A Day With The Dolphins

Our view from the "office"

Our view from the “office”

Like many of my volunteer experiences, my time here in Zanzibar is nearly impossible to condense into a few paragraphs. There’s just so much to share… So I’ll just try to cobble together a few stories and see where that takes us.

The first day “on project” started early as the other four volunteers and our project coordinator and I crammed into the van to get to Kizimkaze – a small fishing village where our “headquarters” are located. We hurtled down the road at breakneck speed (as one does in Tanzania … fast driving seems to be a thing), with some hip hop tunes by local African artists blaring from the speakers. When we arrived, we tumbled out and headed to the “office” … a portion of an open-air restaurant with the most amazing view where the volunteer team completes our data entry and hangs out between trips out into the ocean and over to the fish market.

Morning view from the fishing village.

Morning view from the fishing village.

After we arrived around 6:45am, we all piled into a medium-sized, fiber boat with a small motor and headed out looking for dolphins … and tourists. Part of the project I’m working on is dedicated to assessing how the local tourist boat drivers behave among the dolphins with the goal of helping preserve the dolphins and their local habitat. More on that later.

On and on we went … driving for about 30-40 minutes over shallow waves looking for dolphins or tourist boats. And then, finally …. nothing. Not one dolphin. The other volunteers had never experienced this before. Huh… So we turned around and started heading back. And then … on the horizon, a burst of activity. A cluster of movement in the distance. As we neared we came upon 20 tourist boats brimming with 74 over-excited tourists. They had spotted the dolphins and were in hot pursuit. We finally saw some dark gray fins sailing in our direction so we stopped our boat, ready to “clinically” assess what we saw. I, however, was unable to remain objective that first day…

That first sight of the dolphins was magic – seeing their shimmering bodies gliding through the aquamarine water is something I’ll never see without my breath catching. But at the same time, I felt like crying. They were being harassed by the boats who were zooming toward and, at one point, over them. Finned, masked, snorkled tourists would throw themselves in the water as soon as they neared, hoping to get as close as possible to these beautiful beasts.

I sat slack-jawed, and soon began to steam. And then I started feeling super self-righteous and judgemental. How could these idiotic tourists behave with so little intelligence and care – so little grace? THEY were the animals… And I grumbled about the boat drivers … screaming under my breath (is that even possible?) as they gunned their motors at the first sight of a fin, screaming off to beat their competition, positioning their boats to trap the poor dolphins so they couldn’t escape. It was mayhem. It was chaos. It was … just really very, very sad.

But that is why we were there. These boat drivers don’t really know any better. They’ve never been trained to understand dolphins or safety or environmental respect. They are there for the job. They are there to make money. And these, I promise you, are not judgemental words. I have seen how these people live. It’s not poverty per se … most of those I’ve seen living on this island don’t live with much but they have a village life that works. They have food to eat and a roof over their head. And a community that works together to provide. They seem happy. Very happy actually. But – I would imagine a boat driving job is in high demand. And happy clients means more tips, more job security. And a client who actually gets to swim with dolphins is a happy, tip-paying client.

Many might think, well why can’t you just tell them how to behave? But with every day I spend doing developmental volunteer work – I learn that nothing is as simple as it might seem. It takes time. It takes understanding behavior. And gaining trust and respect. This project I’m working with started over two years ago and we are now just starting to work on workshops that will be given to these men. So they will hopefully be more CAREful with the dolphins. But this education won’t likely happen right away. Politics and language barriers and custom … everything comes into play.

So we will continue to drive our boat out into the ocean and unpack our clipboards and count the number of times the dolphins surface amidst the chaos. And the number of times the boats drive at high speed in their midst. And my eyes will likely continue to well up as I watch this dance. And I’ll just have to continue to hope that what we’re doing will ultimately make a difference. God I hope we can make a difference.


Postnote: apologies for the lack of photos on this one. Dolphins are very, very difficult to photograph. Especially in these circumstances. And I didn’t feel the silly tourists and the busy boats warranted a picture.

Postnote 2: I am a bit hesitant to publish this post… not very sunny or exciting or fun-filled. But this was my reality on this particular day…


  1. Early morning in the East Bay, I read each word with slow deliberate awe. I was totally taken with the poignant grace of this post. You captured so beautifully the complex intersections of cultures and perspectives. It’s just hard and painful to sit there and see the core of it all- conflicting motivations and such. And yet you wrote about it so eloquently and truthfully. As you know, I contend with this same intersection on a daily basis through my work and I was brought to tears of joy that you are living it and being present with all of the complexities.
    And was therefore surprised at the post note 2- hesitant to post?!? Are you kidding me? It’s brilliant!

  2. Kathryn – no need to sugar coat your experience for me. You are there for a purpose and sharing what you are learning teaches the rest of us who can’t follow your footsteps in person. Well done. ~Rita

  3. Trust, patience and compassion will build a bridge to new ways. But the indignation and upset you experienced can be an engine powering movement in a new direction. Both are great makers of change. Thanks for sharing your experience and thank goodness we’ve got you there to help with this situation!

  4. Kathryn, that was a great post! I think it’s so important that we grapple with this idea: If bringing tourists to a poor country to have a wild animal experience how we can we make this experience work for all three constituents: the local people who are our hosts, the fee-paying tourists, and, most importantly, the wildlife that is being viewed, chased, cornered, put on display, changed by humans.
    There have to be some interesting lessons from other countries that have a highly developed eco-tourism industry. If the wildlife ends up migrating elsewhere or worse going extinct, then the country will lose this source of income. I look forward to future posts.

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