Tag Archives: Watamu

The joy of a small bright dot of light

There it is!

The anticipation is part of the excitement: who will see it first? where? when? We stand up on our beach house’s roof deck, scanning the night sky, enjoying the breeze and the sound of the surf and the fading light of the setting sun illuminating the palm trees around us. Waiting for the predicted time, looking around, anticipating.

Then someone spots it: a small dot near the horizon. Everyone looks, points, calls “I see it!” We watch as it travels across the sky, getting brighter as it moves. We talk about what it means, and we recall previous times we’ve seen it. It fades as it moves towards the far horizon and we move off to enjoy the rest of the evening. It never fails to put a smile on my face.

For years, we’ve been spotting the ISS (the International Space Station) from our holiday home on the Kenyan coast. Whenever we’re there, I check to see if it will be visible and get the family to take some time to watch it fly overhead. I’ll usually look up who’s on the station crew at the time and any tidbits of information about experiments, spacewalks, etc.

There’s a great feeling of being connected. We’re on the edge of water and land, spending our days walking along that edge and going back and forth from the sea to the land. We’re standing on Earth and looking up at the stars, seeing other human beings traveling in a massive achievement of human engineering and technology. The fact that we can see it from where we stand is just terrific – no binoculars or telescope needed. It has also become something of a tradition: every holiday we make a plan for a space station viewing on our roof deck.

In one sense, it’s an unexciting non-event: a dot of light crossing the sky. In another, however, it’s a connection between us and one of the greatest achievements of the human species. What an event to enjoy on a beach holiday!

image credit: Stephen Rahn – Flickr, licensed CC-BY-NC

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!

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.