Board a dhow and set sail into the tropical seas around Zanzibar. Don mask and fins, slip over the side and experience the elation of an exclusive swim with dolphin in the island’s crystal-clear waters. Listen to the clicks and whistles of these beautiful creatures as they twirl and dive around you.
We stepped down onto the blinding white sand from our luxurious, makuti-roofed lodge to find a graceful dhow anchored in the shallows. Our bags with wetsuits, masks and fins had already been loaded aboard. My partner and I waded through the shallows and climbed up the ladder onto the deck. Our exclusive ‘swim with dolphin’ adventure had begun…
The dhow was a beautiful vessel with a gleaming, mahogany hull and teak decks. She was about 14m long and powered by twin 90HP engines. The vessel could take a number of guests, but ours was a private swim with dolphin safari and we had the dhow and its crew completely to ourselves.
The skipper, Jabari, introduced himself while one of the crew raised the anchor and laid it on the foredeck. The engines growled to life and we pointed our prow at the horizon. Leaving the shallows, Jabari found a passage through the barrier reef and soon we were coursing through dark blue ocean, a moustache of white-water frothing at the bows.
Above the grumble of the engines, Jabari told us a bit about the marine environment. ‘Underwater visibility can reach up to 35m and, with Zanzibar being so close to the equator, water temperatures never drop below 25ºC,’ said Jabari.
‘The conditions are fantastic for a swim with dolphin. Keep your eyes peeled: they could be anywhere. Of course, I can’t guarantee that we’ll encounter dolphins on every trip. They are wild creatures and play by their own rules. There’s no way we can force them to stay in our patch of ocean. But the chances are very good.’
‘I’ve heard a few negative reports about some dolphin interactions,’ I said.
‘Yes, I won’t even get into the dodgy ethics of keeping dolphins in captivity,’ said Jabari. ‘But interacting with another species in its natural habitat is a different matter altogether. When you encounter dolphins in the vast expanse of the ocean, whether it’s while sailing, surfing, swimming or scuba diving, it is the dolphins’ choice to interact with you. They are so much faster than humans in the water: if they’re feeling uncomfortable, they’ll simply disappear with a couple of flicks of their powerful fins.’
That said, Jabari went on to give us pretty strict guidelines for our swim with dolphin and how we should behave in the water. We were to keep our arms at our sides and not kick and splash vigorously. We were to keep eye contact: dolphins are as curious about us as we are about them.
‘Most importantly, do not try to touch them: respect their space!’ insisted Jabari. ‘If the dolphins want to touch, they’ll brush past you. But never forget that these are wild animals. Approach your encounter with caution and respect, and never assume that you have control over the dolphins’ behaviour.’
‘Over there!’ came a sudden shout from the bows. One of the crew was pointing to the north. Jabari swung the helm hard over and the dhow described a graceful turn. I could just make out the dancing fins and splashes on the horizon. The excitement began to build.
The skipper slowed the boat as we drew nearer, bringing us as close as possible to the pod of bottlenose dolphins without alarming them.One of the crew ensured that my partner and I were fully prepared to enter the water. ‘Zip up your wetsuits; masks and snorkels on. Right, now it’s time to get wet!’
Sleek, silver-grey dorsal fins were breaking the surface within metres of the boat. ‘Are you ready?’ asked Jabari.
We both raised our thumbs.
‘Okay … Go!’
We slipped over the side, trying not to make a big splash. Suddenly, we were surrounded by flashing grey torpedoes and the water was filled with whistles and clicking sounds. It was as though the animals were dancing before us. What utter, unbounded beauty!
I heard a strange, chuckling and bubbling sound … only to realise that I was laughing underwater. My whole being was laughing. It was the most joyous sensation imaginable.
At times the dolphin swam towards us in a pod, then split and dived deep, only to come racing back up at us with those big, infectious grins that all bottlenose dolphins have. The water was crystal clear, so we could see them even when they were at great depth.
I dived down, finning hard to follow the pod, only to find a young dolphin diving with me. It gently brushed my side then shot off into the blue depths in a hail of happy clicking sounds and bubbles. I let myself float slowly back to the surface, my heart brimming with a strange, overwhelming happiness. I had been touched by a bottlenose dolphin: could anything be more wonderful?!