Loving Dolphins to Death in Zanzibar
August 20, 2014
Last year, I had the distinct privilege of spending 4 months studying abroad on the beautiful island archipelago of Zanzibar, a hot-spot for tourism off the coast of Tanzania. While spending a month in Kizimkazi, the home of Zanzibar’s dolphin tourism industry, I had the single most awesome experience of my life thus far; I went out on a boat late one evening and got in the water to swim solo with a pod of 30 wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins.
I was surprised by how relaxed they were around me, moving slowly so that I could keep up with them and coming incredibly close to me, checking me out and making eye contact with me. A mother even brought her small calf within arm’s reach. For a species known to be very protective of their young, I could only guess that she trusted me enough to not harm her precious baby.
PHOTO: PAULA VON WELLER
Many people say the ocean is a peacefully quiet place, but those people didn’t hang around dolphins! There was constant chatter of whistles and clicks, and whether they were talking to each other about the stranger in the water or trying to get me to talk back, it was a truly humbling experience to have such an intimate interaction with an intelligent being of another species. The dolphins let me stay with them for about 20 minutes before they decided they either had better things to do or were offended I wasn’t responding to their persistent calls. They picked up speed, disappearing into deeper waters. I got on the boat ginning from ear to ear – it was nothing short of a magical experience. However, most dolphin swims here aren’t anything like what I had just done.
The dolphin tourism in this area can only be described as rampant. Every morning tourists arrive in Kizimkazi from the main city of Stone Town and pile onto boats owned and operated by local fishermen to head out in search of dolphins. The boat owners race to make sure their tourists get the best view of the dolphins first and there can be anywhere between 2 and 18 boats with a single group of dolphins at one time. Boat drivers then race around the pod at full speed, trying to drop the tourists into the water right on top of the dolphins.
Unlike when I swam with them, the dolphins are stressed by the flurry of boat activity and the dozens of noisy swimmers in the water. They take deep dives and move quickly away from the boats, but almost all of the groups around here have young calves that can’t make it too far without needing to breath. As soon as they’re spotted surfacing, boats race at them again and the harassment continues. Studies here have shown that the dolphins no longer have sufficient time to forage, rest, socialize, mate, and nurse their young. If it’s kept up, the local population is expected to decline.
I know from my personal experience swimming with the dolphins that it’s not inherently stressful or harmful to them. If they didn’t want me there, they could have swam away and there was no hope of me being able to keep up. Instead, they were curious and trusting of me.
Everyone can and should have this kind of wildlife experience. If you ever go to watch animals in the wild, be it a safari, turtle walk, or dolphin swim, do it the right way. Go with an organization that is conservation-conscious and make sure tour groups are of reasonable size – too many people will cause stress to most animals. If possible, talk to locals and ask their opinions of the tourism. If it’s harming local wildlife, they’ll have noticed.
If you think an experience you booked in good faith seems to be harmful, please, don’t go through with it. Many of the tourists in Zanzibar said that the dolphins seemed stressed but they had already spent the money and they were already there so what difference would it make for them to leave? I know it’s hard to give up something you’ve paid good money for (trust me, I’m a broke college student), but isn’t the welfare of the animals worth just a little bit more?
For more information about Zanzibar or the dolphin tourism of Kizimkazi, you can download Rebecca’s paper here.