“Marine wildlife has sustained human civilization and development for millennia, from providing food and nourishment to material for handicraft and construction. It has also enriched our lives culturally, spiritually, and recreationally in different ways.” – United Nations

The animals and plants that make up the natural world play a significant role in the lives and livelihoods of many communities around the world and life as we know it – their value is undeniable. The aim of World Wildlife Day is to celebrate the incredible diversity of this wildlife, raise awareness about the importance of these species to sustainable development, and remind us of the multitude of benefits that conservation has for people and why it is important that we protect it.

This year, the theme is ‘Life below water’. The theme aligns with #14 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which is, “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources”.

And, as we know, the ocean hides a world of astounding beauty, incredible mystery, and encounters with animals that have captured the world’s imagination.

One of these is swimming with dolphins.

A once in a lifetime experience you will never forget

The first time you go swimming with dolphins in Zanzibar is an experience you will never forget.

The moment you slip into the water, you slip into another world. It’s just you, the warm salty sea, and a pod of dolphins. You can’t see them, but the whistles and clicks let you know that they are there.

It isn’t long before a flash of grey signals that you have company. You are suddenly surrounded by ten perky bottlenose dolphins, each carving circles through the water, vying for your attention.

For a moment, humans and nature are caught in an embrace of perfect synergy, a reminder about the connections we share, and the harmony that can exist between us, if only we let it.

Dolphin tourism and its impact on dolphin behavior

Dolphins are famously social creatures that do not shy away from people and have been known to help fishermen herd their catch into nets and protect divers from sharks. There have even been stories of dolphins offering up gifts of squid and octopus to bewildered fishermen.

Our fascination with these animals is age-old and has supported the establishment of marine parks, aquariums, and dolphin programs that have created a billion-dollar industry and inspired many kids around the world to become marine biologists and veterinarians. But while the same dolphin tourism industry continues to charm and inspire the world, it has come under the spotlight in recent years as a result of films such as Blackfish and The Cove. These controversial films question the relationship between people and animals, and the impact it has on the behavior of dolphins.

On the one hand, many of these places contribute toward research, education, and conservation efforts that benefit marine wildlife in significant ways. And many of them save and rehabilitate sick, injured, or vulnerable dolphins and release them back into the wild. The work they do is remarkable and invaluable.

However, some of them have also taken dolphins away from their pods and sentenced them to a life of captivity in a petting pool that is often too small and chlorinated to sustain a healthy dolphin. Stories of dolphins becoming anxious, aggressive, and frustrated when confined to shallow tanks and forced to interact with an endless stream of people are not new.

African Impact believes that dolphins should be left where they are happiest – in the ocean.

Is swimming with wild dolphins the answer to irresponsible dolphin tourism?

At African Impact, we believe that swimming with dolphins in the wild is better for the dolphins and the best way to witness them in their natural environment. Without any interference, they are able to behave as they want to. And for the most part, it is a healthy, responsible, and rewarding way to interact with dolphins.

However, with disturbing stories emerging of boat drivers chasing dolphins and tourists interfering with pods because they don’t know any better, even this has faced heavy criticism and has many countries implementing policies that control or outlaw swimming with dolphins.

Zanzibar is one of the last remaining areas in the world with a dolphin population that is not governed by guidelines that limit the impact of tourism on their behavior. And it is, unfortunately, a hotbed of irresponsible dolphin tourism as a result.

The dolphin tourism industry in Zanzibar

The dolphins of Zanzibar are a great example of the harmonious relationship between humans and animals. The island lies off the coast of Tanzania, in East Africa, and draws travelers from around the world, all hoping to catch a glimpse of the resident dolphins. The islanders, in turn, have made a living out of introducing visitors to their cetacean (the collective name for aquatic mammals such as dolphins, porpoises, and whales) neighbors.

Kizimkazi is a little village on the southern shores of Zanzibar where dolphins are particularly active and the locals have formed a deep bond with the ocean. The water surrounding this part of the island is known as Menai Bay and is frequented by two very distinct dolphin species: the bottlenose dolphin and Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin.

Their presence has helped form a dolphin tourism industry that has become the heart and soul of an otherwise obscure fishing village. However, the dolphin tourism industry in Kizimkazi is also mired by irresponsible tourism that is causing the dolphins to move further away from their gathering grounds and has many wondering where the ethical boundaries are and whether they have been crossed.

Why ethical dolphin tours matter

The locals of Kizimkazi rely on the dolphins to support their livelihoods, which is why it is crucial that we understand and support sustainable dolphin tourism.

However, how do we ensure a symbiotic relationship between the locals and the dolphin population?

Choosing an ethical dolphin tour is the best way to support sustainable dolphin tourism. The difference between a responsible trip and irresponsible one is a good skipper, so the tour operator should be reputable, responsible, and have boat drivers that are knowledgeable about sustainable practices.

Kizimkazi Ethical Boat Tours is one such company that offers ethical dolphin tours in Zanzibar. The boat drivers have all attended Ethical Dolphin Tour Workshops that form a big part of the Dolphin Research & Marine Conservation program at African Impact.

Our Dolphin Research & Marine Conservation project in Zanzibar gives volunteers and interns a chance to contribute to the sustainability of dolphin tourism by researching dolphin tourism, monitoring the interactions between humans and dolphins, and promoting ethical dolphin tours. By interning and volunteering with dolphins, they get to get up close to these creatures and promote long term change by educating boat drivers about sustainable practices in workshops.

These Ethical Dolphin Tour Workshops train drivers so they are better equipped to inform tourists about the issues surrounding dolphin tours and ensure a sustainable balance between themselves and the dolphins. This ultimately ensures the dolphins are not driven away and protects the lives and livelihoods of those who depend on the ocean and her bounty.

Threats such as climate change, pollution, and irresponsible tourism have a significant impact on the lives of those who depend on marine ecosystem services and the animals who call those ecosystems home. And knowing what we know, it is our responsibility to protect it.

By opting for an ethical boat tour, you are doing your part to protect it.

ALSO READ: Eco-Tourism and its Role in Protecting Zanzibar’s Dolphin Population