Zanzibar is an Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of Tanzania and Kenya. Surrounded by many smaller islands you will find Pemba, Mafia Island and Unguja – the island usually referred to as Zanzibar. Unguja is referred to as Zanzibar as this is where the capital Zanzibar City (generally referred to as Stone Town) is located. All 3 of these islands offer spectacular diving all year round with water temperature ranging from 25-29 °C and visibility sometimes up to 40m.
Unguja – Zanzibar Island
Zanzibar Island is the largest of the three with a number of different areas – all of which offer unique and spectacular diving experiences.
Where is it: Zanzibar island lays off the coast of Tanzania, about 60 km’s North East of Dar es Salaam. Zanzibar has an international airport with international flights usually stopping over in Kenya or mainland Tanzania. There is also a ferry that departs daily between Dar es Salaam and Stone Town on Zanzibar island. The ferry ride takes 1.5 – 2 hours.
What makes it special:
- Mnemba Island: Mnemba Island is a private island resort. The entire island is privately owned and only guests are allowed. Luckily the reefs surrounding the islands is a marine reserve and dive operators from the main island schedule regular diving and snorkelling trips here. The reefs around Mnemba island houses more than 600 species of fish and 3 species of dolphins. Mnemba island also serves as a nesting place for green turtles between February and September. There are a number of excellent dive sites around Mnemba Island with Wattabomi and Ketchuani being favourites.
- Nungwi: On the North East tip of Zanzibar Island you will find a diver’s paradise in Nungwi. Nungwi has dive sites for both novice and advanced divers with relaxed, shallow dives where you can see ornate ghost pipe fish, sea horses, harlequin shrimp, leaf fish and frog fish, to deeper sites where big game fish and shark encounters are not uncommon. Dolphins are often spotted in the water around Nungwi and turtles can also be found.
- Kizimkazi: Kizimkazi is a small village that grew popular because it offered amazing dolphin tours in a marine protected area. Unfortunately the majority of operators in the area are unfamiliar with how to run these tours in a manner that is safe and ethical for the animals. Volunteers that assist with education and conservation efforts are working in the area and surrounds to improve the situation. This area offers wonderful micro and macro diving, just make sure you join a reputable dive centre.
- Fumba: Fumba is also a marine protected area and less crowded and commercialised than many other places on the island. The beaches are not as nice as other areas and because of this there are less divers which means pristine coral, abundant fish life and only your group of divers on the reef.
- Stone Town: Stone Town is the main city of Zanzibar island. Although the city has spread out, parts of the old city can still be explored. Diving around Stone Town (really the islands off of Stone Town) will offer a wide variety of coral gardens and tropical fish. There are 3 wrecks to explore and whalesharks often migrate past by some of the reefs.
- Paje, Bwejuu e Jambiani: Located on the South East coast of Zanzibar Island this area offer some interesting dive sites including the lagoon and the Cement wall where you can still see 3 anchors from the ship that lost its cargo of cement in the 1930’s. Divers often see shark, napoleon wrasse turtles.
Details: There is an abundance of hotels, hostels, and lodges on Zanzibar Island. There is also a large number of dive centres in the popular tourist areas.
Getting around Zanzibar island is easy and convenient. Private taxis are available all over the island, prices usually are negotiable and it is best if you agree on the price before you get in. For a budget option you can use the local busses called dala-dala’s. You can also rent a car on the island. If you decide to rent a car, ensure that you find a company with good reviews and one that has regularly serviced cars. Some companies do not offer break down or exchange services. There are many police checks on the roads so make sure that the rental car is roadworthy and you have all the required documents: your driver’s licence, the temporary Zanzibar drivers permit and the car insurance and road license stickers displayed on the windscreen.
There are no ATM’s outside of Stone Town, although some hotels might let you swipe your card and give you the cash if you pay a surcharge.
Zanzibar has a large Muslim community and it is best to cover your legs and arms when you move away from the beach area and limit public displays of affection in order to respect the local culture.
When to go: Although diving is good all year round, March is considered the best month for diving. It also brings cooler weather with occasional rain. April to May is the rainy season and more rain in November to mid-December. July to October and mid-December to mid-January are the busy times on Zanzibar Island.
Pemba Island is the second largest island in the archipelago but less developed than Zanzibar Island. It sees a lot less tourists than Zanzibar and more hills and plantations. It is also one of the largest producer of cloves.
Where is it: Pemba lays about 90 km North and East from Zanzibar Island.
What makes it special:
Diving on Phemba Island is excellent with occasional manta sightings, lots of devil and eagle rays (Jan to March), turtles and reef sharks. Mesali Island is part of a conservation area and is home to a pod of dolphins and turtle nests.
Details: There are flights between Zanzibar Island and Pemba twice a day. The flight takes about 30 minutes each way. There are both fast (2 hour one way trip) and slow (7 hour one way trip) ferries running between Zanzibar and Pamba. Trips on the fast ferry could be rougher and slightly less safe especially when entering the Nungwi channel. There are also boats from Tanzania and Kenya.
Because there is less tourism on Pemba, there is a limited amount of accommodation and dive operators in the area. Accommodation is mostly in the higher price range with a few budget friendlier options. Diving is perhaps a bit more on the expensive side, but isn’t diving ‘the best sites in East Africa’ worth it?
The majority of Pemba’s population is Muslim and it is suggested that women wear long skirts, cover their shoulders and wear head scarves whilst travelling. Men should cover their legs and shoulders.
When to go: The best time to go to Pemba is during the dry season in July to late October. November to March sees some rain but is still a good time to go. Heavy rains come to Pemba in April and May. Most of the hotels and lodges close during this period.
While it is better known for snorkelling with whalesharks, Mafia Island also has fantastic diving on offer with two of the sites boasting to be the best in the world.
Where is it: Mafia Island is about 150 km South of Zanzibar Island and 115 km South of Dar es Salaam.
What makes it special:
There is a pinnacle where you can see tropical reef fish as well as pelagic fish, turtles, rays and schools of batfish. There is also a wall and overhangs with an archway full of fish where you can also see sailfish, tuna, nudibranchs, leaf fish and reef sharks among many, many more.
Details: Mafia Island is about a half an hour flight away from Zanzibar Island and Dar es Salaam.
The island is the least developed of the three and thus there is a very limited number of accommodation (think under 10) and dive operator options on Mafia Island and the smaller islands around it.
When to go: There are two dry seasons on Mafia Island. The hot dry season is during January and February while the cool dry season is from July to October (a good time to visit). The long rainy season is from March to June, with its peak in April/May. The short Rainy season is November and December.
These three Islands are also known as the Spice Islands in the Indian Ocean. Each island offer a variety of cultures and experiences and an abundance to explore on land and under water. The Zanzibar archipelago is as beautiful under the water as it is above, boasting some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and best dive sites, and is definitely a trip worth taking!
- A version of this article first appeared at www.scubadiverlife.com