Friday, September 9, 2016, time for another holiday break from UAE, this time for Haj season, a good reason to have a week off. We woke up around 6, an hour lie-in for us as opposed to the normal work-week waking hours, and packed our bags. At 9 a.m. we called for a taxi and a couple of hours later, we were at Dubai terminal 2, not our favorite but improved since our flights to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Soon after that we were on a Fly Dubai plane to Dar es Salaam, an hour wait there to take on more passengers, and by early evening, we had arrived at Zanzibar Airport. Somewhat uncharacteristically for us we had booked only our first two nights on the island, in Stonetown, at the Beyt Al Salaam Hotel off Shanghani square there. The cab ride was a straightforward $15 for the 30 min. transfer, the hotel room was cramped but comfortable enough, and the restaurant, the only obvious place to eat on our quiet garden square, served lobster and prawns with avacado for a very reasonable price. We tried out the beers, Kilimanjaro and Tusker at 4.5%, Safari our flavorite at 5.5%, $3 each half liter bottle (later we'd find them in bottle shops for half that).
Stonetown turned out to be a charming corner of Zanzibar Town, the main city on the island of Unguju, in the archipelago known as Zanzibar, which includes Pemba Island to the north of Unguju. It was fun walking around there, visiting the bazaars, and seeing the sites, avoiding touts who were not that troublesome as long as they were shown some respect. There were pleasant restaurants on piers with panoramas of lateen rigged boats at anchorage and rooftop bars and restaurants to have snacks and refreshment, and we had dinner that night at a restaurant with local musicians playing.
Meanwhile we worked out that the best place to go for diving would be from Nungwi beach at the north tip of Unguju. We got in touch with dive shops and two of the dive centers that got back to us were East Africa Divers, who had a trip going Monday to Levan Bank, a place they went only when they had enough divers who were experienced, and Divine Diving, whose manager Raphael offered me an instructor courtesy discount on diving for Bobbi and I plus free equipment for simply booking in advance. That was the no-brainer center for us to use as base to dive the same sites as everyone else, but I booked East Africa our first day there for the chance to visit Levan Bank on Monday, and we pitched up at Divine Diving on Tuesday, Wed, and Thu.
We also booked a room at Smiles Beach Hotel, a bit expensive but many of the hotels on Expedia and Booking.com were filling due to Eid, and it the word on Trip Advisor was that it was at the "quiet end" of Nungwi. It was not a bad choice apart from the restaurant that churned out egg-based breakfast fare too greasy for our tastes. We booked it for three nights but ended up staying five. We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves diving by day, eating lobster for dinner every night (about $15 grilled on the beach to half that at the 'bakery' doubling as a restaurant in the dusty town back of the dive centers on the beach). Our meals were accompanied by decent South African and Spanish red wine purchased from the bottle shops for $10 a bottle and taken to our table which was most often on the beach. Between the diving and the dining, we hated to leave there.
But this is a blog about diving, so let's talk about that. Our first experience with diving in Zanzibar was with East Africa Divers, a German run shop managed competently by Michael and Deline. They used inflatable zodiacs which were the norm for much of the diving in Mozambique and South Africa. All the dive shops there used steel cylinders which had to be taken into account for weighting. We had brought 3 mm wetsuits which we knew to take 6 kg with aluminum tanks, but with the steel I got that down to 2 kg on my belt. Deciding to decline the offer of 5 mm wetsuits and getting our weighting calibrated is a ritual when going diving in a new location, but we got through that and onto the zodiac for the 20 min ride to Levan Bank. We were briefed for a 35 meter dive but ten minutes into it we were still searching for the reef which eventually appeared as a dark cloud in water that was about 15-20 meters visibility. Bobbi and I had leveled off at 20+ meters by then and when we descended on the reef it was about to 28 meters. We had current and surge ascending gradually up the banks and there wasn't much to see there, just nudibranchs and such.
Our second dive that day was on Honga reef just west of Nungwi. This was a macro dive where we saw flatworms, nudibranchs, and slugs, on a reef with schools of fish. Bobbi saw her first crocodile fish here. There is also a large scorpion fish in the video that is blending perfectly with a rock, and another small one that jumps away when I try to move some coral that's blocking my camera view.
We had no complaints about East Africa Diving, apart from paying $280 rack rate for the two of us for the 4 dives (two dives each). We would be diving at Divine for substantially less than that and they were going to Big Wall on Tuesday, which was off Mnemba Island around the tip to the east of Unguju. They did their diving from dhows which were more spacious than the zodiacs, but much slower and made for full days out. Since they were full days they provided fruit and donuts after the first dive and chapatis with 'saladi' and cheese for lunch on the boat ride back. Divine diving had a nice social feel to it starting with more time spent with your dive buddies on the long boat rides, to the shots they provided when the boat returned, to the parties they hosted after hours, so we sometimes went back there in the evenings. We enjoyed diving with them.
MNEMBA - BIG WALL
Our first dive with them on Mnemba was on Big Wall. We found good visibility, not a lot of excitement, but there was a distant shark nonchalant at below 30 meters and a crocodile fish on the reef; plus interesting puffs of sand clouds in surge in shallows.
On our second dive elsewhere around Mnemba, we saw a pair of leaf fish (see if you can spot them in the video), slugs, flatworms, nudibranchs, scorpion fish, a nice clam, and the usual reef fish, a pretty dive with small curiosities.
The following day Devine took us to Tumbatu Island where we did two dives, again combined into one video. This was an interesting day out as usual but for an unusual reason. Tumbatu has dive sites suitable to beginning divers and unlike the two days before, when we had been in small groups of advanced divers going to more challenging sites, our boat was crowded. Bobbi and I are elderly and when boat loads divide into groups, we often get grouped with the weaker divers. We were put with two young ladies who were beginning divers and a couple who were large but it turned out were from Texas (like us) and were alright divers. But I was sitting next to a young lady who did not know the parts of her equipment and when I asked her, nicely, if she was certified, she said she was but she had only done the 4 dives for the course. I didn't like what I saw so I asked if Bobbi and I could join the other group of seven. That would make a group of 9 and reduce the other group to 4, which might be a good thing for the dive guide, to be able to manage a small group that included two such inexperienced divers, but I was asked to sit back down.
So I sat back down next to the lady next to me, whose name was Raquel. She was from Spain and was clearly anxious about the upcoming dive, so I told her not to worry, Bobbi and I would take care of her. When we descended we found she had little control over buoyancy, and was inflating her BCD to rise and deflating to descend. When she would ascend too rapidly she would try to kick head down and I would have to go get her. At one point she disappeared. I looked up and saw her at the surface so I went to get her there, dive computer beeping away, while I watched that it didn't show oversaturation. While there I explained that she had to use her lungs for buoyancy and to descend always do it fins down, deflater overhead. She got the message, came back down properly, I set her buoyancy for her, and she was better the rest of the dive.
She expressed great appreciation during the surface interval so I explained that for the next dive we would start with a fin pivot, establish neutral buoyancy, and then not use the inflate mechanism at all after that. We descended fine and at the bottom I monitored her while she got her buoyancy right. Then I signaled her to keep her hands off her inflator and use just her lungs from then on. She not only understood but did as instructed, and she was a great buddy for the rest of the dive. She thanked us profusely and I found it highly gratifying to be able to assist in a way that I had been trained to do.
And the last day we went back to Mnemba for two distinctly different dives. Essentially we put in on a reef and followed it along for a dive where we went deep looking for sharks (to about 25 meters, but the sharks would have been deeper than 35). We didn't see sharks but we saw an amazing octopus on this one and lots of other things. It requires its own video.
We enjoyed a surface interval on the boat and then set out without moving the boat at a right angle to the reef along the sand with coral bommies which had a completely different ecosystem starting with garden eels and scorpion fish, macro attractions, and ending in a remarkable frogfish.
See if you can spot it at the end of this video.
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