Day 334: Swim with Zanzibar's Wild Dolphins

I had low expectations for the dolphin part of the Blue Safari. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.

THE engine of our small fiberglass boat moans as we sink back into the trough of a small wave. Not until the next wave picks us up and jettisons us forward, the boat surfing the crest, does the engine seem pleased again with its lot in life. For me, all I have do is close my eyes and think about ten, fifteen minutes ago and a smile grows on my face faster than weeds popping up exactly where they are not wanted. The lyrics to Best Day of My Life by American Authors run through my head.

Mwanzi came back from checking the water at the beach early this morning.

“Everything is good, good,” he says with a bucktooth smile.

I'm doubtful. More storm cells swept across the flat shrub land we call home last night. The thundered rolled out like a bowling ball pounding into ten heavy pins at the end of a wooden lane, while water continued to find its way through the cement flooring of the balcony, above the bare mattress Baby Dada and I are curled up on. I say bare mattress, but, in fact, Baby Dada has produced a thin sheet that we flop across the mattress before we each crawl into our sleeping bags for the night.

I sleep near the doorway, clinging to the edge of the bed as if afraid of Baby Dada's presence on the mattress. Here, the rain occasionally comes down in a big drop on my feet. Baby Dada on the other hand happily sprawls out across the mattress.

After several trips through the dark to urinate into the bush last night, listening to the storms rolling out to sea, I'm not convinced that Mwanzi isn't trying to push our luck to get us out on the water this morning. While he was off checking the ocean, I curled up in a hammock, pulling the damp flaps around me to hide from the flies.

However, it's his call.

I wake up the Finnish girls, who take ages to prepare themselves to join us on the Blue Safari tour.

“So five people went last time, right?” I ask Mwanzi.


“Okay, and they paid 15 dollars each, so it's 30 each for us, because we're only three, right?”

“Yeah, that's fine,” Mwanzi says, unenthusiastically.

He's been uncharacteristically solemn about venturing outside of Kizimkazi these last couple of days. He seemed to have no interest in the quality or lack of quality of the spice tour, which was anything but flavorful, and was only bubbling with life when we finally made it back to the village after dark last night. I fear he might have the same unusual lackluster attitude today.

A scrawny Rasta man who's heavily involved with Stone Town Records and was the building manager for the house in which we are now living is chilling in the other hammock. He arrived last night.

After a heated argument with Mau in Swahili, him not moving from the hammock and Mau not moving from his sitting position on the lip of the empty pool, he starts to grill me about the safari: Have I organized lunch? Where are we going? Who did I talk to about it?

“We're just doing what they did last time when they went with Mwanzi,” I say, trying to get out of the line of fire and feeling a bit like he's got no business playing the inquisitor. The whole point of paying for a tour is that you don't have to deal with logistics.

“I think we'll grab breakfast down by the beach,” I tell the Finnish girls as they make an attempt to have breakfast before we go – if you want to have breakfast before leaving for a trip you shouldn't wait until someone wakes you to leave.

Rumbling up the road as we pass through the gate of the house is Mau.

Mau and his big smile and sudden enthusiasm for the team spirit of The House of Giggles, a spirit much in need of mending.

“Aren't you coming with us?” I ask.

Mau would be a treasure to have on board, but perhaps more importantly, I'd rather not see Mwanzi lead our mini-adventure alone in his current mood.

“No, I think I'm staying.”

“But you didn't go last time either. Come one, come with us,” I say.

“Me, I think I need to stay.”

“Ah, okay. We'll miss you.”

Barely past where out path Ts next to the fence, we have to stop so the girls can go back for sunscreen. Much to my delight, Mau comes padding down the path toward us while we're waiting.

“Sure, why not,” he says, changing his mind.

Down at the village, several boats packed with white and brown families come bumping back toward the beach, which is skirted with several wide bands of seaweed and ocean debris washed up from the recent storms. This is not the idyllic beach one sees on postcards of Zanzibar, though during the dry season I'm sure it's close.

The tourist disembarking in the wet, puddle-ridden tidal plains must have been out on sunrise dolphin trips. Swimming with the dolphins is supposed to be the highlight of any Blue Safari leaving from Kizimkazi. Afterward, our trip trickles into a lunch on an isolated beach, snorkeling, and a visit to the mangroves.

There are questions about whether or not this form of tourism should be considered harassment of the dolphins. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

I've heard mixed reviews about swimming with wild dolphins. Some people don't like it, as they say that the small fleet of 12-foot fiberglass boats is harassing the pod as they chase the poor dolphins in circles. Others are thrilled at the prospect of jumping in and slamming their faces into the water to catch a glimpse of a dolphin's tail as it flees the human cannonballs bombardment.

I'm hopeful that I can get some drone shots for a Top Journey video; I'm in a more professional mindset with regards to the dolphins. If we see them at the surface, I'll be satisfied.

To be fair this isn't my first time looking for wild dolphins. A good friend of mine used to run a beautiful catamaran out into Phang Nga Bay. The way the boat cut through the water created a playground for a pod of small spinner dolphin. We tried to slip into the water a couple times to join them, but they never stuck around once we splashed in.

Dolphins are incredible animals to see in the wild and in captivity, though the awe they inspire when spotted in captive is charged with moral complications and tarnished by the reality that such captivity drives the sentient beings insane.

We'd fought hard at the Phuket Gazette to put down dolphinariums on the island. Many years ago, before I joined the team, we'd played a large role in preventing one from opening in Rawai. I remember reading the scathing editorials and stories we published as I put together new stories in hopes of doing the same in our efforts to squash the Nemo Dolphinarium opening up in Chalong. Despite the bad press and the outrage among educated Thais and expats – including interviews I conducted with the world's most outspoken dolphin conservationist Ric O'Barry – the facility opened up. The owners were fully aware that all they needed were busloads of Russian and Chinese tour groups to rake in a handsome profit. Once the facility opened, the Gazette, struggling with ad sales, was in no position to take the moral high ground and refuse to run ads for the dolphinarium.

Even if this isn't an ideal situation for the dolphins out here on the southern tip of Unguja, Zanzibar, it's vast improvement on captive-dolphin tourism. And, the dollars generated through this sort of tourism – dollars going directly to the local community charged with protecting the dolphins – without a doubt has lead to their safeguarding.

These issues, issues I know from my time at the Gazette, are pouring through my mind as we skim out across the shallows and into the dark blue waters offshore, confidently taking the small waves.

“Mwanzi, you were right, the weather water is perfect. It's so lucky,” I say.

A pack of boats, ten in total, dot the oceanscape in front of us. Our boat will make it 11 small crafts with outboard motors humming through the ocean, racing to wherever the dolphins crest and break the water's surface.

“I'll tell you when to jump,” Mwanzi says, as we speed alongside another boat. My DSLR is in my hands and need to set up Heather's GoPro, which is barely charged.

“Oh! Isaac, you're missing it,” Mau says.

We pause, our eyes scan the endless blue in front of us, waiting for the dolphins to appear. They appear and then dive again. We loop back to join the other boats. A couple tourists have jumped in, their bodies are suspended in the blue by bright orange life jackets, like tangerines stained by nuclear waste. The tourists' faces are buried in the water only popping up when a snorkel inevitably delivers a mouth full of salt water instead of air.

We spot the pod of dolphins. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

“Jump when Mwanzi says,” Mau says as we circle around again.

The boats have herded the dolphins together, encircling them like a pride of lions might do when desperate to separate a baby elephant from its mother. Unlike the elephant, the dolphins can easily dive down ten, fifteen meters to the bottom and whiz away if they so please. Instead, they too seem to be making runs and then looping back to the same area.

Mwanzi skillfully puts us ahead of the dolphins, rather than having us jump out once we are upon them.

“Okay, jump,” he says.

I splash in.

I'm surrounded by blue. I'd hoped to at least catch a glimpse of one of the dolphins before it sped off, but it seems that I'm not so lucky.

Treading water with the rental flippers that look as if a baby dragon has taken a bite out of each fin, I watch as a couple more tourists splash into the water closer to where the dolphins are.

Mwanzi is pointing at the dolphins telling us to swim closer.

Suddenly, a pod of bottlenosed dolphins is fining toward me. Their snouts bob up and down as their light skin, scared by raking, catches shimmering bars of sunlight that cut through the turquoise water.

The dolphins squeak and chatter and squeak.

One splits from the pod, swimming directly for me, gently curving away from me at the last moment.

I find myself swimming alongside them, no other living thing in sight.

The dolphins arch up. Their dorsal fins breaking the surface as they pick up speed. They leave me bobbing with a jellyfish just below the surface.

A few seconds later, the three I was with moments ago are below me, faint, murky shadows. Another part of the pod, about nine dolphins, cruise down to join them.

Taking a moment at the surface, I slow my heart rate, then duck dive straight down. With my fingers pinching my nose, I gently press my breath into my ears, equalizing. Kick, equalize, kick, kick, equalize. Down I go, my freediving training from Phuket kicking in as I gain depth.

I pause above the pod, suspended in the Indian Ocean. Moments slip by. They're spinning around and around, their bodies melding together like a school of fish. One of the dolphins seems to be at the center of the fuss, but I can't make out exactly what they're doing to it.

I surface and dive a second time. As I descend, they ascend around me, their forms moving in beautiful choreography, diverging at elegant angles as they rise, their bodies spreading out from where they were clustered like a flower welcoming the sun.

I could reach out and pet one. But I don't.

I've had them completely to myself for three minutes before white, fleshy human limbs come into the frame. However, the dolphins schooling toward the bottom again.

When they surface, I swim alongside them. We break the surface together before gently slipping back below the surface.

I slow and watch their flukes' relaxed movements as they propel themselves forward. A tourist swimming full speed in an attempt to catch up with them races past me. Her legs kick hard foaming the water around her as she speeds after them.

I wait.

They turn and come back, spending a few more precious moments with me before it's time for me to climb back into the boat and head out across the deep-water channel that separates Unguja from one of the smaller islands on which we'll be having lunch.

The spec of a dhow, sails raised and full of wind takes, form as we speed toward it.

“Why do you think we go there?” Mau asks.

“I don't know,” we all say, unsure what he's talking about.

“Lunch. They should have fresh fish we can buy for lunch,” he says, his smile beaming at us.

The prospect of getting the catch of the day before the fishermen even return to shore is elating. Mwanzi cruise up next to the boat. Mau wearing his bright orange life jacket – he can't swim – calls out to them.

They talk for a couple of minutes. The sailboat shows no sign or interest in slowing down as they talk.

“They haven't caught anything yet,” Mau says.

It's the same story with the second dhow we catch near Pungume Island.

A wall of clouds builds and darkens over the Unguja, barreling toward us.

“Looks like rain,” I say.

“Yes, me, I think we cannot eat on the beach,” Mau says.

Silently, Mwanzi steers us around the edge of what appears to be a deserted island, its white beaches tinted yellow despite the sun slipping behind the cloud cover.

A small dhow without a mast or sail floats over the shallow reef around the island. Suspended between the side floats and the main hull of the craft are woven crab traps. Inside the boat, two men feed netting out to a young man diving down to secure it to the corals. Here, past the deep trench between the islands, the water is a patchwork of azure blues bruised by darker coral bommies and reef, which checker the white sands several meters below the surface.

The men push the boat out in the shallows to set traps and nets. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

The tide is out, leaving the gnarled coral rag bedrock looking like the remains of a dog's rawhide toy. Across the sweeping blue sound Dar es Salaam shimmers sliver on the edge of the western horizon.

The storm is quickly catching up with us as Mwanzi guides us around a point on the island and into a small, protected cove. Sections of land bank down to meet the waters, where a handful of wooden canoes and a couple plastic kayaks safely bob.

Onshore are ramshackle huts, lean-tos, and temporary fishermen's shelters woven into a forest of tall trees. The shore leading up to the camp is littered with fist-sized shells that the girls at the House of Giggles could put to good use as decorations.

The Finish girls help Mau carry a basket of food up to a shelter as Mwanzi secures our boat. The first fat drops of rain begin to be squeezed from the graying clouds above us.

The fishermen, most dressed in ragged shorts and shirts, smile and wave to us as Mau figures out which shelter we can clear out for lunch.

On closer inspection, the makeshift stick and thatch roofs have just as much salvaged sheets of plastic and mosquito netting as organic material, as if they were built by exceptionally large, clever crows.

We make ourselves at home at the temporary fishing camp. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

I help Mau clean up one of the shelters, spreading our mat on the dirt floor. Mwanzi takes over a small campfire at another hut, setting water to boil as he cleans a fresh haul of squid that he procured from the fishermen.

“Do they live here?” I ask Mau.

“Yes, they live here for a few weeks at a time, then go back to their families for a couple of days.”

It's raining, but not so hard that the drops are cutting through the canopy of the large baobab tree at the center of the camp.

“Kuku,” sings one of the fishermen.

A sprawling herd of chickens starts sprinting for him, heads bobbing as they run, besides themselves with eagerness.

“They think food,” he tells me.

Confused, the chickens slowly disperse, but then come racing to him again when he calls out.

This time, he doesn't disappoint them, tossing handfuls of leftover rice from a fire-charred pan onto the ground.

I wander off to explore the island. Mounds of discarded conch shells stir the anthropologist and archaeologist inside me. A spectacularly beautiful shell is nestled into the roots of one of the trees, its shinning orange aperture a mystical gateway to some fairy world.

Heavy raindrops are now dripping off the leaves and finding their way into my hair. I start down a path that cuts deeper into the island. Based on the piles of shells I stumble across along its edge and in the bush, I wouldn't be surprised to find that the shelters slowly migrate through the area with time.

Worried that I might be missing lunch, I return to camp. Mwanzi is focused on stirring a pot of squid soup over open fire with a coconut-shell ladle, while red-faced rooster boldly moves in on the food and flames. He smiles as he slices a few limes, squeezing their juice into the pot before tossing them in to cook with the calamari.

Plate after plate of food is spread out on the mat in front of us as we hunker down in the cramped, decrepit shelter. A happy silence prevails as we soak flaps of chapati in stewed beans and pop pieces of savory fresh calamari into our mouths.

“I know this isn't what you guys planned, but this is perfect,” I tell Mau and Mwanzi. I think Mwanzi was nervous about what we'd think of the experience. “The thing is, we can see great beaches all the time. This is so much more interesting. You should consider always doing it this way.”

Somewhere in the camp, a single radio crackles and sputters. I can't be sure, but it sounds like someone is announcing a football match.

Shortly after lunch, it appears that the storm has passed, having never really barred down on us with its full force. I could spend another hour here, maybe even get the drone up in the air, but Dorsey II and my phone are struggling and low on power. And, Mwanzi is impatiently waiting in the boat.

One of the local fishermen carrying a basket full of thin, arm-length needlefish hops into our speedboat, joining us to where the girls and I splash in to snorkel.

After we're done with our short snorkeling venture, he switches to a fishing boat bobbing in the shallow waters around the island, leaving a half dozen of his fish with us as payment – or at least that's my best guess as to why he left some of the fish.

Mau's face is split with a smile as he talks about preparing the fish for dinner at The House of Giggles.

On the way back, we tuck into the mangrove forests, splashing through the knotted shallows, where a Zanzibar red colobus shakes the trees as it jumps from branch to branch and herons and whimbrels are stoically perched.

We paused to enjoy the mangrove forests on the way back. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Mau and Mwanzi stay with the boat as the girls and I separately venture through the mangroves. Walking the sandy strip between the watery forest and the island – there are so many small islands along this coast – it's hard to contain my excitement about the prospect of stumbling over a pirate's treasure chest. Any of these sections of isolated coastline that were once heavy in trade – and pirates – must be prime for hidden riches.

Back in the boat, Mau continues to be upbeat, smiling, and energetic, nearly beside himself with the chance to share this part of the world with me and the girls, who he's taken under his wing since their arrival.

Unfortunately, Mwanzi is a changed man from a few days ago. His enthusiasm is drained, its only flickered across his face a few times today, like the final embers of a squelched campfire.

He's ready to be back in Kizimkazi.

In the last trip he led, they didn't return until after sunset. However, it's barely past 2pm and we're skimming past islands in a rush to return to the village. But it doesn't matter. Merely blinking brings back the images of the bottlenose dolphins as they peeled from the pod and came within inches of me as we swam together in the chattering ocean. There is no reason to let another person's storm clouds mute the beauty of such an experience.

Mau feels me. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

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