Zanzibar Humpback Research: The Whales Have Arrived!

A humpback breaches near Zanzibar.

So patience is a virtue as they say. After nine days on land due to the rough weather we took to carrying out some land-based surveys before finally experiencing what we had been waiting for; on 15th July the first humpback whales of the season arrived!

Kristin spotted a blow over 100 metres away. It was in fact a pair of whales and they were resting at the surface during the majority of the encounter. Seeing the whales in the flesh really makes us seem so small in comparison.

It was an exciting day, so much so that amidst all the excitement Rachael and Lucy were seasick as the whales (who didn’t seem to mind!) swam by. Fortunately their sea legs are now good and strong. One heck of a first encounter!

One of many aspects to cetacean conservation we're addressing here is the dolphin tourism. The local fishermen used to hunt the dolphins for their meat and to use them as bait in the long-line fishery.

Tourism replaced the hunting of dolphin in Zanzibar, but now there are other concerns.

However, in 1997 this activity was replaced by locally run dolphin tourism. This was a huge step forward for conservation of dolphins and one of few areas in the world where a dolphin hunt has been replaced with tourism.

Unfortunately, the way that the tourim is conducted cause stress to the dolphins. Our previous studies have shown that unregulated tourism can have negative effects on both individual dolphins and the populations as a whole, especially if the animals are frequently disturbed during critical behaviours such as breeding, foraging or resting.

We have provided guidelines for best practise (in both English and the local language Swahili), organised many Workshops and training activities and helped establish the Kizimkazi Dolphin Tour Operators Association (KIDOTOA) in collaboration with the Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS), but we still need to help the local operators change the way they run their boats and behave around the animals to create a sustainable activity.

The tourist boats are even beginning to follow humpback whales now that they have arrived. This is extremely dangerous due to their large size and active nature (they can easily capsize a small tourist boat). So, we have even more work on our hands!

The enthusiastic research crew in action! Photo: Peter Bennett

We have had a very busy week indeed on top of all the beginning whale encounters. Kristin almost drove herself crazy looking for the hydrophone digital recorder this week. Last minute re-packing had led to it actually being left at home in Sweden!

Her brother Oskar quickly sent it with express delivery to Zanzibar. Sadly it is now stuck in Dar es Salaam and we are wondering if we will ever see it again. The village has also had plenty of celebrations with two of Mwalimo’s daughters getting married, in addition to the wedding of one of Khamis’ fourteen siblings, who is Foum’s father.

Foum makes the tastiest pilau (a local rice dish) in Kizimkazi and was cooking for the whole wedding party, we were lucky enough to taste this after the wedding – definitely the meal of the week!

Veggie Rach missed out and had fruit salad. However, it was not only a week for celebrating, but also for commiserating. Juma Kifana’s uncle passed away and the funeral was held almost immediately.

Amongst all this, fishermen have started to report lots of whales. We received many phone calls on the same day as the funeral, but obviously didn’t go out and survey.

It’s good to know that the fishermen are interested in helping our project. They really do make a difference and we are very grateful for their help.

As the days go by, we are beginning to be surrounded by whales.

They are literally everywhere and we cannot wait to get stuck into the season ahead!

-- PB

For more information about the International Fund for Animal Welfare effort to protect whales around the world, visit 

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