to see creatures start out their life, and a joy to be able to assist in a slight way, protecting them from at least a few predators and helping them survive through their first few meters of life’s journey. What a wonderful start to a beach holiday!

Wild about dogs

Wild dogs “I’ve got something special for you!” Sophie grinned broadly as she hurried us into the Land Rover. We needed little encouragement: when your safari guide is excited about something, so are you!

As we set off, Sophie explained. Wild dogs had been spotted just outside the national reserve’s Oloololo Gate – very near the camp where we were staying. She has seen wild dogs near her home, about an hour away, but she’d never seen dogs near the park. This would be a first!

We set off, bouncing over the rocky track. Only a few minutes away, we saw them on the other side of the stream, very near the road. There were two of them, running up the hillside away from the stream.

We drove up and killed the engine. There were a number of zebra about, but they didn’t seem concerned. The dogs didn’t look interested: they were trotting along the grass up the hill. Then they turned and crossed the road – right in front of our car.

Dogs crossing the road

They ambled off, then one of them stopped and turned. The nearest zebra snorted, and then started trotting – towards the dog! The dog turned and they both took off, with the zebra running after them. Wild dogs are fierce and effective predators – it was a weird sight to see them being chased off by what should have been a frightened prey animal!

Zebra chasing dog

We watched them as they trotted up the hill. They zig-zagged between the rocks and trees, then eventually reached the crest and went over to the other side of the hill. The three or four other cars that were parked on the road, watching the dogs, started up and headed off to the gate. We sat and chatted for a bit about dogs and the park.

Wild dog

Wild dogs (properly the African Wild Dog, also called Painted Wolves) are very rare in the Masai Mara – many sources say there are no dogs in the park. Although they are effective hunters, they have been wiped out in the Mara by Canine Distemper Virus, which spread through their population from domesticated dogs in the area. Although they are a completely different genus & species (Lycaon pictus) from domesticated dogs, they are vulnerable to various canine diseases.

After a few minutes, we noticed impala running over the top of the hill towards us, leaping through the grass. Something had set them up – they were moving very quickly. Then we saw them: the dogs were coming back! They were chasing the impala, looking for their morning breakfast!

Impala running

The impala ran parallel to the road, moving forward over the crest of a hill. We drove up to have a better view. The impala ran through a big grassy field and on into a wooden thicket. The dogs came after, dodging and trying to cut out one of the impalas. Then they stopped short and looked off towards the woods. A hyena had come ambling up – obviously hoping to gain from any kill the dogs made. The dogs lost interest in the impala and started chasing the hyena, who turned tail and ran into the woods. We watched and waited, hoping we could see when they left the woods. A couple of other vehicles had come up  and had seen a bit of the dogs. The drivers chatted a bit, and then the other vehicles drove off. We waited.

We’d talked with Sophie about the different types of guests on safaris. Some are interested in ticking things off their list: they get to where an animal is, stop and take a few photos and then drive on. Others want to sit and linger, watching the animals’ behavior and enjoying the sounds and environment. We definitely were in that group. We were quite happy to sit and wait for a while, hoping we’d see more of these animals.

Stalking

“There they are!” As we were starting to give up, we spotted them: they were on the far hillside, still chasing off the hyena. We drove off to get closer. We caught up with them in a grassy field just above the gate. They had lost interest in the hyena and seemed to be scoping out the territory. There were topi down near the gate and the dogs started stalking them. The topi quickly took off, leaping and running. The dogs didn’t give chase, but turned and started ambling off away from the gate, back up the hill. We watched as they moved off. At one point they gave chase to another herd of impalas, but again lost interest and made no kill. A couple of park rangers came up and chatted with Sophie about the dogs – where we’d seen them, what they’d been doing.

Topi running away

The rangers drove off and tried to keep closer tabs on the dogs, but we had had our fill. The dogs were doing what came naturally: ranging the area, chasing prey. They didn’t seem too desperate to make a kill that morning – although there were only two, they certainly could take down an impala. Perhaps they’d eaten recently and weren’t too much in need of food. They seemed to be willing to take an easy kill but weren’t going to work too hard for it.

We headed off and enjoyed the rest of the morning in the park. Although we saw some other fantastic sights – from impressive rhinos to common but charming mongoose – nothing really came close to the time we spent watching and following the dogs.

Wild dogs

More safari photos

Sea safari

Perhaps the most striking thing is the sound. A sharp puffing breath as air bursts out, repeated over and over. I suppose I should have expected it – on reflection I can’t think why it surprised me, but it did. So we sat and gently rocked with the swells and watched in awe and delight. The repeated “puhhh” “puhhh”  reminding us that these animals lived in the water but had to leave it repeatedly to keep on living.

The first day of the new year was a perfect day to go dolphin-watching. My niece was turning nine years old and a combined dolphin-watch and snorkeling expedition was a great way to celebrate. The early start was a challenge to some of us who’d been up late seeing in the new year, but we all put on a brave face and headed out. We’d hired a glass-bottom boat and it was waiting, moored by the beach just in front of our house. That the name Milennium is still being used in 2013 raised no eyebrows amongst us or the crew. The engines fired reliably and off we went.

We headed straight out from the house and went through the mlango – the gap in the coral reef that gave us access to the deep ocean. The change in the water was noticeable, as the swells caused the boat to roll slightly, but the sea bottom didn’t drop away. We still watched the thalassadendron sea grass slide below the window in the floor of the boat. I went to the roof of the boat and joined the children in the sun as we scanned the water for dolphins.

The voyage quickly took on the cast of a safari game drive. The skipper kept the engine running smoothly but not quickly as we slowly cruised along, with the spotter on the roof looking for tell-tale signs of game – and all the family doing the same. The skipper’s phone rang and he chatted in Kiswahili with another skipper, asking where he’d seen the dolphins (pomboo) earlier. Like the tour buses in the Masai Mara, the boat skippers here all share info on the best game-viewing spots. We passed a fishing boat, hailing the fishermen who gave their own input – they hadn’t seen any dolphins that morning.

“There!” The spotter called out, pointing off towards shore. We all looked and pointed as we spotted them. It was difficult to focus and spot anything with the sun glinting off the small choppy waves. Fins and gray backs appeared and disappeared in a rhythmic, arching motion. We could see a few dozen dolphins in three groups just outside the reef. We cruised closer and cut the engines – and that’s when we heard them breathing. “Puhhh.” “Puhhh.”

It’s amazing to think of these animals that live in the water but cannot breathe in the water. They spend their whole lives – eating, playing, mating, sleeping – in a medium that would kill them if they were unable to leave it. So they swim close to the surface, edging out of their water home into the air every time they have to breathe – like human swimmers, pacing their breaths between each stroke. Evolution is an incredible thing. Marine mammals are just so illogical. Imagine if we couldn’t breathe the air, but had to dip our heads into the water and suck in water every time we had to breathe.

We watched them swimming and playing. Occasionally one would breach, jumping into the air and falling back into the water. Sometimes a tail would emerge, flapping its flukes against the surface of the water. Adults and children alike were enthralled – choruses of “look!” and “did you see…?” accompanied eager finger-pointing. Everyone had a big grin on their face. There really is something quite special about watching animals in the wild. Apart from the delightful spectacle of seeing animals in person that we’re used to seeing on television or film, it is quite special to have the chance to watch them act naturally in their home environment.