“This is the most birds I’ve ever seen! I never knew they were here!”
The bright Zanzibar sun is mellowing in the afternoon, as we head north from One Ocean Stone Town. We are on board the beautiful sailing dhow M V Henya – decks cleared of the usual SCUBA gear and equipped instead with a cooler of refreshments and trays of delicious snacks. This is no ordinary zanzibar sunset cruise however – we are in search of big birds and fruit-bats.
The islets we are visiting are within clear sight of Stone Town, yet you wouldn’t know they host one of Zanzibar’s best kept secrets and most spectacular wildlife-watching experiences.
First, we head to a sandbank. From a distance, it appears little more than a desert island, but as we draw nearer, looking first through binoculars then with the naked eye, clouds of circling birds appear.
The captain eases the throttle, and we approach slowly so as not to alarm the birds. At the eastern end of the sandbank a great flock of Lesser Crested Terns are resting, bright white birds with bright orange bills. These agile aeronauts spend most of their time out at sea feeding on small fish. Yet here are tens, even hundreds. While some rest, others wheel around our heads checking us out, then land again on the sand.
At the other end of the sandbank, we find a more mixed flock of birds of all different shapes and sizes. A large, year-old Heuglin’s Gull stands alone in the surf breaking over the bar, dwarfing much smaller Sooty Gulls. By far the most numerous of this group are one of my favourite birds: Crab-plovers. These striking, unique black and white birds are in a family of their own and can only be found in the Western Indian Ocean. In fact, I’ve met birders who come to Tanzania especially to see them. Here, at least 60 or 70, if not more, huddle together facing into the wind. Among them we can also see Grey Plovers, a couple more Lesser Crested Terns, and their cousins the Greater Crested terns (much larger with a lemon-yellow bill), a Common Tern (a species not that common here), and even, to my great delight, a European Oystercatcher! I’ve only seen one in Zanzibar before, a couple of years ago, on this very sandbank. I wonder if it’s the same bird?
Tempting as it is to linger, the afternoon light will soon give way and we have more wildlife still to see.
So, we sail on past Chapwani Island, where we catch sight of a group of Water Thicknees perched beneath a cliff, and a Common Ringed Plover with its bright white collar runs about on the beach. Water Thicknees are one of the iconic birds of the Zanzibar evening soundscape, calling as they fly over Stone Town rooftops – ti-ti-ti-i ti, twee twee twee. Their Swahili name is Chekeamwezi, which means ‘laugh at the moon’, and on cue, the crescent moon is beginning to show above us. A flock of Grey Plovers fly past, showing their distinctive black armpits.
BIRDS ON EVERY BRANCH
Our journey continues to the tiny islet of Kibandiko – known in English as Snake Island. Its silhouette resembles a cargo ship. It would be virtually impossible to land, as the uninhabited island is surrounded by overhanging rocky cliffs and cloaked in impenetrable forest.
I don’t know whether there are many snakes here, but there are certainly birds in spectacular abundance. As the sun slips towards the horizon, the sky is filled with a species not usually associated with the coast: Cattle Egrets – coming to roost for the night. If Kibandiko does not host all the cattle egrets from the west side of Unguja, it must be a great proportion of them. Thousands upon thousands of birds descend, with new flocks of 20, 30, and many more, coalescing, flying around the island, and selecting a tree to roost on. Among them are other species: dark and pale morphs of the Dimorphic Egret (an intertidal species) and the thickets conceal Black-crowned Night-herons which we later see flying towards the main island with their distinctive, raven-like croaking call. Closely scanning the tree-top flocks bears fruit – a beautiful Sacred Ibis is also roosting among the egrets.
We are all overwhelmed. Even Gary, who’s sailed and dived here for 25 years, had not realised this tiny islet is home to the most birds he’s ever seen, “In 25 years in Zanzibar, I never knew they were here!”
FLIGHT OF THE FRUIT-BATS
The sun is setting now. After watching it sink into the ocean while sipping a glass of wine, it is time for the last show of the night. We sail back to Chapwani, this time to the North-eastern side. Again, the sky is full, but this time it teems with very special mammals: Straw-coloured Fruit-bats. With a wingspan of 75 cm, only one African fruit-bat is larger (the Pemba Flying Fox). They roost by day on Chapwani; as the egrets fly one way, the bats fly the other to feast on fruits across Unguja. Pouring out from the forest by the light of the moon and stars, tens of thousands of fruit-bats fill the air from horizon to horizon. The chatter, circling close over our heads, then wheel away towards the twinkling lights along the coast.
With this spectacular finale, it was time to raise the sail for home ourselves.
- Lesser Crested Tern
- Greater Crested Tern
- Common Tern
- Sooty Gull
- Heuglin’s Gull
- European Oystercatcher
- Grey Plover
- Ringed Plover
- Water Thicknee
- House Crow
- Cattle Egret
- Dimorphic Egret
- Sacred Ibis
- Black-crowned Night-heron
- Straw-coloured Fruit-bat
ADDITIONAL SPECIES SEEN PREVIOUSLY
- Long-tailed Cormorant
- Openbill Stork
- African Fish Eagle
About the author
Nell Hamilton is a writer, coastal ecologist, naturalist, ecological gardener and environmental educator. She lives in Zanzibar with her partner and two rescue dogs.
Divers love to immerse themselves in nature. To explore, be adventurous and enjoy all the experiences on offer. And ultimately, we want to do our best to look after the environment and our planet home. Its not always easy and we have had a chat, put our heads together and pooled our ideas and suggestions for you.
These ideas can be used for travel in general, but we have also made some specific suggestions for Zanzibar.
It well worth noting that while some countries have highly efficient means to recycle and deal with plastic waste, many countries do not, Zanzibar included. As a result, plastic waste ends up in landfills and the ocean. We see the pictures and feel powerless – what can we do to help?
- Travel with as few disposable items as possible
- Refuse plastic wherever possible and explain to people why – a friendly chat goes a long way.
- If you do finish any products while on holiday – take your empty containers, used batteries, unwanted clothes etc. home with you for proper disposal.
Many of us know to avoid single use plastics, but sadly its far from a standard practice around the world. Many businesses continue to use single use plastic. The belief is that by providing a straw, plastic cutlery and disposable cups they are giving you the tourist a better experience. And yes, in the interests of hygiene maybe they are. But in the interests of our and the planet’s future they are not.
What do we do to balance these conflicting needs? There are many ethical choices available to us to reduce, reuse and recycle.
- The new fashion item is probably here to stay so let’s keep them out of our ocean and off our beaches– gorgeous, colourful, washable cloth masks are the number one item to pack. While Zanzibar is not a huge mask wearing culture, you will want and need them for planes, airports, taxis etc. Or buy some in Zanzibar.
- A refillable water bottle – Fill up at One Ocean and more and more hotels and restaurants are offering water stations. Sign up on refillmybottle We did!
- Planes get chilly so travel with a wrap on the plane so you don’t use the airlines, plastic wrapped blanket. This will be useful after diving and on the beach too. We personally love our bamboo travel blankets. Warm but breathable and perfect for our climate and sustainably sourced.
- A reusable straw or simply refuse the one that is provided.
- A spork – a fork and spoon in one handy item, available from camping shops and great if you want to eat at budget restaurants and markets where hygiene may be a concern.
- If you enjoy your coffee on the go – a refillable travel mug is a great addition too. But on Zanzibar you will probably want to stop and enjoy a coffee, a chat and the environment. Ask us for our favourite coffee spots in Stone Town, Matemwe and Kiwengwa.
- Your own shopping bag (or make your first purchase a locally produced and stylish bag as a useful and ethical souvenir)
- If you need batteries for anything - go rechargeable. We are very happy with the rechargeable batteries we use for our torches on night dives in Stone Town.
And on a personal note
- Consider refusing those, admittedly easy, disposable items each time you travel – on Zanzibar we find the beaches littered with shampoo bottles, disposable pens, toothbrushes, lighters and razors.
- Soaps, shampoos, conditioners are all available in bars. Stock up before you leave home or even better buy them when you arrive at your destination from an ethical and local manufacturer. Check out Inaya Zanzibar
- The same goes for body lotions and face products, consider streamlining your regime, use less while on holiday and pack a hat as the ultimate stylish accessory to protect you from the sun.
- Ladies if you have not been convinced already move over to a menstrual cup. See our previous blog on diving with a cup.
- Washable laundry bags are great for dirty stuff and that bikini that did not dry in time.
- Chewing gum – yup it ends up tasting of nothing as it’s basically a synthetic rubber or plastic.
Be a mindful shopper
We all collect things as keepsakes of our travels and experiences – the cheap and cheerful magnets, badges etc. They were all likely made far away, in poor conditions and then shipped around the world.
Consider buying beautifully and locally made memories that will last you a lifetime. Ask the shop for details of who made the items and where. They should be able to provide you with this information. At One Ocean we have a list of recommended shops and boutiques that manufacture locally (Zanzibar and Tanzania) and support many great NGOs. We are happy to share this on request. The same with buying gifts small, useful and sustainably sourced items will show your friends you care.
In Zanzibar we recommend
- Beautiful magnets, keyrings and planters made in Zanzibar @recycle_at_ozti (check them out on Instagram)
- Tanzanian Coffee (utterly delicious and amongst the best the world has to offer)
- Zanzibar Spices
- Handwoven and screen-printed textiles
- Locally produced beauty products
- Beautiful handwoven baskets
Look out for products that simply say “Zanzibar” as opposed to made in Zanzibar or produced in Tanzania.
We suggest caution
- Buying clothes – you will see by the style and fabrics that much that is on offer comes from Asia
- Wooden items – Zanzibar is famous for its carvings but its difficult to be sure the wood comes from a sustainable source. If you love timber look for items made from cocowood which is far more sustainable than hard woods.
Complete no no’s
- Shells, sea stars and anything taken from the ocean to be sold as a souvenir. Each shell for sale represents a dead animal that was a vital and essential part of the marine ecology.
Consider what you eat
The best thing about diving – the marine life. One of the greatest threats to the oceans – indiscriminate and unregulated fishing. Zanzibar is no different, shellfish are getting smaller and smaller and taken before breeding age, same with octopuses. Some restaurants even feature shark, rays and reef fish on their menus.
Talk Out and Start the Conversation!
We often feel shy to speak up, especially when we are far from home and its evident our hosts are trying so hard to do their best for their customers. But that is exactly the point - anybody who works or owns a business in tourism has one aim – to please their customer. Do not feel bad to speak out when you feel a practice is harmful and destructive to the environment and upsetting to you and other travellers.
Have a friendly chat to the manager explaining what bothers you and why. They will listen. It does take time for changes to be made, but the more people request environmentally friendly policies and products the more suppliers will change to accommodate these requests.
We already see far more hotels providing water stations for their guests to refill their own water bottles. We have water available at all our One Ocean Dive Centres for this purpose. Many hotels have started their own filtration and bottling plants in response to requests from their customers and the changing needs/ demands of travellers.
Beers and sodas are all available on the island in recyclable glass. If you are offered drinks from plastic bottles or aluminium cans and that makes you unhappy let the management know.
Many day trips are using plastic cutlery – the more ethical like One Ocean and Safari Blue for example use proper crockery and cutlery and make sure they are well washed after every use.
Ask your hotel how they deal with their waste, where does it go, how do the try and reduce their footprint. Listen for things like we support Recycle@Ozti, Chacko and Zanrec
Spend your money locally
Many people take this to mean spend your money with a “local” as opposed to a company owned and run by foreigners to the country in question. This is frequently counter productive to the growth and development of a country as you may be unwittingly be supporting a black market were minimum wage, social security and taxes are not respected and paid. Look for responsible businesses that take your payment locally, treat their staff well and respect their environment and community.
Beware of Sanctuaries
Tanzania is well known as an incredible destination for wildlife lovers. We strongly recommend you consider a safari (again we are happy to make suggestions) but beware the “sanctuaries” and “breeding programmes”
Avoid any experiences that allow or advertise the following, no matter who appears to endorse them.
- Watching any animal in captivity
- Swimming with animals in captivity including natural water holes which do not allow for escape. The poor diet, harmful effects from the chemicals in sun lotions etc. and the fact that they are caught and sold and not rescued and released has had a massive impact on the turtle population on the reef
- Touching of wild animals in any manner
- Cuddling and posing with wild animals even if they “like it”
- Dolphin tours equal dolphin chasing and harassment
- Playing sports with a wild animal
- Buying a wild animal to set it free – you are simply encouraging an illegal and destructive trade.
Basically ANY activity that involves a wild animal being kept in captivity is unethical and sadly, so too are the stories explaining how these animals were “rescued” and “saved” This is about as far from meaningful conservation as you can get.
What should you take home
You know the saying – take only memories and leave on footprints.
It is difficult to do this but consider what you throw away while in Zanzibar – where will it go? If you don’t have a good answer for that, please rather take it home.
From the bottom of our hearts we hope that this advice is useful. We do not want to preach and we do not claim that we get it right every time. But the more we all try and strive to change the better for all of us, our children’s children and the nature around us that feeds our souls.
As divers, we are very privileged to personally witness the beauty of the underwater world and to be surrounded by the wonderful underwater reef ecosystem. However, it’s worth remembering that with these privileges comes also great responsibility to conserve and protect the ocean, especially coral reefs.
Coral reefs are very fragile ecosystems that are as well vital to us. Most reef-building corals live in symbiosis with algae that lives in their tissues and produces oxygen through photosynthesis. Reefs produce approximately half of the oxygen we breathe. If all the reefs would get destroyed, we would no longer exist either. In addition to that, reefs provide fisheries and are an important food source for us. They also protect the shoreline from waves, storms, floods and erosion. Because of the climate change, marine pollution and overfishing, reefs are already under a lot of stress. By reducing the negative effects of diving, we can avoid adding to it.
Being an ambassador
During your PADI Open Water Course you learn that as a diver you are an environmental ambassador. What does this actually mean? Let’s take a closer look to that:
While diving you see how our actions on land affect the ocean, for example plastic use contributing to the amount marine debris. You can suggest ocean friendly habits for non-divers, providing them first-hand information supporting your message. Promoting ocean-friendly behaviour for other divers is as important if not even more important. Next, let’s talk about ocean friendly diving practices and the ways to promote them.
As a diver you presumably love the ocean and want to minimize the negative effect diving has on the environment. In order to do that, you first need to know, what is harmful and what to avoid and on the other hand what are the good habits to promote. Let’s list some of the most important ones:
A good general rule of thumb is, we don’t touch anything underwater, no matter if it’s living or death. The oils and bacteria of our hands very likely kill the coral we touch. If we have applied sunscreen before diving, most sunscreens tend to disrupt coral’s reproduction and growth cycles. Touching marine life is not acceptable either, since it usually stresses the animals and the bacteria of our hands might lead to infections on animal skin or shell. If you absolutely have to hold on to something, then sticking your finger in sand is probably your best option, presuming you check the area for hiding marine life first.
Streamline your equipment
Dragging gauges and other equipment have a potential to cause reef destruction while diving. During your predive safety check, make sure all your equipment is secured close to your body and consider using clips for securing them. Take a final look at your dive buddy before entering the water and politely tell them if you see hoses hanging.
Fins away from the bottom
Your position in the water, the trim is important detail to pay attention to. Make sure you are properly weighted and that your weights are positioned the way that you can maintain horizontal position. Remember to adjust your buoyancy any time you go deeper by adding a little bit air in your BCD. If you are negatively buoyant, your position gets quite easily diagonal which easily leads to your fins touching the bottom. Even in sandy areas is generally good to avoid stirring the bottom, because of macro life. Learn to fin backwards, to easily get further away from the reef when needed. If you are still unsure of your buoyancy skills enrolling in a PADI Peak Performance Buoyancy Specialty course might be a good idea.
Leave only bubbles, take only memories
We should not take any souvenirs from the ocean. As an example, taking a dead sea shell might not seem so bad, if you don’t know the shell might be needed for a new home to a hermit crab. Many things have their purpose in the ocean even after their death, and removing objects might affect the natural balance of the ocean.
It goes without saying, that we are not leaving anything underwater either. It’s also a good habit to pick up trash you spot on a dive and tuck it in your BCD pocket or a mesh bag for later disposal. Some dive centres organize Project Aware Dive Against Debris dives. Their dive objective is solely to pick up marine debris and to records your findings afterwards.
Underwater photography requires advanced buoyancy skills. Taking pictures is not an excuse to hang on to coral or to place your equipment on the reef. Taking a PADI Peak Performance Buoyancy or PADI Digital Underwater Photographer Specialty course before going to take pictures on your own, develops your skills to become an environmentally friendly underwater photographer. An additional plus is that it improves the quality of your pictures as well, by allowing you to hover comfortably waiting for the perfect moment to shoot, without scaring the marine life away.
Responsible soap and sunscreen use
When choosing a sunscreen, try to choose a reef friendly option. Also applying the sunscreen well before diving gives it time to get properly absorbed by your skin. When cleaning your mask or taking a shower on a boat, make sure any soap doesn’t end up in the ocean.
You and the other divers
Following these guidelines makes you an environmentally friendly diver and chances are the other divers follow your example. The more experienced diver you are, the more probable it is that others copy your underwater behaviour. Undoubtedly you want to be a positive example promoting positive habits. You may still sometimes encounter another diver damaging the reef. How are you supposed to handle the situation?
Intervene. The ocean is our ocean. No matter if the other diver is diving in a same group with you or not, you should whenever possible, Interrupt the harmful behaviour. Simply, swim calmly to the other diver and signal them to avoid touching or to pay attention to their fins. You can also write a message on an underwater slate and show it to them. Readymade “do not touch the coral” slates with an illustration are also available. After the dive try to approach the diver privately and explain why you came to signal them underwater. It’s even possible they are not aware of the harmfulness of their actions.
Take the pledge. You can join Project Aware’s movement to follow their 10 Tips for Divers and make a difference for ocean protection. https://e-activist.com/page/20594/data/1
Hopefully still in 50 years we have a possibility to take a plunge in our miraculous ocean and admire the wonders of it. Let’s take care of it together!
For all of us life has changed so much. Covid 19 and the “new normal” has reached every part of our lives and diving is no different.
One Ocean closed all our centres in the middle of March. Since then we have researched a great deal and thought long and hard about how we can best take care of you; our customers through the epidemic and beyond. We realized that while we have to change a few things here and there, we have been keeping our customers breathing clean air and healthy as possible for the last 20 years and will continue to do so. There are however some changes or tougher protocols you can expect to see:
If sick or staying with someone with Covid 19 or similar symptoms – stay away.
Qualified divers know that to enjoy your dive you need to feel healthy and clear headed. None of us wants to dive with the flu or flu like symptoms. The rule has always been if you have a blocked nose/ cold/ cough etc. wait a few days and see if you feel better. New additions to this list include a loss of taste and smell. If you could not taste or smell your breakfast please stay away.
It is the same for our staff, they know a cold is bad news for their co-workers and our customers and will STAY AT HOME and be safe if feeling ill.
But Covid 19 means we will have to be even more strict. How will we do this?
- Appoint a member of staff as the Covid 19 Monitor to check that our team members and customers follow our guidelines and rules.
- Daily temperature checks for everybody.
- Staff to complete a new, daily health check list.
Students and divers have to complete a medical check form before they are allowed to dive. This has been revised to include Covid 19. Any diver who has been tested positive for Covid 19 will need a medical certificate from their doctor that they are fit to dive. There are other medical conditions that also require a medical certificate – this has not changed.
It’s all about air
But we never think about it until you become a diver and now in the age of Covid 19 clean air is everyone’s concern.
- Our compressors are regularly serviced by a BAUER technician. Filters are checked and changed as per manufacturers specifications.
- Cylinders are filled in a clean, air-conditioned space by one staff member who will follow the required rules of reporting feeling unwell, wearing a mask and washing hands.
- Buddy and air checks will change - each diver will check their own gear while their buddy watches on. Don't test breathe your alternate second stage rather have your buddy check yours and you theirs.
- Keep a safe distance from each other on the surface, when entering and when leaving the boat and at all other times.
- On the surface keep masks on and regulators in.
- Our groups are kept small and as much as possible kept to people within the same household/ those travelling together.
- The team will receive additional training for Covid 19 conditions as they relate to diving and snorkelling.
Social distancing and diving
Diving is fun – it’s about being together in a great, natural environment together with friends and family and indeed other like-minded strangers. We don’t want to lose this happy togetherness but need to keep you as safe as we possibly can. The Covid 19 regulations for staying safe outdoors and in fresh salty, air recommend a distance of 1 metre and indoors we should respect a distance of 2 metres.
How will we do this?
- Stagger times for divers to sign in and collect gear before their dive.
- Restrict access, movement and number of people within the centres themselves.
- Do as much as possible outdoors – dive briefs, lessons, dive logs etc.
- Online sign-up and payment options.
- Small groups (our current ratio is 4 divers to a DM or instructor)
- Dive courses limited to 2 students unless you are family/ friends travelling together.
- When possible keep dive/ snorkel groups to people travelling together.
- Our boats are large and given the reduced numbers we will cater for social distancing as much as possible.
- You have the option of a private boat at an additional charge.
Keeping ourselves clean
The One Ocean team will have undergone specific Covid 19 training. The team has always been careful with cleanliness but now even more so. We have all lived with this for a while now and know and understand the rules. But how will we help you and our team stay clean?
- All our dive centres have their own washrooms which are regularly cleaned and sanitised.
- Handwashing protocols for staff are in place.
- Outside wash stations will be installed for guests and staff.
- We will carry soap on all boats.
- Hand sanitizer*, soap and a refillable bottle for water for washing will become part of our suggested packing list for all our clients.
- Sanitizer* can also be used but we will use soap and water as the first option.
- Tissues and covered bins will be available in all dive centres and on the boats.
- A diver’s nose is "productive" during a dive. Your DM will chat about this during the dive brief - but please clean your nose under the water away from the other divers and into the current. If you forget and are on the surface move away from the others and make sure you clean into the direction of the current and not back onto the others.
- Please keep your gear and personal items to yourself and wash hands frequently and at obvious intervals. We will remind you as much as possible when to wash your hands.
Keeping our gear clean
Our standard procedure is to wash and clean all gear thoroughly after diving. But Covid requires more. We have consulted various scuba diving support networks and medical practitioners and decided to go with the advice we have received from doctors who have worked in supporting the diving community here in Zanzibar.
- We will keep gear out of circulation for 3 days between dives.
- DAN and the CDC in the USA recommends a weak bleach solution to clean dive gear and premises.
- Items required for breathing i.e. regulators will be cleaned in a hospital grade sanitizer/ disinfectant
- Mouthpieces will be carefully sponged during cleaning.
- Customers are welcome to clean and pack their own gear if they prefer. We will offer individual washing and drying stations.
- All gear is hung in the sun and open air to dry.
Masks and gloves
Nobody understands the importance of a good mask like a diver does.
Masks as divers know them – the old spit and polish way of cleaning masks is now of course unacceptable. There is soap and water on the boats and everyone will have the chance to clean their own mask for themselves.
During our slow opening we will decide how and when face masks are most effective in protecting our customers.
The masks we will use will not be disposable masks but lovely washable, made in Zanzibar, cloth ones. One Ocean will have them for sale too.
At present mask wearing will be mandatory for:
- Staff filling cylinders
- Staff or clients packing gear
- Staff or clients washing gear
- People travelling in a closed vehicle
Disposable masks and gloves will end up in our precious ocean and are a huge no no. We will keep our hands clean and we are sure you will too.
As the owner I trust you will feel safe and comfortable in the hands of our professional team. If you feel there is something we have not covered or you have any questions, feedback or suggestions we would all love to hear from you.
* Ocean lovers are very conscious of the amount of waste we generate and how much ends up in the oceans. As such we try and reduce our use of single use items as much as possible (including disposable mouthpieces) and respectfully ask you travel home with empty bottles of sun block, sanitizer etc where the waste can be treated much better than we can in Zanzibar. All the disinfectants and soaps we use are understood to be kind to the environment.