After ten wonderful days driving around various Kenyan national parks, we hopped in a tiny plane to fly to Vipingo, a coastal town close to Mombasa.
We stayed in a house right on the beach, which was full of colourful, patterned pillows, window frames without any glass – the joys of the tropics – and unbeatable access to a spectacular reef, which is the site of a decade long conservation effort and is now teeming with vibrant wildlife.
I have written a lot this year about the environment, primarily its destruction. And while the imminent decimation of many of the world’s natural resources does seem particularly pertinent, it is easy to only talk about the doom and gloom of the future. I read about incredible innovations that aim to minimise storms as they gather force in the oceans, manufacture battery-powered planes and create plastic-digesting enzymes. I have toyed with the idea of writing a blog post about all the amazing, if nascent, green innovations that are popping up around the world. Popular climate coverage tends to spread fear, to guard against complacency. But for those of us who understand the scale of the issue, a little hope wouldn’t go amiss.
Vipingo is home to an award-winning, community-owned reef conservation effort, which we were lucky enough to explore during our time at the beach.
We met Katana, a ex-fisherman turned marine conservationist and underwater tour guide, who told us the story of the protected reef before taking us snorkeling in one of the reef’s ‘lagoons.’ The tides are extreme, so there are only a few hours each day where the visibility is crystal clear and the lagoons are teeming with fish, before the waves start crashing over the reef break, filling the marine area, spreading the fish across the whole marine park and kicking up the sand.
The project was started in 2003, when the fisherman started to notice the fish drying up, not just from local fishing but from the much larger fishing boats that had started to cast huge nets across large areas of the coast, pulling in hundreds of fish with a single net. It was, as with many human activities, unsustainable. Aside from the overfishing, the local community was also concerned with the effects of climate change on the ocean and the collection of coral and fish by the aquarium trade. The Kuruwitu Conservation and Welfare Association (KWCA) drew up a plan for sustainable fishing and new income generating enterprises. In 2005, a thirty-hectare marine protected area was closed to fishing, allowing the coral to regenerate and the fish population to recover.
Now, some fourteen years later, the reef has made the most stunning recovery. It offers such confidence that, should we change our ways and commit to sustainability, recovery is possible. The coral looks so healthy and vibrant and there was an astonishing number and diversity of fish. Katana took us out at the best time for snorkelling; we walked out through a path that has been made between the coral that you can access at low tide, avoiding the plentiful sea urchins, before swimming between the enormous corals and shoals of fish.
While some small-scale fishing does occur – and is carefully controlled – much of the area’s income now comes from eco-tourism, as visitors pay a fee to swim and snorkel in the marine park and can pay extra for guided underwater tours, boat trips and other ocean activities. Many of the locals who used make their living through fishing now run the conservation program or work in marine tourism. This is Kenya’s first community-owned conservation project, Katana told us proudly, ensuring that no one was left behind as the area transitioned away from fishing as a source of income. A list of the program’s achievements can be found here, though rest assured, it has been tremendously successful in protecting the local marine life, regenerating damaged coral and allowing the local community to live sustainably, in symbiosis with their environment.
As an avid lover of the sea and all its myriad creatures, I was in heaven at Vipingo. Not only did I get to see beautiful, healthy coral – which is sadly becoming a rarity as our seas get hotter and hotter – but I was able to swim with an extensive array of fish species, including clownfish, Moorish idols, boxfish and lionfish, among many others that I can’t name. We also saw eels, sea snakes, an octopus, clams and so many starfish. Guys, the starfish. Are they not some of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen?! I was also entranced by the clownfish, which were definitely the friendliest of all the fish I met, swimming out of their anemones to investigate my camera lens.
Aside from the pure happiness I always feel frolicking in the sea, it gave me joy to know that we were contributing to an area that relies on tourism and welcomes tourists. Although we were there during low season, Katana said that they would definitely welcome a few more tourists to the area each year, as Vipingo is a lot less well-known than the nearby Mombasa.
Not to go back to the environmental destruction problem again, but as our oceans warm up and acidify, and as our reefs are more at risk from destruction by storms and hurricanes – as seen recently in the Bahamas – thinking about how to conserve these beautiful habitats must become more pressing. To see a local community take action together to preserve their home in a way that allows both the environment and its inhabitants, human or otherwise, to flourish indefinitely made me feel full of hope for the future. It made me think about all the ways in which I feel disconnected from the planet and the inherent privilege of feeling ultimately unaffected when a stretch of ocean is overfished, because the little fish I eat can always be supplied from another source and my work does not depend directly on a healthy environment. These are the frontlines of the climate crisis; coastal communities who feel disruption to their environment acutely and immediately, because it is their home, their living and their sustenance. I was glad to contribute in some small way to such an inspiring project and felt so grateful that I was able to witness the fruits of a decade of conservation. Maybe we aren’t so screwed after all.