Snorkeling in Zanzibar - A "Blue Safari"
Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Like our sunset catamaran cruise, sometimes it makes sense to do the organized tour thing. And, snorkeling in Zanzibar definitely falls into this category. Sure, we could probably rent some snorkeling gear and wade out into the surf. But, when you’re by the Indian Ocean - with some of the most beautiful underwater “seascapes” in the world - better to let a professional show you how it’s done.
The “Blue Safari”
Once we decided on doing an organized snorkeling trip, the question became which one? When you walk down the beach in Zanzibar, you’ll inevitably be approached by “beach boys,” local hustlers hawking everything from sunglasses to drugs to snorkeling trips. Kind of like our man Ali - the taxi promoter - these guys inevitably have “a friend with a boat,” and they’ll take a broker’s fee for the tourist-skipper connection.
But, you never know what you’re going to get with these experiences - could be a riot, could be a complete scam. Bottom line, we wanted to go with a more reliable option. After asking around, multiple people pointed us in the same direction - Safari Blue Zanzibar.
The company’s been in operation for years, and they put on an awesome, full-day snorkeling/sailing adventure. Plus, as a more organized program, the company coordinates shuttle pick-ups from wherever you’re staying - key for us, as Stone Town’s about 40 minutes north of Safari Blue’s launch site.
So, after another massive buffet breakfast, a driver picked us up in front of Tembo for the trip south. For the last 10 minutes or so of the drive, we wound through some bumpy, dirt roads - barely any sun breaking through the thick jungle canopy spreading over us. Eventually, we broke into a clearing with a few other shuttles - clearly, it’d be a big group.
After a brief check-in, we were given night-club-esque identifying bracelets and told to wait on the beach. A bunch of people were already milling about - no way all of us are going to be on the same boat, right?
Yep, turns out Safari Blue has a dozen-ish dhows - traditional Zanzibarian sail boats. Each one takes 10 to 12 guests, plus a crew of 4 or 5, and a company rep came out to the beach a couple minutes later to A) give us our fins/masks/snorkels, and B) divide everyone into boat groups.
“Why You Have Boy’s Name?” - Meeting Mr. Costanz-ovich
Theory: anytime there’s a group of people who don’t know each other hanging around waiting for the same thing, we all regress to dog behavior. That is, we kind of “sniff each other’s butts,” trying to figure out everyone’s story before someone breaks the ice.
We got this in spades from an old timer who looked like the patriarch of the group next to us, quite clearly a big Russian family. Eventually, after some up-and-down eying, he sidled over to us. For the Seinfeld fans, this guy - Vasily, as we’d learn shortly - was the spitting image of Mr. Costanza, in both appearance and demeanor.
With a brief nod (and translated out of the original Russian): “Vasily. You Russian?”
Jenna, responding in Russian: “Ukrainian - American now.”
Vasily, blunt as can be: “What’s your name?”
*In Russian, Zhenya can be either a girl’s or boy’s name.
Vasily: “Why you have boy’s name?”
Vasily’s wife: “Vasily! Your granddaughter’s name is Zhenya!”
Vasily considers this, and, seemingly satisfied, continues:
Vasily: “Why you hate Russians?”
Vasily’s wife: “Vasily!”
Well, apparently we’d passed the Vasily test. Scolded by his wife, he nodded in approval, and gave Chipp a big, concrete-crushing handshake. For the rest of the day, anytime we made eye contact with Vasily (who, naturally, had brought a bottle of vodka to aid in the snorkeling), he’d let out a “Cheeeep!” and throw back a shot. Quite the cast of characters!
Captain Morgan and the South Africans
Fortunately for our sobriety, we ended up on a different boat than Vasily and his family. And, in an outstanding coincidence, we’d spend the day with seven South Africans - perfect, as we were off to Cape Town in two days' time. Great opportunity to get some local knowledge.
After the Safari Blue rep read off names by boat, the individual skippers came over to their respective groups to introduce themselves.
Our skipper: “Morning! I’m Captain Morgan!”
South African gal: “Your name’s Captain Morgan!?”
Sometimes you just know you’re going to be friends with people, and this question solidified it for us - she obviously knows how to have a good time. In a small world situation, Darnelle and her husband, Armandt - both South Africans - had met in, of all places, Denver. Darnelle was working as an au pair, and Armandt was playing rugby. Now, they were living back in South Africa and honeymooning in Zanzibar.
Fast forward three months, and we’d spend a long weekend with the two of them in Durban, South Africa - beauty of travel and meeting new friends!
Snorkeling - and a Diving Conundrum
After introductions, Captain Morgan “rallied the troops,” and we walked out through about 100 yards of ankle-deep waters to our waiting dhow. For the next few hours, we’d sail from reef to reef, jumping into the water at each spot to snorkel in impossibly stunning environments. We’d be lying if we tried to say what type of fish we saw, but there were lots of them - all sorts of colors, shapes, and sizes (e.g. “Ohhhhh! Look at that round orange one!” - about the extent of our fish identification skills).
Between each snorkeling session, we’d hop back into the boat, drink fresh coconut juice, and snack on some traditional Zanzibarian candies while sailing to the next site.
In addition to being just an absolutely incredible way to spend a day, Chipp learned something new about Jenna. During our 5+ years of marriage, we’ve been in the water together plenty of times, and Jenna’s a really strong swimmer - more so than Chipp.
But, due to some odd physiological/psychological/experiential quirk, Jenna can’t wrap her head around how to dive. That is, she’s great swimming along the surface, but she can’t quite force her body to submerge.
Like riding a bike (another sore subject…), someone who’s been diving under water for his whole life can’t really explain how to do it - you just do.
Jenna, watching Chipp free dive among the towers of reefs: “How do you do it?”
Chipp: “Do what?” Jenna: “Dive under the water!”
Chipp, perplexed: “I don’t know, you just, dive.”
As a stop-gap measure, we settled on a “team dive,” that is, when ready to submerge, Jenna would take a deep breath, and Chipp would just pull her under. The best solution? Hardly. But, it worked for the time being, and now we have a new training goal!
A Gluttonous Seafood Lunch - Plus Dorian / Dirty Gym Socks…
Early afternoon, all of the Safari Blue boats dropped anchor off one of the dozens of small islands surrounding Zanzibar’s main island. Just off the beach here, the company had a massive tent covering a bunch of long picnic tables.
While we were snorkeling all morning, cooks had been preparing an incredible, grilled seafood lunch: few different types of fish, shrimp, lobster tails, local rice, and curry stews. Famished after our time in the water (on and beneath the surface…), we dove (pun intended) into the heaping plates of food. Perfect way to follow-up some snorkeling.
Despite being absolutely stuffed, we weren’t done eating. A tropical island, Zanzibar’s known for its incredible - and diverse - selection of local fruit. Tying some culture into the day, a Safari Blue guide joined each one of the picnic tables for a culinary tour of the local fruit selection. He’d talk a little about a type of fruit, explain how to best prepare it, then pass around pieces for all of us to try - mango, passion fruit, lychee, bananas, papaya, pineapple, dragon fruit, jack fruit - each more delicious than the last, to a point…
If you’ve never tried dorian, you’re not missing anything. Notorious for its foul stench, our guide saved this one until the end. With a surely-it’s-not-as-bad-as-advertised notion, Chipp volunteered to try a bite. It wasn’t as bad as advertised. It was worse. Imagine taking the foulest smelling gym sock you can find, smashing it into a banana-like-but-chewier texture, and slamming a heaping spoonful of it. That’s dorian - disgusting, but hey, when in Rome.
Fortunately, Chipp could immediately wash down one of the grossest things he’d ever had with one of the most delicious. The Irish have Irish coffee. In Africa, they have African coffee.
Take some piping-hot, top-notch Tanzanian coffee, add a healthy dose of Amarula - a South African cream liqueur made with sugar, cream, and marula tree fruit - and you’ve got yourself an African coffee. (Disclaimer: no one - minus Chipp - actually calls this drink “African coffee” - just “amarula and coffee” - but the name fits!). The drink absolutely warms the soul and, on a more practical level, quickly erases the heinous flavor of dorian from your palate.
Great way to wrap up a [mostly] delicious meal!