A Day With The Dolphins

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.

boats on a beachAfter 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, snorkeled 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 judgmental. 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 judgmental 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.


Post note: 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.

Post note 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…

Reprinted with permission from Kathryn Gilmore.
Learn more about her 7-month volunteer adventure at: http://www.onwardvoyage.com/

About Kathryn Gilmore

Kathryn is an animal lover, world traveler, cancer survivor, food enthusiast and story teller. Her first trip to Africa in 2005 to volunteer with lions opened her eyes to the healing that international travel and working with animals affords. Since this inaugural trip, life has been more focused close to home ... becoming her mother's caretaker during her last days as she battled pancreatic cancer, taking on her own fight with breast cancer, moving back near her beloved home town in California, starting a food business and continuing to write and care for animals. In September 2015, Kathryn embarked on a six-month journey to Africa and Asia to volunteer at several animal sanctuaries. Her stories from afar were featured in her blog and focused on majestic wildlife, mouthwatering food, meeting people from all walks of life and personal growth. She is currently working on a book about her life and her travels – and hopes to develop a children’s book focused on elephants. Her blog, Onward Voyage, may be found at: www.onwardvoyage.com.

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