Swimming with Dolphins in Zanzibar

Posted 20 July, 2007 by janette in Zanzibar

The waves are 10 feet high and memories of rafting the Nile are still fresh in our minds. We have driven to the northern tip of Zanzibar to swim with wild dolphins. A few local fisherman run a side business, taking tourists out to see a few local families of bottlenose dolphins. I had to pay 30% extra for the privilege of wearing a life-jacket on this windy, white-capped day.

We entertain ourselves with Flipper impressions for the half hour we spend cruising around looking for dorsal fins. My only previous experience of wild dolphins was in the Amazon last summer. They were bizarre, pink things, with only a bump for a dorsal fin. We didn’t dare swim with them, however, because we were fishing for piranha by throwing chunks of raw meat into the river at the time.

Dolphins have up to 250 teeth, and have vestigial hind legs. They are mammals who entered the water fifty million years ago. They can see and hear better than humans, but they have no sense of smell because they lack olfactory lobes. They hunt with the help of echolocation, using the arrangement of their teeth as antennae for vibrations. Some dolphins teach their children to use tools, though this information is mainly passed from mother to daughter.

Dolphins can wait more than 30 minutes between breaths. We are unconscious breathers, meaning that we breathe involuntarily. Dolphins and whales, on the other hand, are conscious breathers: they must decide when to breathe. Thus, they can never be fully unconscious while they sleep, like we are. Although they sleep 8 hours a day, their two brain hemispheres never sleep at the same time, so that they can always regulate their breathing.

The first fin is spotted, and three fishing boats close in. Predictably, the harried dolphin swims away in the midst of so much noise and diesel. We start to lose faith in our guides, as two of our group become increasingly sea sick.

We head straight out to open sea, to a special spot our guide says he knows. We’re mostly just pleased to be out on the turquoise waters of Zanazibar, on a fresh and sunny day.

Another 20 minutes of increasingly unlikely Flipper storyline, and see a leap of grey. A dolphin pod! We speed over in our clunky, smelly boat, and pull on our flippers and down our masks. The fishermen tell us to not be afraid to jump in, that the dolphins are gentle and shy. But it’s mainly the fact that they aren’t bothering to cut their motors as they’re tossed about on large waves that makes us hesitate. When it becomes clear that they have no intention of observing any safety practices, I remind myself of all the African restlessness I’ve survived so far, and jump as far as I can from the boat.

It’s amazing how calm it is on the water, if you don’t fight the waves. Four dolphins are 2 meters below me, gliding in dappled sunlight. They are oblivious to our snorkeled gasps. I’m disappointed that I haven’t learned to skin-dive properly, and am stuck at the surface.

They swim away, and we heave ourselves back into the boat to follow. Repeat two times, and then retreat.

As we enjoy our lunch of grilled fish on the beach, I realize that, like a lot of experiences on this trip, I’ve just had a taste of something I’d like to have a lot more of.

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