Diani is one of the world’s most popular spots for a snorkelling safari. Here the traditional dhows, known as ngalawa, fish the clear blue waters of the lagoons. These, the smaller cousins of the mighty Jahazi, are dugouts some 5 metres in length. Their hulls have been hand-gouged from a single tree trunk, they’re steadied by two timber outriggers and their sails are sewn from sugar sacks. Navigation is by the sun and the crew have only spears to catch the reef fish. But, as the sun climbs higher in the sky, fishing is over for the day. And now the ngalawa offer snorkelling trips.
Such trips require precision timing. The captain must judge the tide so as to ensure that the swimmers are not scraping the coral with their fins or so high above it as to not be able to see anything but a swirl of water. The ngalawa captains, however, know their craft. And now, after a burst of Swahili, the two-man crew hurl the rusted anchor into the sea. It catches. The vessel stills. And now it’s your turn.
To get into the water, you have to first slip off the side of the dugout; then dip under the outriggers. It’s a clumsy manoeuvre that only gets clumsier as you wrestle with your mask, snorkel and flippers. The mask steams up, salty water comes down the snorkel. There’s a lot of hawking, blowing and spitting. You wonder why you’re doing this.
And then you put your face into the water. And you know. Because it’s a wonderland down there. Great curtains of fish shimmer amid shafts of silver light. Some are zebra-striped with thick-yellow-Mick-Jagger lips; others appear like golden angels. Translucent sea horses rock along like marine wildebeest, turtles potter with lazy grace, anemones bloom, the fluted mouths of giant clams yawn. Utterly fascinated, you drift far from the ngalawa. The coral manifests in a thousand different shapes: stag horns, pin cushions, undulating quilts and stark cliffs. Adrift in a blue-green world, you lose all sense of time.
Until the captain comes to find you, his eyes huge behind his mask. He gesticulates that time is UP.
The world above the water seems unnaturally bright and, as you swim back to the boat, you’re aware, as never before, of all that lies beneath. Already, though, the magic is fading into memory. As the dhow skims back to shore, its progress is mirrored by flights of roseate terns. Their wings flick the water as they execute a series of precision turns. On the dhow there’s a feeling of shared experience; of esprit de corp. And now, howsoever briefly, you are part of the crew. Part of the dhow. Part of history.
The best site for snorkelling from Diani Beach is the Kisite-Mpungutu Marine Park. This pristine park covers 28 sq km of crystal-clear waters and beautiful coral reefs – and swimmers are often treated to frequent dolphin and turtle sightings. All the south coast hotels will be able to organise full- or half-day trips, or feel free to practice your haggling skills with the fishermen on the beach. All equipment – for adults and children – will be provided by the tour guide.
The marine park boasts over 250 recorded fish species and 70 resident dolphins as well as turtles, whales, 56 types of coral, sea grass and gastropods.
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