A supposedly responsible dolphin tour turns out to be a worst-case scenario for anyone who cares about marine animals.

I recently came back from a trip around East Africa, which ended with a longer stay on Zanzibar. Here, I had the opportunity to take a “dolphin tour,” an early morning trip to the coastal town of Kizimkazi, where the dolphins migrate by every morning. A boat was to take me out there, and it would be possible to snorkel with the dolphins.

The tour coordinator assured me that this was an eco-conscious experience, indicating that operators took animal welfare and ethics into consideration, so I decided to go. After my early morning pickup we drove about 30 minutes down the east coast, but even as we pulled into the parking lot I sensed something was very, very wrong.

The small lot was packed with minibuses and tourists flocking towards the beach, as well as numerous locals selling trips, renting snorkeling gear and selling souvenirs, including a stand with several large seashells, which tourists are urged not to remove from the beach, much less purchase. Things did not get better when we got to the beach. Several small motorboats were already heading out, and more were filling up as I approached. I’d estimate that at least a dozen boats were heading out of the shallow lagoon to the open sea. There were several safety issues, such as the boats being quite small for the sometimes-rough Indian Ocean, and few of them having any life jackets or other flotation devices on board. But my concern for my safety paled when I saw the boats race out at breakneck speeds to the pods of dolphins beyond the reef.

Using their engines and propellers to scare the animals, the dozen or so boats gave chase to a pod of dolphins, cutting them off and enclosing them in a small circle of boats, where the tourists were urged to jump in and swim with the animals. Often, they were told to jump in right on top of the pod, with several tourists landing squarely on top of one or more dolphins. I even saw at least one of the boats ram a dolphin in an attempt to prevent it from swimming away to deeper waters. All of the boats kept their propellers spinning in the water as they herded the dolphins around, and from spotting what looked like propeller scars on the backs of a few of the animals, I can only imagine that collisions like the one I witnessed aren’t uncommon. My driver was insistent that this sort of behavior on the part of the boat captains was fine, though they also forbade me from taking pictures of anything but the dolphins.

I failed to convince my driver to keep his distance from the dolphins and cut his engine so as not to injure or stress the animals any more than they already were, so I instead insisted he take me back to shore. He seemed quite puzzled by this, as I hadn’t been in the water along with the rest of the tourists. After some more insisting on my part, he finally accepted, and in we went. More outgoing boats passed us as we headed in, adding to the frenzy beyond the reef. I even spotted a boat from a local dive center in the crowd.

Whale-watching experiences wherein guests are allowed in the water are always debatable from an animal-welfare standpoint. On one hand, any interaction with wild animals risks affecting their behavior in various ways, both short-term and long-term. However, these operations can also carry huge potential benefits. If a local community sees financial gain in having a healthy population of wild dolphins or other cetaceans in their area, they are much less likely to hunt them for food or profit, and are more likely to accept initiatives and legislation designed to protect the animals. Third-party whalers are also less likely to attempt catches in the area if there’s ongoing tourist activity focused on the animals. Having tourists experience the power and beauty of these animals is also a good way of sensitizing them to the situation and the needs of the animals, making them more likely to support activity to protect them.

But in order for these activities to be conducted in an ethical way, there are a number of necessary precautions that were clearly not undertaken in Kizimkazi:

  1. Limiting the number of boats allowed in the water near the animals at any given time. More boats equal more noise and disturbance, which is known to stress whales, including dolphins. Also, more boats means more risk of collisions.
  2. Proper boating practice. This includes keeping a safe distance from the animals, always staying on the side of the animals rather than cutting them off, and disengaging the propeller, preferably the engine as well, any time the boat is near the animals.
  3. Limiting the amount of time boats and guests stay near the animals.
  4. If guests are allowed to enter the water, this should be done at a distance from the animals, and guests are under no circumstances to touch or grab the animals.
  5. If guests are allowed to enter the water, they need to be instructed on proper behavior around the animals.
  6. Ideally, part of the proceeds from the activities should be used to further research and protection activities.

The best whale tour operators will often collaborate with organizations that advise on responsible conduct, such as the World Cetacean Alliance. Clearly, the operators at Kizimkazi have no such collaboration, or are blatantly ignoring any advice they’re given. When I addressed my concerns to the tour operator with whom I booked my trip, in particular the collision I witnessed, his response was a callous “but it didn’t die, so everything is fine.”

I was appalled at what I saw, and distraught, as Zanzibar is a place of extreme natural beauty, both above and below water. I have dived there with many divers who observe the highest standards of responsible behavior around marine life. But I can only urge other divers, and anyone concerned about the welfare of marine life, to avoid these dolphin tours in Zanzibar as long as the current practices remain the same.

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