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The Marine National Parks and Reserves

Exploring the colourful underwater life of the Indian Ocean along the Kenya coast offers a cool and fascinating change from wildlife-viewing on the plains and high country inland.

From the first magical glimpse into this marine world of continuous bright movement in the safe waters between the shore and the coral reef, addiction is almost inevitable. With no previous experience, first-time snorkelers equipped with simple air tube and silicone mask to protect the eyes and face from the salt water, can float on the sea's surface and study the aquarium beneath at leisure. For those keen to go below, a good swimmer, with general diving experience, can usually master scuba-diving skills in three lessons.

For both, this is one of life's richer experiences and will again and again lure back its regular enthusiasts and attract new ones. The ambition is always to see more, to go deeper and further, and to seek out the rarer specimens of the ocean floor. It is a special sort of paradise and a very real challenge to the underwater photographer, professional or amateur, to capture on camera the remarkable beauty of the coral kingdom and its inhabitants and the grace, speed and brilliance, not just of the swirling masses, but also of 'the one that almost got away'. And 'get away' is what it eventually does, quite unharmed, with the cameraman's mission successfully accomplished.

It is not just the rainbow colours of the fish which is so enthralling, angelfish, parrotfish, scorpionfish, clowns, butterflyfish, surgeons, sergeants, soldiers and other life on the marine floor, but of the coral itself with its fairy-tale castles beneath the sea, structures beyond the imagination.

Kenya was the first country in the East African region to establish marine parks and reserves and, by l997, seven had already been gazetted, occupying much of the country's 450 kilometers (280 miles) of Indian Ocean coastline from Tanzania in the south to Somalia in the north. Nor is it just the film-makers who declare this coastline to be one of the world's most beautiful.

The inshore waters are warm and inviting with safe swimming whatever the time of year. For most of the underwater region, the continental shelf is narrow, and supports fringing reefs and patch reefs which parallel the land, lying mostly between two and eight kilometers (one and five miles) offshore. Breaks in the reef occur where rivers meet the sea, and where rivers once did which have since disappeared. For most of the year the waters are wonderfully clear, though heavy rain up-country during the 'long' (April-May) and the 'short' (November) rains darken the river waters with sediment which, at the river mouth, can be carried miles out to sea. Despite all that, the Indian Ocean is recorded (so far in time) as being the planet's least polluted.

In places it is possible to wade out ankle-deep from the shore to the reef at low tide through shallows and lagoon pools. To reach others it may mean a swim or hiring a boat.

The shoreline has extensive fossil reef, raised a few meters above the present sea level. Live fringing reef is found a little to seaward in several areas, notably Malindi and Watamu. More than 140 species of coral have been recorded.

Recent years have seen an increasing world interest in ecology and the preservation of the environment, leading to a better, wider intelligence of how walking on the reef (done so carelessly in the past) and plundering it for coral, shells and fish, can cause permanent and irreparable damage. This has been just as lethal for the marine life as uncontrolled, over-enthusiastic hunting once was for the wildlife on land, reducing some creatures to extinction and putting others onto the endangered species list.

Coral is a living organism and even what seem to be the sturdiest examples of it can easily be destroyed by the lightest touch which removes the delicate mucous that protects it from infection. Its growth rate is slow, between one and ten centimeters only a year. Its only living part is at the top, nearest to the sun. Years go into the formation of its intricate patterns and designs: fans, leaves, flowers, columns, arches, caves and structures of architectural grandeur all in a kaleidoscope of reds, greens, yellows and browns. It is the soft corals, fleshy and water-filled, which give the most colour to the reef, where an eternal battle for space goes on between the soft corals and the hard.

Spear-fishing and the removal of shells or any other form of life is not permitted in any of Kenya's marine parks and reserves, but traditional forms of fishing are allowed to continue in the marine reserves (but not in the parks) to enable local fishermen to continue to sustain a living as they always did of old. It is that human factor which differentiates the reserves from the parks.

The setting up of marine parks and reserves has made it much easier and far less expensive for the average resident and visitor to Kenya to enjoy the underwater experience as a regular -- or even one-off -- adventure, for an adventure it always is, however many the times. For those who still want to capture a little of the marine magic, but prefer to stay high and dry, glass-bottomed boats are the next best thing.

Many of the coast resorts and beach hotels have their own water sports centers where the basic principles are taught, sometimes even without charge for guests staying in those hotels. The operators of glass bottomed boats are legion.

 

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