Diving in Mombasa is arguably the best diving in Kenya. Mombasa Marine Park has been up and running for 26 years now, and is Kenya Wildlife Services’ (KWS) flagship Marine Park. The sea life is abundant, with over 400 species of fish having colonised the thriving coral reef; ensuring a great experience for everyone.
Text and images by Bruno Kinross
Around August and September, humpback whales pass by on their annual migration. The wondrous whale sharks quickly follow them between November and March; accompanied by the elusive manta ray on occasion. If pelagic diving enthusiasts are still not satisfied, then there are plenty of white tip reef sharks to been seen, as well as a variety of dolphin species. There has recently been the second ever-recorded sighting of humpback dolphins; allowing for a truly special encounter with their cetacean cousins: the spinner and bottlenose, often seen in the surrounding waters. There used to be tiger sharks, hammer-heads, guitar sharks and bull sharks, but due to global exploitation populations have been decimated, making frequent encounters a thing of the past.
With all the larger species around it is easy to forget the smaller things in life and this is an area where Mombasa can really deliver a true feast. There is a fringing reef that runs most of the length of the coast and in Mombasa this provides a nice protected lagoon where macro species can thrive. Sea-horses, nudis, Frogfish, dragon seamoths, pipefish, lionfish and puffers are just a few of the things you might find.
There are a few dive operators in the area, but Buccaneer Diving is the only 5 Star IDC centre in East Africa, with Course Director Bruce Philips at the helm. Their main base is at the Voyager Hotel in Nyali, but they also have bases at White-Sands Hotel in Bamburi, the Mnarani Club in Kilifi and also Page in Zanzibar.
Being the only IDC centre in East Africa means they are the only centre that can offer all levels of training from the Discover Scuba Diver for those who are just taking their first tentative steps into the sea, all the way up to Instructor level for those who would like to look to diving for a career. They also offer a wide range of specialties, as well as being able to provide Nitrox for those who just can’t stand to get out of the water and want those extended bottom times. It is an extra 5 euros per double dive if you want some of the superior mix.
They operate within the Mombasa Marine Park, with dive sites on either side of the fringing reef. The house reef, Angies, is just a few hundred meters away, which also makes it the choice dive site for night dives. Venturing to the outer side of the reef is where the diving is at its best. In September to December the visibility can reach up to 30 meters, with the sea temperature at around 29 degrees. However, in the wet months this decreases greatly to as low as 3-4 metres but averages around 6-10m and a temperature of between 24-26 degrees.
For those with a taste for wrecks, in 2002, Buccaneer, in association with Project AWARE, sank the 74m ex cattle carrier MV Dania. The Dania is undoubtedly the best wreck dive available in Kenya with depths ranging from 18 to 30 metres. Shallower diveable structures include the bridge, the hull and the massive upper deck, which are ideal for less qualified divers. Dania is well colonised and is home to large groupers, batfish, barracuda, moray eels and a colourful array of other fish and large schools of Jacks. The Dania is not the only wreck in the area, as there is also the MV Globe Star and MV Kota Menang (ships which hit the reefs in the 1970s), though they can only be dived at the right tides. You can find diving information regarding Buccaneer on their website at www.buccaneerdiving.com.
Buccaneer also runs all of the watersports activities for the hotel and there are a range of sailing boats available from funboats and picos to catamarans and windsurfs. Aside from the sailing there is kayaking and for those who still want to see underwater without actually getting wet there is the glass bottom boat option that also gives you the choice to snorkel if you should want to.
The upside to operating in a Marine Park is of course the better marine life to be seen, but the downside is that you must pay a marine park fee every day you choose to go in to the sea. It is $15 per day, so not cheap considering the size of the park. This does, of course, add up so if you plan to dive everyday for a week or two, make sure you remember to add this cost in your budget if you are planning to head that way.
All the dives off the outer side of the reef are drift dives and dive masters all carry permanent surface marker buoys so there is no need to worry about getting lost, and for those who just like to be lazy it is the perfect choice. The majority of the diving takes place along one main stretch of reef, with dive sites like ‘Shark Point’; named after the white tip reef sharks often seen there, and ‘Kasa’ which means ‘turtle’ in Kiswahili. There is a healthy amount of green and hawksbill turtles and you will see them more often than not. As you drift along you move past schools of Bluestripe and Bigeye snappers, fusiliers rush past you in both directions, being chased by Bluefin trevally while large brown-marbled groupers sit to be cleaned. There are areas where you get swarms of glassfish and baby barracuda. The list goes on…
There is a great contrast between diving inside the Marine Park and outside of it. Beyond the Park’s perimeter various forms of fishing have almost entirely destroyed the corals, although dynamiting has not been as prevalent in Kenya as it has been in neighboring Tanzania. As a result there are few fish to be seen outside of the reserve. Mombasa Marine Park is far from an exemplary reserve, mostly because the Government Fisheries Department issue licenses to people to be allowed to use nets in the reserve area, completely defeating the objective of a marine park.
It was a great shame when the government made drag netting legal again at the end of last year under the auspices of trying to alleviate local poverty. The reality of this is that it does not make locals one shilling better off as the people manning these nets are now largely from Pemba, Zanzibar and Tanzania. After destroying their own coast-line, these foreign nationals are employed by the owners of the nets (often ex members of parliament) so that they can pay them a far lower wage than their Kenyan counterparts.
There are also many areas where the use of such large destructive nets is viewed very badly by local fishermen and so workers are brought in to man them. The end result is that none of the increased revenue from the larger catches gets back to the local community but instead whisked away to line the pockets of someone much higher up the food chain. KWS has recently introduced regular beach clean ups, which is already making a difference and with continued pressure from the public, there is hope. KWS is starting to see the importance of the reefs and the potential income they can generate from tourism, but much expansion of the reserves is needed.
There are many hotels around Mombasa, but Voyager is perfectly apt as a mid range all-inclusive resort. Despite all the other development happening around Mombasa, the existing hotels have remained relatively untouched, leaving many which are most definitely in need of a re-vamp; made all the more backward by the absence of more exclusive boutique hotels. The costs for hotels range from around $90-$300 per night depending on season but for those on a tighter budget there is also cheaper accommodation at places like ‘The Mombasa Backpackers’, where it is $12 for a dorm bed for the night.
Outside of diving there are places where kite surfing is available and a full range of courses to be had. One of the best is Pepea Kitesurf based at Mombasa Beach Hotel. It is hard not to be infected by the obvious passion and love for the sport that the owner and instructor John Koyiet has. It is also well worth a trip to the south coast to visit Diani where you can find the ’40 Thieves Bar’ that has been ranked in the top ten bars of the world. Here there is a range of accommodation and smaller boutique style places start to appear. Linzi Kennaway who grew up on this Kenya South coast paradise created Kenyaways Diani Beach, Galu side, in July 2008. If you are heading down that way it is somewhere well worth checking out. It sits with the garden leading on to the beach and has beautiful views straight out to the sea. Linzi, not only a great hostess, is also an experienced kitesurfing instructor and there are few places more perfect to learn at. HO Extreme; Kenya’s leading kite school takes care of this side of things and they are also based at Kenyaways.
Mombasa is Kenya’s second biggest city, and with a population of around 1 million it is growing at a phenomenal rate. The development over the last few years has been massive; large numbers of apartment and office buildings have been going up and even the development of the new city mall is rapidly modernising the look of the area, while, however, the infrastructure still lags behind. The people are incredibly warm and friendly and are always ready to welcome you. Just a few hours drive away are some great safaris; Shimba hills is under two hours away, Tsavo east and west maybe 4-5 hours. About 8% of the Kenya’s land mass is protected area for wildlife conservation. The protected areas comprise of 23 terrestrial National Parks, 28 terrestrial National Reserves, 4 marine National Parks, 6 marine National Reserves and 4 national sanctuaries.1
Mombasa is served by Moi International Airport and is just under an hour flight from Nairobi, making it easy to get to from all parts of the world. Direct flights to Johannesburg are also now operating straight to Moi.