Last week, I was lucky enough to have my first visitor from home since I left over seven months ago. My older sister spent 24+ hours of flight time (that is to say, actual time in the air, not including airport transfers or layovers) flying from the rapidly dropping temperatures of Yellowknife across the Atlantic and halfway down the African continent to my current home of Zanzibar. True to type A form, I had a full weekend planned for us.
I wanted to use my sister’s visit as an occasion to do something touristy, something that I wouldn’t normally do in my day to day life. I spend a lot of time on the beach, but for budgetary and scheduling reasons I haven’t really explored the island through the eyes of a tourist yet. So, with her visit conveniently excusing me from my miserly volunteer lifestyle, we set off together to the less-traveled southern coast of the island to the fishing village of Kizimkazi, home of the wild dolphins.
Dolphin tours in Zanzibar, like a lot of wildlife or eco-tours in developing countries, are somewhat controversial. Horror stories of tens of boats full of be-snorkeled tourists penning in and getting the drop on a pod of wild dolphins (pomboo in Swahili) abound on the island.
I like to think of myself as a pretty ethical lady (and an ethical pretty lady, hey-oh). I’m a huge advocate of responsible ecotourism and avoid any potentially socially or environmentally unfriendly tours, but this time my fascination with sea creatures won out. I also wanted to see if there was anything to the stories.
International Dolphin Watch provides guidelines for an ethical wild dolphin encounter (essentially, no chasing and no touching). I prepared myself for the tour by practicing saying “Do not chase the dolphins” and “Please give them space” in Swahili. My finger was ready to be wagged in admonishment. My sister and I agreed that if it turned out to be shifty, we would cancel the dolphin part and ask to just go snorkeling.
When we arrived in the blazing late morning sun, a barrage of several “freelance” boat captains put me off immediately. Kizimkazi is a beautiful, rural, working fishing village, but the unusually low tourist numbers this season obviously left a lot of people hurting for work. The amount of people running up to our car or following us on motorbikes, willing to let us on their boat for a pittance, reminded me that the poor treatment and relentless pursuit of dolphins may stem more from desperation than callousness.
As it turns out, we didn’t need to worry. Our small wooden boat with four passengers was the only one in the perfectly clear teal water, speeding expertly towards the dolphins’ favourite afternoon hangout (a deep bay about a twenty minute ride away from Kizimkazi). Our guide, Kamal, unabashedly smoked a joint while scanning the water for telltale splashes. When we got close, they cut the engine and let the vessel float aimlessly just away from the general area of the dolphins. We were given fins and told to paddle towards the pod. At first, I couldn’t see anything and assumed they had swum away. Floating with my head just under the water, with the familiar hum of rhythmic breathing through my snorkel, I wondered if now the guides would want to give chase – then suddenly, out of the opaque blue, two bottlenose dolphins glided towards me. I could see others swimming around my sister and friends to my left, but I was transfixed. A mixture of awe and terror that I would become one of the few people maimed in a dolphin attack paralyzed me as the dolphins calmly circled less than a metre away.
For the next hour, they played with us. We swam around with our fins, trying to mimic their movement; they would swim away, come back, and circle around us. There were six in total, splitting off in pairs or threes, swimming up from the blue haze to splash the surface. Two of them, swimming belly-to-belly in a tight spiral, were going to have a harusi (Swahili for wedding), the guide euphemistically told us. When we took a break from the water, the full group swam and jumped in unison beside the boat. The only thing that could have made it better would have been a hot crustacean band.
Dolphins are one of those animals that are so anthropomorphized in our culture they almost seem imaginary. I’d seen them before, as a kid at Marineland and West Edmonton Mall (speaking of unethical tours), but this was the first time actually seeing them swim and play with each other in the literal wild. Swimming with dolphins is almost its own cliche, but it was, at the risk of being trite, surreal. If I had an underwater camera, the pictures would have been crazy awesome, but as it is I have had to rely on the magic of photoshop to properly illustrate the moment.
Eventually the dolphins grew bored of us and meandered away. The elation of the encounter stayed with us long after the swim, through a serene afternoon boat ride and snorkel. We heard stories of how Kamal learned to swim and dolphin mating habits in Swahili. I also learned that a group of jellyfish is referred to as a bloom, a swarm or a smack. Unfortunately, I learned that by swimming face-first through a LARGE one. I don’t know if the stinging was worse or the fear that someone was going to try to pee on me as I writhed with pain on the deck of the boat.
I’m glad I decided to give the dolphin tour a shot instead of listening to the horror stories. Maybe I’m naïve, but I genuinely felt like we didn’t bother them. I hope I’m right. I had a fabulous day and learned that at least not all of the boat trips out there are at the expense of the dolphins’ safety and comfort. Other visitors coming to Zanzibar will get my endorsement, with the caveat that they know to demand certain standards.
When we hear tales of animal abuse and destructive tours from around the world, the blame usually falls to the unconscionable purveyors of these activities. But things like aggressive dolphin chasing, rides on abused elephants, or chipping off coral to take home from a dive trip wouldn’t exist if the market wasn’t there to lap it up. If more tourists demanded tours or souvenirs to be proven to be sustainable and responsible and refused to spend money on things we wouldn’t accept in our own countries, these practices would die out.
As travelers we all need to take responsibility to research what we’re doing and give it some thought from a social or environmental angle. The onus is on us. It doesn’t have to close doors for you – it might take a little extra work, but it can give you both the experience you’re looking for and the knowledge that you’re not doing it at the expense of the natural world.
For extra homework, I challenge everyone to try to write a post about swimming with dolphins that doesn’t use the word “magical”.