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Dolphin Tour has recently become one of Zanzibar’s top tourist attractions. Of course, swimming with these magnificent creatures can be a life-changing experience. Dolphins are very common in Zanzibar, especially in Menay Bay and Mnemba Atoll. There are many operators in Zanzibar offering dolphin tours. Is it worth doing, and what should you be aware of before signing up for the tour?Filmed and written by marine scientist and dive instructor Gonzalo
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Dolphins are Awesome
Dolphins are one of the smartest animals in the world. Did you know that dolphins can hear 7 times better than humans do? Did you know that dolphins have complex social structures?
In Zanzibar, it is common to see Bottlenose dolphins close to shore.
These amazing animals live in pods of up to 10-15 individuals and travel long distances every day to hunt and mate.
Dolphins communicate using whistles and echolocation, a tool used as well by bats and whales. And how does echolocation work? With its jaw, the animal creates sound waves that travel until they find an object. Then, the bouncing wave goes back into their ears, giving the animal an accurate “map” of its surroundings. They can even differentiate between fish species doing this!
How do dolphins interact with humans?
While diving in Zanzibar, I have had countless interactions with these beautiful animals. One time, right after starting my dive in Mnemba Atoll, we had a big dolphin coming straight to us. He was playing with a flounder, a flat-shaped fish that he just hunted. He was tossing the fish and catching it with its fins and mouth while swimming around us in circles. It was an amazing experience for my divers, who never dived before.
But, even if most of my encounters with these animals have been friendly, I still remember once where it was not.
I was at the end of my dive with 2 students. They were having their first Discover Scuba Diving experience! I spotted a small pod of dolphins, and we swam towards them. When we got close, the biggest one came straight to us, and started hitting the sandy bottom with its tail, violently. I immediately stopped my divers from getting closer, and I realized then that there was a baby dolphin amongst them. The smallest one I have ever seen! Therefore, the big one was only protecting him!
Dolphins are extremely intelligent, social, and wild animals. We should never forget that before getting into the water with them. They need their own space, and even though they are curious about humans, we should not harass them.
Where can I do a dolphin tour in Zanzibar?
Kizimkazi, located in the South of Zanzibar, was traditionally a small fishermen village. Their living consisted in fishing, but after years of bad practices such as dynamite fishing, their fish stocks depleted dramatically.
Due to that, the biggest marine conservation area of Zanzibar was created there in 1997. The Menay Bay Conservation Area, covering 470 square kilometers.
In this bay, around 200 bottlenose dolphins became residents. They visit daily its shallow waters to rest, play and mate.
As a result, local fishermen started offering Dolphins tours to tourists.
Mnemba Atoll, located at the Northwest of Zanzibar, and is famous for diving and snorkeling. There are 2 resident pods of dolphins around the Mnemba area. Throughout the years, dive & snorkel boats have been stopping next to playful dolphin pods on the way in or out of the dive spots. It was always one or two boats at a time that are hanging close to these pods for a few minutes.
In recent years, a big dolphin tour industry has developed in Mnemba. Dozens of small fiber boats are heading daily to Mnemba Atoll for the sole purpose of chasing these pods, and dumping loads of tourist on top of them.
How does a dolphin tour work?
After meeting in the early morning, tourists get into a small fiber boat. Snorkel equipment is usually provided by the operator. The tour lasts about 3 – 4 hours, where the boat captain sail around the bay, looking for pods of dolphins. Once the captain spots the pod, he will fast approaches them, and urge the tourists to jump into the water with them.
Are dolphin tours in Zanzibar ethical?
NO. As a Marine Scientist, I do not find it is ethical. Every day, dozens of boats chase the dolphins at full speed, with tourists ready to jump into the water to catch a glimpse with their Go Pros.
This, a part of being very stressful for the animals, is very dangerous.
Would you like to be in the water, surrounded by boat propellers and excited people jumping on top of you?
Now, if you remember how sensitive is the dolphin hearing sense, can you imagine how loud it is for them when having 50 boats on top of them, every day?
In addition, there are occasional cases where boats struck and badly wound the dolphins with their propellers.
Can dolphin tour be more ethical?
Yes, it can. In fact, conducting the tour properly can be beneficial for local communities that rely on tourism for survival. It could bring them a continuous income for many years.
And how should dolphin tour be conducted?
First, boats should not approach less than 50 meters from the animals, to avoid any loud sounds and strikes.
Second, tourists should stay on the boat, and only jump in the water when appropriate.
Third, limiting the amount of boats per pod of dolphins will help reduce the stress levels of the animals.
Last and most important, every operator should have a license for doing the Dolphin tour, with well-trained guides who respect the welfare of the animals.
Moreover, there are some projects like African Impact, whose team is teaching boat skippers from Kizimkazi through Ethical Boat Driver courses. Even though I have never personally participated in one of their tours, I believe they are in the right way to educate these skippers for conducting more dolphin-friendly excursions. Well done!
How else can I see dolphins in Zanzibar?
You can see dolphins while diving or snorkeling using one of many reputable dive center. Most dive center and their instructors are well knowledgeable and aware about marine animals welfare. Most dive center participate in marine conservation project and put our marine wellbeing on the top of their priority.
Diving at Mnemba Atoll
During my dives in Zanzibar, I have seen dolphins in many different reefs. But there is one place where the chances are way higher than the others: Mnemba Atoll. If you are a diver, don’t miss out diving there! Even if the chances of seeing them underwater are low, it can happen. And if it does, it is an experience of a lifetime!
Most of the time, we see them from the boat. When going to Mnemba Atoll, there is around 50-60% of chances of seeing them.
If the dolphins stay close to the boat, and our captains think they are playful, we give the chance to our customers to put the mask and fins on, and swim with the dolphins.
I still remember one day, where we swam with a big pod of dolphins right next to Mnemba Island. We spent over 30 min with them! They were very curious, came very close to us, and looked us straight in the eyes. It was one of the best experiences of my life!
Therefore, if you book a diving trip to Mnemba Atoll, you have big chances to see dolphins from the boat. Of course, it is nature, so there are no guaranties, and you might not see them. But, as there are more than 400 species of fish in Mnemba´s Marine Park, the journey will be amazing anyway!
Snorkeling at Mnemba Atoll
If you are not a diver, but you want to catch a glimpse from Zanzibar’s underwater treasures, I would recommend you going for a snorkeling trip to Mnemba Atoll. During these tours, you might have the chance to see dolphins. You might even to swim with them if they pass by your snorkeling area.
There are many operators that offer snorkeling at Mnemba Atoll. Though, I would recommend you doing it with a reputable dive center. Besides, you will have a professional guide with you in the water who cares about the underwater environment.
Spanish Dancer Divers does not offer snorkeling trips, but there are many dive centers around Nungwi and Matemwe that do.
Dolphins are amazing and smart animals, and it is possible to have a magical interaction with them during your stay in Zanzibar.
As a Marine Scientist, I am concerned about the big increase in the number of boats chasing the dolphins every day, over the past years.
If you care about nature and about animals, please do not take part in this activity unless they do it respectfully. In Zanzibar or anywhere else in the world.
Please ask your guide to stay far enough from the dolphins, approach them slowly, and switch off the engine when you are close to them. I would not recommend swimming with them, unless they stay around the boat for a while in a playful mood.
If you want to have a more natural interaction, choose activities that are not specific for dolphin watching, such as diving or snorkeling. Your chances to see dolphins might be a bit lower, but at the end it is the same as a game drive in the Serengeti, where you do not go specifically to see lions, but to see the nature as a whole!
Zanzibar is one of a few places in the world where we can see dolphins while diving or snorkeling. Help us keep it like this!