Kenya is indeed doubly blessed to have both fantastic terrestrial and underwater wildlife, and after you have seen the former (or perhaps before?) you should definitely not miss the opportunity of seeing the latter. Watamu National Park, together with the Malindi National Park form the Malindi Marine National Reserve on the north coast of Kenya, just 120kms north of Mombasa. The Park encloses and protects several important marine habitats including intertidal rock, sand and mud flats, coral reefs and gardens, pristine beaches and even areas of Mangrove swamps. The various habitats are home to an exceptionally large variety of marine life, from the tiniest little Clown-fish to enormous Wrasse and critically endangered Turtles. Watamu is a brilliant destination for all water-babies, but land-lubbers need not miss out and can see all the action from the comfort of a glass-bottomed boat.
The Coral Reefs and Gardens are without doubt the greatest highlight of this beautiful Marine Park. There are over 150 species of hard and soft corals to be found and you can expect to see good examples of brain corals, fan corals and sponges which attract over 1000 species of fish. The great thing about Watamu is that the fringing reef is just 300m from the shore which makes it really easy for anyone to enjoy this underwater spectacle. The visibility is generally excellent and snorkelers do not even need to go out on a boat to reach the action. For scuba divers there is even more to enjoy, with up to 20 prime dive sites to explore within a 30min boat ride. If you like to keep your feet dry you can see quite a bit of the beautiful corals and marine life from a glass-bottomed boat. Some of the best spots to visit include:
The Larder is a collection of corals at the North end of the lagoon where boats can moor and is well-known for sightings of huge fish shoals – a great introduction to the Park.
The Coral Gardens consist of a 100m stretch of coral heads at the edge of the lagoon where about 250 species of fish are found; this is the most popular spot for boat-based snorkelling trips.
The Turtle Reefs are probably one of the best dive spots with a great variety of fish species and forms an important protected area for divers when windy conditions make it unpleasant to venture beyond the reef.
Just a few of the myriad of the marine creatures you can expect to see include Parrot-fish and Star-fish, Angelfish, Wrasses, Moray Eels, Sea-urchins, Anemones and Lobsters.
The beaches of the Watamu National Park are not only great for people to enjoy but are also an extremely important breeding ground for Turtles. The beaches are very well patrolled and there are several programs in place to protect this national treasure. One of these is an incentive scheme to persuade fishermen who accidently catch Turtles in their nets to release their catch so that volunteers can measure and tag the endangered creatures. In addition there is a Nest Monitoring Program and a Rehabilitation Centre for sick or injured Turtles as well as a Community Education System. The area is chiefly a haven for nesting Green Turtles but there are increasing numbers of Olive Ridley and Hawksbill Turtles venturing into the area.
The Mida Creek Mangrove Forest is an important birding area and forms an essential habitat for many migrant waders from Palearctic areas such as North Africa, Europe and Asia. The Mangrove swamps also function as a breeding and nursery ground for various fish species and are home to extensive sea grass beds.
The main emphasis at Watamu is on enjoying the underwater spectacle. There are several Dive Schools, based just outside the National Park, who offer lessons and diving excursions to the best dive spots in the Watamu – Malindi National Reserve. Snorkelers can experience the reefs directly off the beach or, for more variety, take a boat excursion to a few of the prime coral sites. Those who do not swim can still enjoy the reefs on a glass-bottomed boat trip and there are guided tours of the Mida Creek Mangrove forests by canoe and on foot along the boardwalks.
Although big-game fishing is not allowed inside the Watamu National Park, the waters of the protected area form the perfect breeding grounds for numerous species that cause fishermen to get excited – really excited! The waters off Watamu are one of the prime spots for big-game fishing along the African coastline and several types of Marlin, Sailfish, Swordfish and Spearfish can be found here. There are several deep-sea charter companies to choose from and the conditions are perfect for both beginners and seasoned fishermen. Several annual fishing competitions are held here during the December to March prime fishing season.
The Watamu/Malindi area has five IBA’s (Important Bird Areas) for you to enjoy, including Mida Creek, Whale Island, Sabaki River Mouth and Dakatcha Woodland. The emphasis is on water birds and many Egrets, Terns, Sandpipers and Plovers can be seen as well as many more migrant birds such as Sunbirds, Warblers, Orioles, Shrikes and Flycatchers.
If you would like to know more about the Turtles you can visit the Turtle Watch centre and see the great work they are doing to protect these threatened creatures – if you are lucky you may see some hatchlings make their way to the ocean or a rehabilitated Turtle being released back into the sea.
The beaches at the Watamu National Park also offer plenty of activities for non-divers, including water-skiing in the Mida Creek, wind-surfing (including lessons), kite-surfing and sailing. Or just do nothing at all but lie on the beautiful clean sand and soak up the African sunshine. You can also enjoy Dolphin-watching, Horse-riding, cycling and golf near-by or enjoy a sunset cruise on a traditional Arabic Dhow.
There is a good selection of accommodation options close to the National Park, including Hemingways which is right on Watamu Bay, within the Marine Park.
Watamu National Park lies about 115km north of Mombasa by road, or you can fly into Malindi Airport from Nairobi in just over an hour. There are also several international flights to Malindi (via Nairobi), from the UK and Europe. It is also easy to drive to Malindi from Tsavo National Park in just 3 hours, allowing you to combine the best of land and marine wildlife viewing.
Watamu is situated very close to the Equator and is warm all year round. The best months for great diving are October to April. Diving the outer reef may not be possible between June and October due to variable weather conditions. Turtle nesting and hatching occur all year round but is most common from April to July.