An idyllic paradise. Yes, being on the beaches of Zanzibar is like walking in the best pictures you have seen of them. They are everything you’ve imagined they would be, even better. Just like the postcards, but in real life, they are even more breathtakingly beautiful. Every morning I walked down the garden path and saw he beach for the first time I’d take a deep breath of amazement. After rousing from Savasana in each Sunset Yoga session overlooking the beach I would open my eyes and just been filled with awe.
Every time I looked at the beaches; the bright white, fine sand, or the sea – an incredible mix of shimmering blues, greens and turquoise, I would hold my breath in its beauty. Oh the turquoise! It reminded me of jelly, this glistening, inviting, dazzling sea of turquoise. This ‘initial’ amazement did not fade after spending two hours on a boat, or taking an hours walk down the beach. Zanzibar, or at least the beaches of Nungwe, to me, are paradise on earth.
But it was the paradise under the sea I was most interested in. I initially chose Zanzibar because I wanted a warm water tropical diving holiday. Since my first try dive in 2001 off the coast of Colombia in Cartagena, where I was left alone sat on the sandy bottom because my buddy decided to surface and the guide had to follow, I’ve felt totally at home under the sea. At one with the fishes, and at total peace there. That is, until dive 38 where due to bad currents, broken fins, a bad state of mind at the time, and getting a little lost from the group as I was positioned at the back (as the most experienced, and supposedly competent of the non DM’s in the group), I started to feel panic rising whilst under the water. I tried to shake it for a minute or two, but it got worse and I maintained enough calm to tell my buddy I was going up, performed the 3 minute safety stop, went up, ripped out my regulator and screamed my lungs off. I remember having some sort of out of body experience, seeing myself from above and thinking how utterly crazy I must have looked. A near by boat man came to pull me out of the water, and took me to my boat. I managed to dive again that day, but that was it for years, with one attempt in Portugal where as soon as I got in the water I started panicking. Diving was my ultimate escape and the first thing I’d done that just felt utterly natural to me. For years I couldn’t talk about diving without getting emotional, and when I did, it was as if I was talking about a friend that had passed away. Part of me just felt broken, and I missed it so much. I tried to appease myself that I had been so lucky to do and see so much underwater already, more than most people ever would, but I guess deep down I wasn’t ready to concede to my mind yet! So when I finally managed to get back in the water in Isla De Mujeres in 2013, doing a couple of shallow (12/14m) warm water coral reef dives I was over the moon. I have since done a couple more dives (Sardinia & Banyuls sur Mer) in which I felt okay, but not finding that instant total inner calm, and the thought of deeper dives, wreck dives, night dives, still scared me, when they used to excite me.
Looking back I didn’t tell many people about my trip here because I was nervous on how it would go. Even when I did talk about the trip I might have mentioned diving as an afterthought, so it amused me when I got here and remembered that it was my primary reason for coming; I’d even managed to block it out from myself! it It may seem crazy, over the top, or hard to understand, but being unable to do your favourite activity, not because of lack of funds, not because of a broken foot or body part, but because your mind is the barrier – it was hard for me to understand and accept. But I thought, I’ll give this one more go, a proper dive holiday, and looked for somewhere with good, easy diving, that I thought I would also enjoy if I could only snorkel, which I love, and I feel many divers totally underrate!
I had a mild panic the night before about how to clear my mask, and started watching youtube videos in bed – practicing with an imaginary mask (too lazy to get out of bed…) It actually helped a lot. For the first time, I was also was made to do a refresher course, which really is 10 minutes in the pool clearing your mask (no problems at all), taking out your regulator & something else – I felt as prepared as I could be. All the staff at Divine Divers were incredibly friendly, but most importantly also very professional. We sorted out our equipment and then waded through the water from the beach to the Dhow which took us to Mnemba Island, about 1hr 45 minutes away. The boat ride itself was beautiful, gently bobbing over small waves, staring out into the various shades of blue and green, with a view of Unger island on the right.
Mnemba Island itself is a private property, and you can only go on it if you stay at the hotel there. You have to pay a fee to dive or snorkel there. The sea was perfectly still and you could see the bottom from the boat. I was excited to get in, but still a little nervous. Our first site was Watta Bommie. Within a few minutes of being under water I got THAT feeling. The one I used to have when I felt I could live underwater. I’m even getting excited about it as I type this. The marine life was incredible. I didn’t know where to look for all the schools (schools, not just a few pairs…) of various banner fish, angelfish, butterfly fish, pipefish, garden eels, surgeonfish, unicorn fish… and I’ll stop there. I used to love trying to spot nudibranchs, and feel a sense of achievement when I did but here? I was seeing one every few minutes. I spotted a few rays nestled under rocks, lion fish, oh I could go on!
It was as if I’d been dropped into an aquarium. There was so much live coral, which sadly is so rare these days. And the boxfish. Ahh, my lovely, lovely boxfish. When we surfaced I don’t think I shut up about how incredible it was and just couldn’t wait to get in for the second dive. Aside from when I was stuffing my face with mangos. Could this day get any better? (There were also donuts.) 3 mangoes later and a 10 minute drive we were ready to fall in again. This site Aquarium was a coral wall, and did not disappoint.
On the way back we were fed a lunch of large soft chapatis and salad (& mayo for the non vegans) and I just sat chatting away with other divers and the crew, taking in the incredible surroundings and feeling a little overwhelmed with how absolutely incredible the day had been.
The next day I signed up to a couple of local dives. After a morning yoga session, I headed on over to the centre and couldn’t wait to get in. Unfortunately, and especially as many of the divers were novices (6 dives or less) the currents were incredibly strong, and after entering the water once and getting out, then being dropped in another location we got to the bottom for a few minutes but had to come up and subsequently spent a lot of time bobbing around on the water, giving me natural boxtoxed lips (sunburn…) The decision was made to abandon the first dive. One of the divers was sick in the ocean due to heat and seasickness. I felt sorry for them, but safety first dudes! We then moved to the second dive site, Shane’s Reef, and spent the next 45 minutes in another beautiful natural aquarium, turtles and all, with good visibility and almost no currents.
I decided to dive at Mnemba again, and on my 50th dive I saw a sleeping black tipped reef shark, which is the very shark I have tattooed on my back.
The tides off the beach in Nungwe vary hugely throughout the day, and by chance one afternoon I swam quite far out and into a secret underwater garden. To get there I swam over huge beds of bright green seaweed, which moved in unison but seemingly at a different speed to the current, which was pleasantly confusing for my brain and vision and made me feel like I was floating about an earthquake.
The variety and amount of fish was similar to snorkelling off the Hyatt in Sharm El Sheik, which is by far the best snorkelling I’ve done, time and time again. I chased boxfish, played with the anemone fish , had the Sergeant Majors try to scare me off in their usual way of swimming fast right at me.. then stopping and retreating. Repeat. I saw so many fish I’d never seen before – a school that looked like rubbish, swimming in unison, and away from me. Utterly incredible. I ended up snorkelling for couple of hours each time, sometimes coming out of my underwater world so at peace I felt stoned.
I saw quite a feel eels in the seaweed, and after one snorkel I’d stayed out a bit longer than I meant, and the tide was low. I was a little nervous swimming back with seaweed brushing my skin, knowing that was the eels favourite place to hang out. I swam back as fast as I could ‘just keep swimming, swimming, swimming’ arms and hands only in rapid circular motions. When I got to the beach my arms were shaking from the exertion. It felt good.
I also discovered, whilst doing a somersault (because, they’re fun) that I could float upside down in lotus position and stay here for a while watching an inverted underwater world. With the blood rushing to my head I couldn’t help giggling, topsy turvy, in lotus, looking at schools of tropical fish, at how ridiculous this all was. Possibly one of the most contented moments of my life.