Clear skies and calm seas. Perfect (if slightly unusual for this time of year!) weather to go searching for whales. Humpback whales migrate up to 25,000km every year from their summer feeding grounds in the polar regions to the tropics. In the tropics they mate and give birth during the winter in warmer and safer waters. Luckily for us, Kenya is on the list of places humpbacks like to pass through.
Unbelievably, within half an hour of heading offshore, we saw huge sprays of white foamy water in the distance - an unmistakable sign of whales breaching. Anticipation levels suddenly skyrocketed and we were all on edge, willing our faithful little Bardan to go faster!
Suddenly, while we were all focused on the horizon ahead, a big, black dorsal fin sliced through the water less than 30m from the boat. A split second later came the hollow reverberating sound of the blow as the whale released its last breath and took another, sending a misty spray several metres into the air.
Springing into action, we marked a waypoint on our GPS (so that humpback whale researchers can pinpoint the exact location of the sighting later), and started Photo ID, a research method where we take photos of the dorsal fin and undersides of tail flukes and even the pectoral fins if possible. The shape of the dorsal fin, and the pigmentation on the underside of the flukes and fins is as unique as a human fingerprint so can be used to identify individuals.
Two hours, 200+ photos and one awesome experience later, we had a solid basis for believing that we had a mother and juvenile in front of us. The data collected from the day will go to the East Africa Humpback Whale Network, which stretches from Kenya to Mozambique. Last year thanks to the network, 1,989 whales were spotted off East Africa from 33 locations; data collected contributes to a better understanding of migration routes, population size, behaviour and potential threats. How amazing to have been part of that effort.