The Power of Dolphins: aquatic adventures in Zanzibar

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All words and photos by Will Dewar-Cutts, including header image.

Just 22 miles off the coast of east-central Africa lies the picturesque tropical island of Zanzibar. While not particularly large, the territory boasts a natural beauty that bewilders its growing number of visitors. With postcard-perfect beaches, oceans so blue and so clear it feels almost artificial, and rainforests as lush as they come, it’s truly a place where mother nature did some of her best work.

I was fortunate enough to spend six weeks there with the volunteer organisation African Impact and to say the experience left an impact (no pun intended) would be an understatement.

The first project placement involved teaching English to nursery school children and adults. I found this time to be incredibly valuable and learned so much from simply interacting with individuals who have lived infinitely different lives to my own. 

The people of Zanzibar are some of the friendliest, most hospitable you could find. However, it was the ocean surrounding the island that captured my heart and mind. The other project placement offered by African Impact is the ‘Marine Project’ which focuses on the study of Indo-Pacific bottlenose and humpback dolphin behaviour; more specifically, their behaviour relating to interactions with Zanzibar’s growing number of tourists.

Firstly though, some context. The area where we were conducting these investigations is the Menai Bay Conservation Area, off the small fishing village of Kizimkazi Mkunguni, which is Zanzibar’s largest marine ‘protected’ area at 470 square kilometres. I put protected in inverted commas because, while the area is legally considered a marine reserve, there is little to no actual enforcement when it comes to abiding by the rules of a marine reserve. In fact, during my time there, I came to discover that Zanzibar is one of the least regulated parts of the world when it comes to dolphin tourism (as opposed to places like Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica etc.), with no rules or enforcement regarding boat behaviour/speed around the dolphins, the amount of time you can spend with the animals, or even touching and feeding the dolphins. When it comes to dolphin tourism, Zanzibar is the wild west. It is also key to understand that if you, as a tourist, want to see or swim with dolphins in Zanzibar, it’s Kizimkazi where you go.

With minimal regulations and tourists chomping at the bit to have their time with the dolphins, it’s not hard to imagine the scenes when you actually get to a pod. It’s an incredibly sobering, even emotional experience watching sixteen motorised boats chase these dolphins and their calves like a pack of hungry wolves, cutting off their direction of travel and forcing them to dive unnecessarily. All this distressing manoeuvring just to have these tourists jump haphazardly right on top of these already uncomfortable animals. And then once the dolphins have decided to swim away, the tourists simply clamber back on board the boat and the whole process repeats for as long as they desire it to.

This isn’t a rare occurrence either, I saw it multiple times during my time there, and I’m told the number of boats can grow much larger than just sixteen in peak season. These dolphins are constantly the victim of this sort of behaviour, meaning their feeding and resting periods are often interrupted, and the fear is that they will do what dolphins have done in other parts of the world and simply leave the area. This would be a crushing blow to Zanzibar, both environmentally and economically, with the dolphins being a major pull factor for tourism.

The work done by African Impact is therefore undeniably important, because they have the capability to gather long-term data about how these animals are reacting to this persistent human contact over an extended period of time. The data that is observed and recorded is relatively simple, accommodating for volunteers with little to no scientific background. It involves monitoring things like surface time, general behaviour (whether that be travelling, resting, socialising etc.) and more specific behaviours like leaps or tail slaps, which can give a better indication of the animal’s mindset. It’s not just the dolphins we were monitoring though; an equal amount of importance was placed on recording the number of boats and tourists, as well as their behaviour when interacting with a pod.

While the majority of the data collected was at peak times of the day (early in the morning is when the dolphins are most active, so that’s when the most boats are out), we also collected data when there were a much smaller number of boats – maybe four or five – and in some cases, it was just our boat and the dolphins. It’s times like this that are burnt into my brain, because it was then that the dolphins really started to show off. In smaller numbers, humans are more of a curiosity than something to be frightened of and that shows in their behaviour.

Watching these dolphins bow surf alongside us, twirling in the sapphire blue and leaping metres out into the air was a spectacle I’ll never forget. But not even that can beat getting into the water with these animals, experiencing them in their element… If watching a dozen dolphins swim past you in their natural habitat isn’t enough to make you fall head over heels in love with the ocean then congratulations, you officially have a heart of steel!

Now, this could just be the romantic in me, but if you spend enough time around cetaceans you get to experience what feel like very intimate moments. I myself had a few of these moments, where it genuinely felt like there was some kind of understanding – like the dolphins knew this was an important moment for me and gave me the honour of experiencing it. Magical moments like this would happen all the time, like watching two dolphins dance with one another beneath the waves. After every single one, I’d find myself returning to the surface with a smile so big my snorkel would come out of my mouth and a feeling so indescribably good it would put any drug to shame.

While my time with the dolphins was brief, the impact they have had is immeasurable. It affirmed my belief that the ocean is where I want to spend the majority of my time and has given me a new sense of direction and purpose. These animals are so intelligent and you can feel that when you’re around them. As humans, we’ve taken the arrogant position that we’re top dog when it comes to intelligence but these animals, and others like them, seem to possess a knowledge that we are yet to fully understand – in fact, it’s my naive opinion that we’ve barely scratched the surface. But to continue on this journey of understanding. we’ve got to give these creatures the respect they deserve, we’ve got to fight for their protection and the protection of the environment in which they live. And that’s why I tip my metaphorical cap to the work of African Impact who, despite dealing with many challenges, are developing ground-level initiatives with local boat drivers to help make a tangible difference and help people experience these animals in a more ethical way.

While the obstacles they face are large, I’m optimistic about the future of Zanzibar’s dolphin population and would encourage anyone with the means of doing so to travel to this unique part of the world and experience these creatures for themselves – because I can almost guarantee they’ll steal your heart just like they did mine.

I’d also highly recommend African Impact for anyone who wants to be part of the solution; you’ll meet passionate people doing inspiring work. Without them, I wouldn’t have had the honour of witnessing just a small part of these dolphins’ incredible lives. And for that I’m grateful, because it’s put me on a path that’ll hopefully be filled with saltwater stories and more moments with these magnificent creatures of the sea.

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