Dhow to Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park

Published Saturday magazine Nation media 4 March 2017

It’s exciting jumping into a local dhow anchored at Shimoni pier. From where we are the Kenya-Tanzania border is 50 kilometers south at Lunga Lunga. The narrow Wasini Channel separates mainland Africa from the island of Wasini and we set sail for a morning of hopeful sightings of dolphins and snorkelling in the coral gardens of Kisite-Mpunguti.

The ocean’s in tantalizing shades of blue. The tide is at ebb, sailing past Wasini the main village on the island, then a forest of baobab trees and the fishing village of Mkwiro. Below the jagged cliff, local women search the exposed beach for octopus as the fishermen in simple dugout canoes fish in deeper waters.

And then we’re in open ocean entering the Kisite-Mpunguti Marine Park and Reserve. The ocean touches the horizon with a 360-degree panorama of the orb. The excitement in the group is palpable scanning for dolphins.

In the deep blue water a pair of dolphins slip in and out of the waves, svelte graceful grey figures. Everyone’s enchanted. It’s a pair of bottlenose dolphins.

The dolphins disappear and a spotless white sandbar appears by the coral rag islets of the park. It’s picture-perfect – aqua-blue water lapping the dazzling white sandbar that will submerge at high tide.

Jumping off the dhow, Omar Khamisi Kopa one of the crew on the dhow, leads to snorkel in the coral gardens. He knows the current and l follow across the sandbar to where we slip into a magical world of colour, shapes and life.

It’s dazzling.  In this underwater-world a shoal of fish lit gold by filtering sunlight swim in orchestrad symphony swirling and twirling. I let the current move me over the coral – fan-shaped, mushroom-shaped, leaf-shaped – beautiful living invertebrates of the ocean.

In the nooks and crevices of the coral world, colour-splashed parrot fish nibble on the sponges keeping them from suffocating the reef-building corals, hefty-sized groupers searching for prey to swallow, the delightful triggerfish searching for shells to crush with their strong- jawed mouth. When alarmed a triggerfish triggers its spine erect – hence the name. Moorish idols in yellow with the long dorsal fin slip in and out and below on the sandy white seabed lies a huge black sea-cucumber whose job is to chew the debris from the fish and keep the sand nice and clean. And just to show you how healthy things are, l see no sea-urchins which have a nasty habit of over-feeding on the corals.

Suddenly my eye nearly pop-out of my mask – below me two figures come into view close to the seabed. It looks like a pair of turtles and l freeze waiting to see the ancient mariner of the seas that has outlived the dinosaur – and to burst the bubble, it’s a dive-master with his student. The student gives the thumbs-up sign to surface and l move away. The park is important as a migratory and a nesting site for five of the world’s seven species of turtles – all threatened. For the record, it was here l saw a turtle come up for air many years ago – and the only time l’ve ever seen a live turtle in the wild.

Sand bar in Kisite-Mpunguti National Marine Park Copyright Rupi Mangat
Sand bar in Kisite-Mpunguti National Marine Park Copyright Rupi Mangat

Back on the sandbar, the sand is deliciously warm on the soles of the feet. A flock of noddies is gathered on the sand searching for sea worms to gobble. A seagull flies over the waves and on board the dhow the crew puts on an entertaining show of song and music with empty debes and glass bottles as we head to Wasini for a sumptuous sea-laden lunch.

Explore Oceans

Kisite-Mpunguti Marine Protected Area is the largest marine park in Kenya (28km²). surrounding marine reserve is the smallest in Kenya (11km²).

Book a dhow-excursion to the marine park through any operator. Check Kenya Wildlife Service www.kws.go.ke for updates on the marine park.

Lots of accommodation at Wasini and Shimoni from luxury to backpack.

New place for honeymooners and weddings – Amare, Hillpark Tiwi Beach Hotel’s new resort www.hillparktiwibeach.com

For comfort fly Nairobi-Ukunda and a 20-minute drive to Amare

Remember: never touch coral or disturb wildlife.

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