Diving Zanzibar: Whale Sharks, Shipwrecks and Best Beaches

From exploring forgotten shipwrecks to swimming with manatees, rays, whale sharks, turtles and friendly dolphins, diving in Zanzibar is an experience of a lifetime. Zanzibar coral reefs are some of the world’s best diving sites. Its warm, crystal clear waters are home to over 500 species of marine life and offer everything from deep sea diving to shallow coral safaris, vast wall diving, shipwrecks and drifts.

In this article:

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What are Zanzibar Islands?

Off the coast of Tanzania, about 37 miles (60 km) northeast of Dar es Salaam, you’ll find what is known as the Zanzibar Archipelago. Unguja Island, which is known as the main Zanzibar Island, is its largest. Stone Town, nicknamed Zanzibar City, is the capital of Unguja. Many smaller islands, including Pemba Island, Mafia Island and Mnemba Island, pepper the silky waters near and around Unguja.

Get ready for diving in a literally breathtaking underwater world of virgin coral reefs populated by incredible marine life, including marlin turtles, dolphins, barracudas, lots of tropical fish and, if you are very lucky, even a reef shark.

Steeped in fascinating and dramatic history, Zanzibar offers lots of things to do for the peakiest travellers – intimate dhow sailing, cultural trips around local villages (Nungwi), walks amongst the ruins of the previously luxurious Maruhubi Palace and, of course, signature spice tours, brilliantly educating about complex intersections between spice and slave trades of East Africa.

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Best Diving Sites in Zanzibar

Divers from all over the world come to explore the underwater wonders of Zanzibar. These two islands are roughly divided into regions. Each region has its own unique features and attractions. There are so many amazing diving spots that it’s hard to reduce them to a brief list. So instead, I’ve picked a few sites that stood out from diving reviews and offer some of the best underwater experiences.

Best dive spots are found in the northern tip of Zanzibar, including Mnemba Atoll, Nungwi Reefs, Tumbatu Island and Leven Bank.

A few years back, the Nungwi Reefs site has been voted one of the top scuba diving locations in the world. It’s located just north of Zanzibar city at the northern end of the island. There are over 100 species of hard corals here including staghorn, elkhorn, brain and table corals. Nungwi Marine Reserve is located between the mainland and the island of Ujamaa there are several small cays that make up the reserve: Mwezi Cays, Kizimbani Cays, Chwaka Cays, Mkuuwa Cays and Ng’ambo Cays.

Mnemba Atoll for Whale Sharks, Manta Rays and Thousands of Tropical Fish

Diving

Mnemba Island offers many diving sites for all levels from deep walls to honeycomb, Staghorn and Mushroom coral gardens. This conservation area has an abundance of small brightly coloured schools of aquatic life to large Whale sharks and gentle Manta Rays. 

The shallower reefs like Wattabomi are fantastic for novice divers who can catch sight of Blue Spotted Rays, Moorish Idols and schools of Angelfish amongst many others. West Gardens is also great for a relaxing easy dive of 12 metres.

For a glimpse of Parrotfish and Green turtles head to the Aquarium, with a slight current and depths of up to 20 meters this site is better suited to more experienced divers. 

For deep drift diving The Wall offers fantastic views of the vast 30 to 50 meter drop teeming with Bluefin Trevally and schools of Rainbow Runner.

Many of the resorts close to Mnemba Island offer diving day trips to the Island as well as most of the diving resorts in Nungwi and Kendwa, if you feel like a deserted island getaway with a touch of luxury you can always book into the Mnemba Island Lodge.

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Divie in Misali to See 42 Corals

Misali Island is considered one of  the best diving areas in East Africa and, possibly in the world. This stunning part of the Pemba Channel Conservation Area is situated just west of Pemba Island. 

The untouched corals surrounding the entire island give life to an extensive array of marine creatures. As a protected area divers are encouraged not to touch the corals so as to conserve the natural ecosystems which house approximately 42 different corals and more than 400 species of aquatic life. 

Divers can arrange trips to the island through their travel agencies and hotels, or take a boat out from Wesha, but Fundu Lodge is an excellent choice for diving enthusiasts and as a 5 star rated PADI resort offers everything from half day introductions to advanced open water diving as well as excursions to most of the best diving sites around Pemba Island.

For Vibrant Corals and Shallow Reefs Head to Mafia Island

Tanzania’s first marine park can be located around Mafia Island and offers around 20 different diving sites. Kinasi wall hosts an array of hard and soft corals teeming with aquatic life. 

Explore  passages and caves located at the Jina wall and Dindini diving site or marvel at the incredible coral formations at the Tutia reef. If you’re diving between July and October be sure to look out for the Humpback whales.

For a post wall dive explore the colourful Coral Gardens behind the Kinasi wall where dense coral outcrops host vibrant tropical fish, turtles and seahorses.

Go Shipwreck Diving Near Stone Town

The shores around Stone Town, harbour as much history as the coral stones that makeup the ancient buildings in and around Zanzibar’s Old Town, from Portuguese and British conquerors to fallen sultans and a dark history of slave trading. The wrecks around Stone Town have since created beautiful reefs worth exploring. 

Across the ocean floor lies The Great Northern which sank in 1902 and has since transformed into a reef home to geometric morays, lionfish, groupers and glassfish. At a shallow 12m this site is excellent for all levels. 

For more advanced divers head to the Royal Navy Lighter site. At a depth of 30m it’s a great site to spot Sweepers, Trevally, Rainbow Runners and Reef sharks. 

Drift Dive off Njao Island

An excellent site for drift diving is the Njao Gap located on the Njao island west of Pemba Island. This beautiful coral reef varies from 5m to 18 m in depth and is home to the resident Hawksbill turtle. Divers get gently swept into the Njao Gap with the northern current where they can drift past large Manta Ray, Napoleon Wrasse and Green Turtles while admiring the stunning coral gardens. The reef then gives way to an extensive deep cliff wall beyond divable depths.

More Notable Diving Sites in Zanzibar

Paje, Bwejuu and Jambiani: Divers come to the southeast coast to see three anchors from a ship that lost its cement cargo in the 1930s at what’s now known as the Cement Wall site. Divers also report seeing sharks, napoleon wrasse and turtles here. Paje Caves are a large and potentially dangerous cave system filled with stalagmites and stalactites. You will also find lots of caves and tunnels to explore. Not a place for a novice on their own.

Mnazi Bay is popular for diving because of its proximity to the shore and a variety of soft and hard corals, which attract the big marine life favourites such as sharks, tuna, manta rays and eagle rays.

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Makuti Point is one of the few sites where you can see both soft and hard corals together. You will also get great views of the nearby pinnacles. Makuti Archipelago is one of the smallest groups of islands in the region. They are located east of Zanzibar and consist of four main islands – Makutupi, Matema, Misali and Mik.

For pristine white sand beaches and crystal clear waters, try the Unguja Archipelago, which contains over 50 miniature islands, of which some are inhabited, whilst the others are completely devoid of the human race.

Marine Park is found on the southern side of the island is a preserved area with lots of tropical coral formations.

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The Tumbatu Islands are a small group of islands, connected by sandbanks. They have great opportunities for drift diving. They offer clear water visibility which makes them excellent for snorkelling too. The abundance of sea fans and sponges give shelter to all kinds of animals.

Beware of the Kizimkazi dolphin tours in a marine-protected area. Unfortunately, most local operators run tours in a way that might be endangering underwater animals. The area offers wonderful macro diving which is constantly improving. To avoid contributing to damaging marine flora and fauna, find a reputable dive centre.

Challenging Dives – Leven Bank and the Big Wall (North)

If you’re looking for more challenging dive sites in Zanzibar, you should consider going to Leven Bank or the Big Wall.

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With its spectacular underwater mountain landscape and abundant marine life, Leven Bank in the Pemba Channel is regarded as one of the best dives in Zanzibar. It is a shallow reef with lots of coral heads that are home to many species of fish including the lionfish.

Although it has been damaged by dynamite fishing, it’s still a wonderful place to visit for you can also explore some caves. There are over 100 different types of coral reefs, creating an ideal environment for divers all year round. Its location right on top of the Indian Ocean gives it amazing conditions – good currents, low swell, no waves breaking etc. However, don’t let these factors fool you into thinking that Leven bank isn’t challenging. Even though it may look like your average tropical paradise, underwater, the current brings hidden dangers that must be taken seriously. 

Located far into the open ocean depths range between 12 and 55 metres. Here you can expect a large plateau extruding from the deep waters, this underwater mountain range is occupied by schools of tuna, kingfish, rainbow runners, Napoleon Wrasse and whitetip reef sharks. 

The site is affected by currents making it more suitable for advanced divers, but the shallow sections can still be enjoyed by those at an intermediate level.  

The Big Wall is another great wall diving experience. It consists of two walls about 50 metres apart. Located on the east side of the Mnemba Atoll in the open sea, the Big Wall offers a great drift dive. The perfect vertical wall drops from 18 to 55 metres, with many overhangs and small caves to explore. You can often find tuna, rainbow runner, napoleon, grouper and lobster around here.

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Extended List of Zanzibar Diving Sites

For your reference here is the list of most diving sites in the Zanzibar Archipelago.

  • Shane Reef (Northwest Zanzibar)
  • Coral Garden, Mbwandawa, Haji, Kichafi, Misoli and Leon’s Wall (Northeast Zanzibar)
  • Hunga and Nankivell Reefs (West Zanzibar)
  • Mnemba Atall Dives (A small island East of Zanzibar)
  • Nankivell and Hunga Reefs (Northwest of the Main Zanzibar Island)
  • Kichwani and Small Wall (South Mnemba)
  • Mnemba Sandbanks, Drift Dives and Turtle Reef (Southeast Mnemba)
  • Coral Garden, The Big Wall and Jackfish (East Mnemba)
  • Indian Gate (North Mnemba)
  • West Bank and West Gardens (Mnemba)
  • Grouper’s Rock, Aquarium and Wattabomi (Southwest Mnemba)
  • Mwana Wa Mwana (Tumbatu Island, west of Zanzibar main island)
  • Ras Mskitini (Tumbatu Island)
  • Three Turtles (Tumbatu Island)
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What Marine Life Can You See While Diving in Zanzibar

The protected status of many diving areas in Zanzibar and nearby island groups guarantees epic reef diving with large corals in very good condition and an abundance of marine life.

There are over 200 species of coral here including staghorn, elkhorn, brain, tabletop, finger, mushroom and soft coral. The waters around Zanzibar are generally clear and visibility can be 30 metres at times.

You can expect sea horses, harlequin shrimps, snake eels, and octopus, as well as the weird and wonderful Indian Ocean walkman.

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What are the best times to see marine life?

Although Zanzibar is great for diving with its perfect weather and clear waters, for divers with specific interests, migration seasons with the highest concentration of certain marine animals and the highest possibility of sightings are:

Manta rays: December to April
Blacktip reefs sharks: June to March
Hammerhead sharks: November to February
Whale sharks (Mafia Island): October to February
Humpback whales: July to October
Green turtles:
September and February (nesting periods)
Eagle rays: June to March
Whitetip reef sharks, dolphins and hawksbill turtles: year-round
Seahorses: June to March

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What are the best times to see sharks and whales?

Zanzibar is also one of the world’s best spots for encountering the largest fish in the ocean – the infamous whale shark. Whale sharks can be spotted between October and April, but are most common in November and December, and this is also the season for humpback whale sightings.

North Horn are on the Pemba Island is famous for spotting whitetip and silvertip sharks.

Mnemba Atoll is a 7-km reef that is a great conservation project. Here whale sharks, turtles and dolphins can be seen between September and December.

Where is the best place to spot dolphins?

Nestled along the southwest tip of the island is a little spot called Kizimkazi, which is well-known for its dolphin population. Dolphins are often found playing in the surf. Kiwengo Bay is another great location for spotting dolphins, especially during the dry season when they come into shallow waters for food. Dolphin-watching trips leave from Kiwengo beach every day except Sundays.

Other Species of Fish

Additionally, you could also meet many exquisite small and medium-sized marine citizenss like exotic nudibranchs, blue-spotted stingrays, giant moral eels and mantis shrimps.

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Where are the best places to fish in Zanzibar?

Zanzibar is a low lying coral atoll, which makes it great for novice divers. It is basically a ring-shaped reef with a coral rim (with small islands or cays) that surrounds a lagoon. A great example of this is Mnemba Atoll, which is just east of main Zanzibar Island. With its boasting perfectly preserved coral walls and countless marine life in amazingly clear waters, it’s definitely a place to start or progress with your diving skills.

Best Time for Zanzibar Diving

July and August are considered the best months for diving in Zanzibar, but the high season typically spans July to September and December to January, when the weather is at its hottest and most humid. However, unlike other diving destinations around the world, a high season doesn’t always mean lots of divers. Often even during the peak season you’ll be able to find an almost empty diving spot. This is especially true on Pemba Island.

Diving Conditions

In short, diving is possible year-round, although the main dive season is from November through to March. The diving conditions in Zanzibar are great whether you’re a scuba diving beginner or a seasoned advanced diver. Waters are incredibly clear, corals are in wonderful condition and the water temperature in this part of the Indian Ocean is around 28-29C between November and May.

With incredible diving conditions and high visibility all year round, the archipelago is a popular destination for scuba diving, particularly the Mnemba Atoll and Msali Island, which attracts experienced divers along with those seeking novice exploration. 

Travellers can choose from thirty diving sites around Zanzibar that offer waters of consistently warm temperatures of  27°C and visibility of up to 60m making it perfect for diving amongst large fish such as whale sharks, tuna, barracudas and Wahoo.

The strip of water between Ugunja and Pemba attracts many divers visiting Zanzibar with incredible marine biodiversity and clear conditions; it hosts some of the best diving sites in East Africa.

Most diving courses and day trips are run by reputable companies but be sure that your instructors and guides are PADI certified before booking anything.

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Tips for Beginner Divers in Zanzibar

Although as a new diver you are more likely to rent most of the equipment, diving in Zanzibar isn’t as heavily regulated, so it’s worth researching well in advance what equipment you will need and most importantly how to check the condition of it.

If you want to learn how to become an expert diver then it’s important that you know what kind of equipment you need before heading out on any dives. Here are some tips for beginners who wish to get started with their underwater adventures.

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Equipment Requirements For Scuba Diving

1. A Dive Computer – This is one piece of essential gear that should be included in your diving kit. It helps keep track of depth, time, air consumption, etc., so you can make sure you don’t run out of air during your dive.

2. Mask and Snorkel – These are used when breathing underwater. They help protect against water entering into your nose and mouth.

3. BCD/Rebreather Tank – This is where you store compressed air. When not being used, they usually sit inside your backpack.

4. Fins – Used by swimmers as well as divers, fins allow you to move easily across the surface of the water.

5. Weight Belt – Weighing down your body keeps you stable whilst you swim.

6. Wrist Locator – Allows you to attach your weight belt to your wrist instead of having to carry it separately.

7. Underwater Camera – An underwater camera allows you to take pictures of everything under the sea.

8. Dry Suit – This type of clothing protects you from cold temperatures. Zanzibar water is generally warm, so you could get a short-sleeved wetsuit.

9. Spare Gear Bag – Keep spare parts like masks, snorkels, weights, regulators, tanks, etc. in here.

10. First Aid Kit – In case anything goes wrong, you’ll have these items at hand, if OK with your doctor, include an over-the-counter antihistamine cream for stings and bites.

11. Emergency Rope – Use it if something happens to your primary rope.

12. Knife – Having a knife will come in handy if you encounter any problems.

13. Compass – Essential for navigation purposes as it’s ridiculously easy to get lost underwater.

14. Sunscreen Lotion – Protect yourself from sunburn.

15. Waterproof Bag – Store extra clothes and other things in here.

16. Headlamp – Helps light up dark places, great for shipwreck diving.

17. Towel

18. Swimsuit – Wear comfortable swimming attire.

19. Hat – Cover your head from sunlight.

20. Gloves – Prevent blisters.

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