Board a traditional dhow and sail to a pristine coral-reef atoll off the island of Zanzibar. Don scuba-diving equipment and descend into a wondrous realm that teems with every tropical fish imaginable. See turtles, stingrays, dolphins and even, perhaps, a whitetip reef shark on this Zanzibar scuba safari.
We stepped onto the beach from our luxurious, makuti-roofed lodge to find a graceful dhow anchored in the shallows. Hats, bathing costumes, sunglasses, towels and we were good to go. The bags with our wetsuits and scuba gear had already been loaded aboard. My partner and I waded through the shallows and climbed up the ladder onto the deck. Our exclusive Zanzibar scuba safari adventure had begun…
The dhow was a beautiful creature with a gleaming, mahogany hull and teak decks. She was about 14m long and powered by twin 90HP Mercury OptiMax engines. The vessel could take a number of guests, but ours was a private Zanzibar scuba safari and we had the dhow and its crew completely to ourselves.
The skipper cum dive master, Faridu, 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 Mnemba Atoll, a shaggy emerald dot on the horizon surrounded by water of a luminous turquoise colour I’d never seen before.
Above the grumble of the engines, Faridu told us a bit about the western Indian Ocean ecosystem we were about to immerse ourselves in. ‘These seas provide one of the most important breeding spots for humpback whales, along with habitat for 13 species of sharks,’ he said. ‘The coral reefs of East Africa form one of the planet’s largest fringing reefs and support huge tropical-fish populations, dugongs and turtles.
‘Scientists believe that the region includes “super reefs” that may be able to withstand rising ocean temperatures brought on by climate change … so long as our fisheries’ resources are properly managed. As you will see, what we have here is an underwater paradise!’
He went on to tell us why Zanzibar is such a fantastic scuba location. It has a wealth of varied dive sites with diverse topography and conditions: something for every skill level. There are sites for wall diving, continuous reefs, coral bommies and even historical wrecks around Stone Town.
‘Visibility can reach up to 35m and, with Zanzibar being close to the equator, water temperatures never drop below 25ºC,’ said Faridu. ‘The diving is also fantastic for macro photographers. Nudibranchs, pipefish and whip gobies can easily be found by those with a keen eye for the smaller fry.’
We cruised closer to Mnemba Atoll and found a spot far from any other dive boat. ‘Welcome to the tropical-fish capital of East Africa!’ cried Faridu. Our anchor went over the side with a loud splash.
‘Mnemba has stunning, aquarium-like conditions on the west side, and good wall diving on the east side. This morning, our Zanzibar scuba safari will be on Big Wall. It goes all the way down to 60m or more, but we won’t be going nearly that deep. Follow me and let’s have some fun.’
We donned our wetsuits, fins, masks, BCDs and tanks, then tipped backwards over the gunnel, descending 30m down a reef wall that thronged with lion fish, moray eels, nudibranchs and giant groupers. I didn’t know which way to look, such was the visual overload.
It was an utterly magical drift dive in a pretty strong current that buoyed us along nicely. Out in the deeper water, I spotted big Napoleon wrasses, blue-fin trevallies and clouds of dancing bat fish. There were schools of barracudas, rainbow runners, tuna, hundreds of unicorn fish and blotched stingrays. We completed the dive in a shallower area where we could gaze for a while at beautiful hard- and soft corals before surfacing. My partner and I were elated.
Back on board, hot chocolate, warm towels and delicious snacks awaited us. We lay on the deck, basking in the sun and chatting excitedly about all we had seen. After a couple of hours Faridu suggested another Zanzibar scuba safari, this time at Wattabomi, a shallower, less exposed spot.
We descended into a garden of magical coral. Our dive started at a place called Eel City, which was teeming with moray eels, scorpion fish and inquisitive anthias. We finned our way down a gentle slope past a puzzle of coral blocks. I caught sight of a gorgeous green turtle, blending in perfectly with the plate coral.
A word about the coral: it ranged in colour, size and shape, from staghorn and brain coral to mountain and plate. There were parrot fish, Moorish idols, clownfish and a blue-spotted stingray that ghosted off like a stealth bomber. At one point, my mask was surrounded by a school of butterfly fish, their yellow shapes dancing just centimetres from my face. It was a most entrancing vision.
Just before surfacing I spotted a whitetip reef shark, which sent a frisson of fear and excitement through me. It made one languid pass, then disappeared into the deep, dark blue. What a way to end our sensational day of diving!