Diving Zanzibar

Go off the beaten path on the east coast of Africa’s tropical paradise

Zanzibar, an island some 20 miles off the coast of Tanzania, is about twice the size of California, and has close relations to, but is a semi-autonomous part of, the Republic of Tanzania. Situated a few degrees south of the equator and comfortably in the Indian Ocean, the world’s warmest, it boasts both warm weather and water year-round — not to mention some pretty good scuba diving.

On a recent trip around Kenya and Tanzania, I spent some time in Zanzibar, and elected to forego the more popular northwestern shoreline for the other side of the island. The northern part of the island has a reputation for being quite touristy and having numerous, notorious party beaches, where all-night moonlight parties are quite common. Instead, I headed for the tranquil, almost deserted, east coast, which features just a few hotels sprinkled among the coconut palms and banana groves and small towns. And there’s nothing but the waves of the Indian Ocean to lull you to sleep at night.

As Zanzibar is known as a dive destination, there’s no shortage of dive shops. Even in the very remote area where I was staying, I had a choice of three PADI centers. Gear quality and guiding ability can vary quite a bit, though, so do a bit of research before heading out. None of the centers I dived with was bad as such, but there was quite a noticeable difference in service level, boat standard, and dive-site knowledge among the guides. I did most of my diving with Buccaneer Diving in Paje, owned by a very likeable Spanish guy.

The dive sites along the east coast are usually reef dives, and due to an often-considerable current, they’re often drifts. The coral life and marine biodiversity is high here, and during the right seasons you can spot some of the large pelagic stuff, including whale sharks. We didn’t see any of those, but we did spot a couple groups of the humpback whales that make their way along the coast during migration season, but they were too far off shore for us to get close. On one memorable dive, a pod of dolphins kept us company. The Mnemba Atoll on the northern part of the coast, with its marine national park, is the most famous dive in the area. Other options include the Powoni area, which counts three dive sites, known as Powoni North, Powoni Hill and Powoni South. Turtles, parrotfish, morays and octopus are all common sights here, and at the right times of year, you can also see hammerheads, eagle rays, and whale sharks. Stingray City, a sheltered dive site perfect for beginners, features stingrays, often by the dozens, and a good chance of seeing seahorses (if you can spot them).

Water temperatures range from the low 80s Fahrenheit in the cooler months to mid-90s (26 to 35C) in the warmest months, so there’s little risk of freezing during your dive.

Unfortunately, there are signs of both extensive trawling and even dynamite fishing on some of the reefs, and these destructive activities have taken a toll. Also, particularly in the warmer months, visibility can vary quite a bit. In spite of what I’d been told, I wouldn’t necessarily call Zanzibar (east coast or elsewhere) “world-class diving,” but it is good diving, and if you’re vacationing here, I’d definitely recommend adding scuba diving to your list of activities.

Dive times will vary substantially from day to day, as the east coast is quite affected by tides. Dive boats go out only during high tide, so don’t be surprised if you’re asked to be ready at 8am one day and 10am the next. The tides also mean you should only go swimming at certain times of day but, in return, the east coast has far better beaches than the rest of the island, with several of them featuring on lists of the world’s best.

Getting to Zanzibar is fairly straightforward. A number of airports in eastern Africa have direct flights to the island; Kenya Airways offers flights from either Nairobi in Kenya or Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. There’s also a ferry a few times a day from Dar es Salaam to Stone Town, the oldest part of the capital city. Getting around the island is a little trickier, as public transport isn’t that great. There are minibuses of varying quality traversing most of the main roads, but be prepared to sit in tight quarters and don’t be surprised if you end up with a chicken on your lap.

Zanzibar is also known as the “spice island” for its vast production of spices, such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The spices appear frequently in Zanzibari cuisine, which is some of the best in Africa with dishes featuring local fish and shellfish, as well as vegetarian options such as the local favorite, bean and coconut stew. Tour one of the many spice and tropical fruit farms to see what these spices look like before they hit your plate. Stone Town is also worth a visit for its beautiful Arabesque architecture and its history, which includes a past as one of the main hubs of the slave trade.