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The Dolphins of Zanzibar 
?Does unethical tourism affect wild dolphin behaviour


Over the past 30 years, tourism has increased 10-fold on the small island of Zanzibar, off the east coast of Tanzania. Dolphin tourism is increasing in popularity year upon year, but with it, many problems are arising. First and foremost, many of the boat drivers lack critical knowledge about the dolphins - for example, the fact that they're a mammal and not a fish. This has resulted in dangerous driving when the boats are in close proximity to the dolphin pods. 

Furthermore, this activity is now so popular that every single 

day, a small fleet of boats head out to the ocean to locate the dolphins. With tourists desperate to swim with the dolphins, it often results in dangerous and irresponsible behaviour such as people jumping in on top of the dolphins, making huge splashes and a lot of noise. With the boat drivers wanting to please their guests and ensure they leave with a good experience, the dolphins are often subjected to a 'chase' scenario with boats driving at high speeds to keep up with the travelling pods.

Dolphins are heavily reliant upon acoustics in the watery world of the ocean, so the combination of revving engines, boast driving at high speeds very closely to them and then the intrusion of people into their space, are having a hugely negative effect on dolphin behaviour. Observational data suggests that the dolphin populations have moved away from the shore into much deeper waters to avoid the disruptions, are harder to find and lower in numbers. Anecdotal stories from the local villages claim that as little as 15 years ago, the dolphins were so close to shore that one could merely walk from the beach and swim out to encounter them. 

This study aimed to investigate how unethical tourism was affecting wild dolphin behaviour, with the ultimate goal being the submission of results to the Tanzanian government so that regulations protecting the dolphin populations could be implemented.

The Project

I managed the dolphin research and marine conservation project for the organisation African Impact from Nov 2019-March 2020. Unfortunately, the global pandemic closed the project down (which relies on international volunteers to help collect the data) and has yet to restart.

As well as collecting data on how dolphin behaviour was being affected by unethical tourism, we worked very closely with the local communities to have a much more immediate impact.

1. Boat Driver Training

To try and combat the issue of unethical driving, the project started the Ethical Boat Driver training course. The course covered information about basic dolphin behaviour, anatomy and social interactions so that drivers could understand how unethical driving could be very stressful to the dolphins. In alignment with World Cetacean Alliance Guidelines, safe driving procedures were taught, such as staying 20m away from the pods at all times, driving parallel to their direction of travel (rather than trying to cut them off) and driving at low speeds.

After taking both a theory and practical examination, the boat drivers who passed were awarded with Ethical Boat Driver t-shirts and to ensure that more members of the community signed onto the free course, Kizimkazi Ethical Dolphin Tours was established.

2. Kizimkazi Ethical Dolphin Tours

To ensure that the boat driver training courses were not in vain, Kizimkazi Ethical Dolphin Tours was established. This involved reaching out to hotels and resorts on the island, educating them on ethical dolphin tourism and persuading them to book a dolphin tour through us. This ensured that the qualified Ethical Boat Drivers received business, so had incentive to stick to their training, and that the number of unethical boat drivers on the water was reduced. 

In the five years that the boat driving course has been running, more and more boat drivers sign up for training each year and the number of Ethical Boat Drivers is now above 60.

To book an ethical dolphin tour in Zanzibar, click here.

3. Conservation Club

Conservation continues with the next generation and education is a critical tool for engaging students and inspiring them to care about the environment and its inhabitants. Conservation Club was started to raise awareness of marine conservation with children in the local communities.


Each week, we'd prepare and deliver lessons to children in the local schools, educating them on the importance of their natural environment, how to look after it and sustainably utilise their marine resources. Using fun activities and engaging 'experiments', Conservation Club covered a wide variety of topics including biodiversity, mangroves, land-use change, water pollution and specific lessons on marine animals.

4. Coral Reef Monitoring

Monitoring the coral reefs was another important aspect of the study. Rising global temperatures are causing oceans to warm and the already tropical waters around Zanzibar are no exception. Coral bleaching is now a very real problem afflicting numerous reef ecosystems in Zanzibar and around the world.

The project used the methodology developed by Coastal Oceans Research and Development – Indian Ocean (CORDIO) East Africa, and submitted each survey directly to their online database. 

Regular monitoring of the same locations give a good understanding of how quickly bleaching is occurring, and the subsequent impacts it's having on marine life.

5. Beach Cleans

In an effort to curb the plastic pollution problem on Zanzibar, caused by a complete lack of waste disposal management, the project organised weekly beach cleans and encouraged members of the community to participate.

The rubbish collected (sometimes more than 14 sacks in less than an hour), was sorted, cleaned and then recycled appropriately using a private waste disposal company, Zanrec.

6. English Classes

In addition to the boat driver training courses, the project taught English to the boat drivers, and anyone else in the local community who wanted to join the classes.

One of the main focuses was improving their level of spoken English so that they could effectively communicate to tourists how to enter the water safely and respectfully in the presence of dolphins.

To find out more, or if you're interested in participating in the project, please click here.

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