The Zanzibar archipelago is made up of three main islands: Mafia, Pemba and Unguja, generally called Zanzibar. Besides the three main islands, there are numerous islets and reefs, most of them uninhabited. The three main islands are located between 12 and 30 miles from the mainland. The crystal clear waters, white-sand beaches and coral reefs of this archipelago makes it one of the very best snorkeling destinations in Africa.

Pentaceraster in Zanzibar
Pentaceraster at Starfish snorkeling spot, near Pingwe Beach. Zanzibar is a great destination to spot starfish, several colorful species are abundant around the island.

The coasts of Zanzibar, fringed by coral reefs, are greatly impacted by the tides. This is particularly true on the eastern coast, where you may have to walk several hundred yards to be able to swim at low tide.

You can snorkel from the shore in many locations, but you’ll  have to make do with seagrass beds and sandy areas, punctuated by more or less extensive coral patches. The underwater life, however, is rich with many reef fish and fascinating marine life to see.

Nungwi reef, Zanzibar
Aerial view of Nungwi Beach reef, at the northern tip of the island. This is one of the best free shore access snorkeling spots in Zanzibar.

Where are the best snorkeling locations in Zanzibar?

Unguja Island, or simply Zanzibar, is the heart of the archipelago. It is, by far, the most visited island. The capital of Stone Town, the main international airport, and most of the hotels and tourist facilities are located here.

Nungwi Beach, where the reef is narrow and open to the sea, is undoubtedly one of the best shore access snorkeling spots on the island. Its sandy drop-off, punctuated by coral patches, allows for nice explorations.

Along the east coast you can snorkel from the shore in Pingwe Beach, at Paje Beach, or at Jambiani Beach. The Blue Lagoon can be snorkeled by shore or by boat. 

Skunk anemonefish in Nungwi Beach
The skunk clownfish is very common in Zanzibar, including at shallow depths. Here two fish share an anemone with threespot dascyllus at Nungwi reef.

In the shallows you will discover a great diversity of sea stars, sea urchins, clownfish, and lionfish. Small iconic species such as the robust ghost pipefish, the roundbelly cowfish, the jointed razorfish, the porcelain crab or the banded cleaner shrimp are also readily seen.

The beach offers nice sightings, but the islets and reefs that emerge along the coast are the most popular snorkeling spots.

Mnemba Island reef
Aerial view of Mnemba Island. The reef fringing the northern shore of the island is Zanzibar’s busiest snorkeling spot.

The most famous snorkeling spot is Mnemba Island, a coral islet located northwest of Zanzibar. Surrounded by a ring of white sand, it offers an idyllic setting and incredible underwater visibility.

With hundreds of sergeant majors gathering around the boats, the reef is the perfect place to spot snappers, surgeonfish, clownfish, moray eels, as well as many other fish species.

Mnemba can be overcrowded. Every morning, dozens of boats converge on the island and drop off snorkelers on the reef. Even so, this spot remains spectacular and worth a visit.

If you want to stay here and enjoy the reef for hours and hours, there is only one option: book a night at the sumptuous 5 star &Beyond Mnemba Island, the only resort on the island.

Lionfish in Tumbatu Island
Close encounter with lionfish at Tumbatu Island, off Nungwi.

There are also many islets off Stone Town, all of which are partially surrounded by reefs. The most beautiful is Chumbe Island Coral Park, one of the main protected areas of Zanzibar.

Closer to town, Prison Island (or Changuu Island), Bawe Island and Pange Island are all within a 30-minute boat ride of the old town. Chapwani Island, where the Chapwani Private Island Resort is located, is also a good option.

If you are staying in Nungwi, consider joining a boat trip to Tumbatu Island, a large island located about 4 miles off the west coast. It is easy to find a boat to take you snorkeling there for a under $15 dollars.

Most trips will take you to Mwana wa Mwana Island. This is an islet located at the northern tip of Tumbatu Island and separated from it only at high tide. Its coral garden is quite well preserved, and many fish can be seen there.

Coral reef and snappers in Mnemba Island
A school of Bengal snappers at Mnemba.

In Zanzibar, many agencies offer boat trips to swim with dolphins, especially at Kizimkazi and near Mnemba Island. We do not recommend participating in these tours, as they harass the dolphins. This harassment keeps the dolphins from feeding and resting naturally.

The dolphins are chased and surrounded by dozens of motorboats every day without respite. This harassment makes it very hard to see them underwater, too. Stressed, the dolphins will rush to the depths as soon as you jump into the water.

Ghost pipefish in Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar
The robust ghost pipefish is one of the most fascinating creatures found in Zanzibar shallows. This pair was photographed at Nungwi Beach.

What will I see while snorkeling in Zanzibar?

Bathed by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, the coasts of Zanzibar are home to a rich reef life, despite intensive fishing and overcrowding. The shallow coral reefs, within swim fin’s reach, are in a very average condition, even in the protected areas. Nevertheless, you’ll find in some places beautiful soft corals, branching corals, as well as gorgonians.

On the tidal flats, where the depth rarely exceeds 3 to 6ft, the underwater landscape is generally poor. However, a closer look reveals a fascinating underwater life: the rocks are covered with anemones, clams, sponges, small soft corals and crinoids.

Snorkeler taking picture of a starfish in Zanzibar
The red-knobbed starfish is easy to spot in Zanzibar. Here, at Nungwi Beach.

All around, juvenile lionfish, shrimps, gobies, pipefish, small morays and puffers, and dozens of other species are easy to see. On the sand, red-knobbed starfish and Pentaceraster abound in  places and almost a dozen species of sea urchins can be found here.

Among the most beautiful fish that can be seen while snorkeling in Zanzibar are the Arabian angelfish, the palette surgeonfish (aka Dory), the powder blue tang and the blackspotted rubberlip.

Snake eel at Pingwe Beach
In the seagrass beds, tiger snake eels are frequently encountered. Here, in Pingwe Beach.

Zanzibar is also a great destination if you want to see clownfish. There are two species living in the archipelago; the twobar anemonefish and the skunk clownfish. They often share their anemone with a porcelain crab or the threespot dascyllus. They can be encountered everywhere at various snorkeling depths.

Zanzibar is not, however, a good destination for turtle and ray sightings, both of which are very rarely seen in the shallows.

When is the best time to go snorkeling in Zanzibar

The water temperature is very pleasant in Zanzibar (it is close to 86°F on average in February/March, and snorkeling can be practiced all year round in good conditions. However, the temperature drops during the winter months to 72 to 75°F/from July to September. If you snorkel during those months be sure to wear a rash guard, especially if it is windy.

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