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Tides in Zanzibar

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Tanzania islands

When you set your mind on a beach resort holiday, it is worth understanding the logic of the tides. For example, on some of Zanzibar’s beaches, tides are almost imperceptible, while in others, the low tide chases the ocean away from the island shores for a few miles. Here's our guide on how to get along swimmingly with the Zanzibar ocean and its rises and falls, and which beaches are most and least affected by tides.

Zanzibar
Zanzibar

How Tides in Zanzibar Work

Zanzibar beaches are a popular vacation spot for tourists from all over the world. No Africa’s Top 10 Beach Destinations comes without Zanzibar's white sands. Nungwi beach is probably the world’s best-known Zanzibar resort. What makes it a perfect getaway is the minimal impact of tides on the coastline. However, not all beaches of the Zanzibar archipelago can boast the same.

The main island of the Zanzibar archipelago is named Unguja, aka Zanzibar, stretching from north to east along the African coast. The tides are most noticeable on its eastern side facing the Indian Ocean. For example, the Chwaka Bay coast empties the most so that the seabed at the bay’s coastline is exposed as much as a couple of miles at low tide.

To avoid disappointment, just keep in mind that the tide phenomenon is an immanent feature of Zanzibar island and that you can choose a beach to your liking if you know the spots where the ocean falls back too far. But first things first!

What Makes the Ocean so Up and Down

The nature of the tides lies in the gravitational forces of celestial bodies, primarily the Moon. The Moon is closest to the Earth and, therefore, influences our planet at the greatest. The Sun’s gravity is not generally considered a cause because it is much farther from the Earth and its gravitational pull is more than twice that of the Moon. However, the highest tides occur during new and full moons, when the gravitational forces of the Moon and the Sun add up and act together.

Imagine a slightly deflated ball that you press on both sides with your hands. It shrinks on both sides, forming depressions on the surface and bulging at the opposite sides. This is what a visible rise in the water level on planet Earth looks like. The Moon revolves around the Earth, and these bulges follow it - wherever the Moon passes, a water hump appears. The second hump arises on the opposite side of the ellipsoid. Thus, they move along the planet's surface, rising and falling, lagging behind one another by To be more precise, 12 hours and 25 minutes pass between two high tides (as well as between two low tides), since the Moon completes one revolution around the Earth in 24 hours and 50 minutes.

The time difference between the lowest points of the water level (which are two “depressions” lying perpendicularly to the "humps") is the same 12 hours. Thus, the high tide and the low tide are distanced from each other by six hours. This interval can be seen on all tide charts. Keep this figure in mind when you spend a vacation on the ocean coast: at the most tidal-affected beaches, the water recedes the farthest six hours after the highest tide.

In fact, the Moon pulls on everything on Earth, including water, the solid part of the Earth's shell, and even air. Tracking water fluctuations is the easiest for us because changes in surface heights are unnoticeably insignificant, while atmosphere fluctuations are indiscernible to a human’s eye at all. 

Tidal Variations across the Earth

It is not only the Moon and the Sun that impact the ocean tides but also the specific features of our planet’s surface. The Earth’s globe doesn’t boast an ideal sphere shape but is a complex object with protrusions of mountains and hills and depressions of seabeds, caves, and trenches. Water fills in all the depressions it enters, but solid rocks and geological obstacles cut off the way in some spots. Thus, the water level largely depends on the shore topography. That's why the distance to which water recedes varies drastically within neighboring beaches and sometimes even within the opposite ends of the same beach.

Further on, the relation of the water level to the Moon’s gravity is impacted by the open water. The open ocean is most susceptible to tides, while in partially enclosed water areas such as seas, the phenomenon of the tides is almost imperceptible. At the same time, in the ocean center, the water rises only a meter high or even lower, which is hardly visible to the eye, while the coastline difference between high and low tides can amount to a few feet. For example, the highest water rise on Earth (as high as 26 feet / 18 meters) is reported at the Flowerpots Rocks in Canada’s Bay of Fundy.

Hopewell Rocks, Bay of Fundy, Canada
Hopewell Rocks, Bay of Fundy, Canada

Add up all the other factors, and you’ll get heights entirely depending on the point where water touches the surface. While, for instance, the mean tidal range does not exceed 50 cm / 20 inches in the major part of the Caribbean Sea, the average water rise in Zanzibar is 3-4 meters / 10-15 feet or more. If you look at the peculiarities of the Zanzibar coastal terrain and estimate the horizontal coastal surface instead of the water rise as such, you’ll notice the enormous differences between some of the beaches. On the west side of Nungwi beach, at low tide, water recedes to 25 meters / 80 feet, while Chwaka and Charave seabeds are exposed as far as 1,5-2 kilometers / 1-2 miles away from the coastline.

Now that we sorted out the tidal theory, let's take a stroll along all the beaches of Zanzibar and see how to deal with tides in the most popular Zanzibar destinations. 

Geographically, Zanzibar is an archipelago comprising a few islands, the largest of them being the Unguja Island - the major destination for most holidaymakers. Setting the many day trips offered from Unguja to the nearest small islands aside, most tourists congregate in Unguja, using the hotels and beaches around its shores. For the sake of simplicity, we will use the name Zanzibar for Unguja, referring to Zanzibar beaches.

The northern and eastern coast of Zanzibar is occupied by most resort facilities, while the south-western part, where the airport, ferry port, and such popular destinations as Stone Town and Prison Island are located, is populated by locals. Zanzibar beaches are named after the nearest villages, and the entire beach collection can be roughly distinguished between the northern beaches, the eastern beaches and the beaches of Chwaka Bay.

Northern Coast: Highest Tides

Here in the north, you can see minor tidal effects on the coastline. As a result, the seabed is full, which makes swimming possible and pleasant throughout the day. Not a surprise that this feature made the northern part of Zanzibar the most attractive and expensive resort destination where one can find the widest variety of top-class hotels, numerous cafes, bars and restaurants, stores, and other facilities which make a vacation easier and comfier. The northern coast is perfect for those who are looking for the luxury and comfort of sunbathing and swimming all day long and the vibrancy of music and parties all night. Not only tourists are frequent visitors here, though - it is in the popular touristy north where you can see most hawkers and beach boys offering souvenirs, day trips, and services.

Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar
Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar

Nungwi and Kendwa are the key northern destinations. Nungwi is allegedly the most famous of all the Zanzibar beaches, housing the greatest concentration of local attractions, such as a Zoos and other entertainment facilities where you can see and interact with animals were conceived with an urge to show people the diversity of wildlife up close - however, in reality, such businesses infringe on the rights of animals, causing them suffering. Altezza Travel does not recommend visiting such establishments so as not to support the wildlife-harming activities and businesses. For those who want to explore the world of wildlife, we highly recommend having a look at safaris in the protected national parks and advising the same to your friends and other travelers. Kendwa is believed to be quieter and more luxurious, with fewer tourists staying there as compared to Nungwi, mostly families with children or couples on a honeymoon. Low tide opens up a land passage between these two beaches, so if you time it right, you can walk along the beach stretch from one to another and explore both in one day, given that you are staying at a hotel nearby.

Tides are insignificant on both Kendwa and Nungwi, and the entire Kendwa is swimmable throughout the day - while the northernmost Nungwi tip might "lose" its water as much as 30 meters off in the west of the coast, and up to 500 meters in its eastern part. Accordingly, this is also the part where the beach is most flooded at high tide.

Considering Kendwa the beach with perfect tides, Altezza Travel recommends staying at Zuri Zanzibar hotel, whose name encapsulates all the beauty of the region - the Swahili word “zuri” is the particle that goes into the words describing all that is beautiful. Zuri Zanzibar features luxurious villas, comfortable bungalows, and exceptional suites, as well as the perfect beach in a lagoon nearby. When it comes to Nungwi, Altezza Travel’s top choice is Essque Zalu Zanzibar Hotel, which is particularly beautiful in the evenings, when both the hotel and its pier illuminate with the myriads of lights. By the way, a pier gives you a great advantage at low tide when you can walk along and explore the exposed seabed with crustaceans crawling out of the sand and birds coming to feed on them. 

Eastern Coast: Moderate Tides

The beaches on the eastern coast, excluding those in Chwaka Bay, are subject to noticeable but adequate tides. However, it is nice to have a look at the tides chart and understand the schedule of high and low tides.

These are the northeast beaches: Kigomani, Matemwe, Pwani Mchangani, Kiwengwa, and Pongwe. Compared to the northern coast beaches, they are less popular among tourists, with a subsequently weaker infrastructure - families with small kids will probably be the first to notice a slight lack of attractions to keep their kids busy. However, the northeastern coast is perfect for snorkeling and diving, especially if you take a boat to Mnemba Island. Mnemba waters are crystal clear and remind the waters of the Maldives to seasoned tourists. Matemwe is considered one of the most secluded beaches, and Kiwengwa is the leading destination here.

The southeastern coast has Pingwe, Dongwe, Bwejuu, Paje, and Jambiani, with the latter two spots being the top favorites among travelers. Paje is well-known as the heart of kitesurfing in Zanzibar owing to the strong winds and no waves due to the natural protective barrier formed by the adjacent reef. Paje is number one among trendy youth, which brings along the vibe. The adjacent Jambiani beach is also protected by the reef from winds and is even less frequented, which is ideal for those who love snorkeling or solitary walks along the white-sand shores. At low tide, you can boat to one of the exposed islets.

This part of the island boasts a number of lovely lodges that can bring your Zanzibar experience above the highest expectations. For that, Altezza Travel recommends Xanadu Luxury Villas and Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa. Dongwe Beach is home to the blindingly white villas of Xanadu that appear like flower beds among the palm trees and lush greenery of the gardens, with their private plunge pools under the petal-like roofs. And on the nearby Paje Beach, living up to its beautiful name, Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa welcomes guests amidst the purest sands.

The Rock Restaurant in Pingwe Beach, Zanzibar
The Rock Restaurant in Pingwe Beach, Zanzibar

By the way, you must have seen online pictures of a restaurant on a rock surrounded by water. This place is located in Pingwa. We would not take up your time telling about this restaurant here, but this location attracts much interest among tourists. It is essential to know the tides’ timing if you want to take an Instagram-worthy picture of the Rock Restaurant. You will get the best of it during high tide when the azure water splashes around the restaurant hut built on the rocks. In addition, the way you get to the restaurant itself at high tide is breathtaking - you will need to take a boat across the magnificent Indian ocean water. At low tide, the sand around the restaurant rock is ugly exposed, but at least you can just walk to it straight across the seabed.

On all the eastern beaches, the low tide leaves a lot of seaweed on the sand, as well as sea urchins and - sometimes - bare corals. Walking barefoot is not recommended here in order to avoid injuring your feet or stepping into the unpleasant seaweed, so it's better to stock up on a pair of aqua shoes. And beware of the sea urchins - stepping on their spines is painful. Sea urchins are common on most beaches, and you might not even notice them when the speedy high tide makes the water turbid and murky. 

Chwaka Bay: Lowest Tides

The topography of the Chwaka Bay makes its bottom exposed at the greatest, forcing water off the shore as far as 1,5-2 kilometers / 1 mile in Chwaka and Charawe beaches. If you book a hotel here and do not plan to move around the island, the tides schedule here would become your critical knowledge to enjoy your Zanzibar vacation. 

Laminaria farm in Zanzibar
Laminaria farm in Zanzibar

The north of Zanzibar houses the Uroa Beach. It is a little better here when it comes to tidal fluctuations and tourist infrastructure, which can smooth out the lack of water on the beach. Another peculiarity of the beaches of Chwaka Bay is that they are used as farmlands for growing seaweed. The locals set lots of stakes and poles across the beaches to grow laminaria, so you have to be careful when walking around the shore. At the same time, the Chwaka Bay beaches have the advantage of being the closest location to Stone Town if you are one of those wanting to explore this old open-air museum roaming along its narrow streets. In fact, day tours to Stone Town are just the right thing to while away the low tide time. 

Other Zanzibar Beaches

Some of the southern beaches are similar in tidal nature to the eastern coast - Mzambarauni, Kizimkazi Mkunguni, and Kizimkazi Dimbani. Any of them would feel like hell to you if you are a fly-and-flopper on vacation. The southern Zanzibar locations are highly valued for their privacy and the top-notch level of hospitality service. Altezza Travel’s destination of choice on the southern coast is The Residence Zanzibar, where guest care is paramount. Exclusive service is guaranteed by The Residence Zanzibar, being a part of an international luxury resorts chain choosing the finest spots for its lodging.

Kizimkazi beaches are adjacent to Menai Bay and are home to Zanzibar's largest marine protected area, the Menai Bay Conservation Area. MBCA was established to conserve habitat for indigenous fish and large marine mammals, particularly dolphins. The coastline is not as exposed here at low tide as on the east coast of Zanzibar.

From Kizimkazi, excursion boats go further out into the bay in search of dolphins. Boaters take tourists to the habitat of bottlenose dolphins and humpback dolphins to make pictures and enjoy their vibrant frolic.

Stone Town has its beaches as well, although they are either used by locals or adjacent to the pier. There is no guarantee that the ocean near Stone Town is clean from sewage, so tourists are not recommended to swim there. The tides aren't as pronounced in this part of the island, though.

Stone Town Beach, Zanzibar
Stone Town Beach, Zanzibar

Other west-coast beaches are unsuitable for recreation due to their modest size and poor accessibility. Transport infrastructure is poorly developed away from the archipelago capital, especially in the southern and western parts. Hotels and decent roads are more typical of the area closer to Kendwa Beach.

South of Kendwa is mostly wilderness, precipitous eroded cliffs, and sparse narrow stretches favored by fishers. Admittedly, though, there's nothing more fun than renting a car, discovering deserted beaches in western Zanzibar with minimal tides, and enjoying your own snatch of paradise.

Some hire boats in Stone Town and head to tiny islands nearby Unguja in search of a reclusive nook. Keep in mind that such islands have no infrastructure at all, and the lack of tides on them is not guaranteed. More like a short boat trip to an islet can be an extra fun thing to do if you want to find a pristine empty spot for a photoshoot or get this vibe of the wild secluded bit of land. The nearest island beaches are Nakupenda and Bave.

Things to Do in Low Tide

Low tide is not a tragedy. First, the water will be back soon, and you’ll be able to indulge in swimming and snorkeling again. What’s more, low tide is the perfect time to wander around the exposed bottom - the Indian Ocean itself has opened up its closely held secrets for you! Is there ever a chance to be that close to the heart of the ocean?  

The tide uncovers the numerous starfish, crabs, and shells, and one can discover dozens of different sea creatures that remain on the sand as the ocean's blanket rolls away.

We remind you, however, that it is unethical to interfere in the lives of animals, even the smallest and most beautiful ones. Moreover, Tanzanian law criminalizes wildlife violations. It is forbidden to collect and take objects of flora and fauna home with you from the holiday. If you are spotted having shells from the Zanzibar beach at the customs, you may be fined or even detained. Altezza Travel supports and promotes the idea that in any encounter with nature, one should remain an observer - even when you are interacting with the tiniest life on a tourist beach. 

Zanzibar Starfish
Zanzibar Starfish

Families with young children benefit from tides most of all. Playing in the warm sand is safe and fun, but keep the babies protected from the sun using quality sunscreen and hats.

If it happens that the tide interferes with your swimming plans in the daytime, just grab a perfect chance to go on a day trip to Stone Town or Jozani Forest Reserve, which is home to the endemic red colobus monkeys, or take a spice tour, a boat trip to see the dolphins in Menai Bay or the giant turtles at Prison Island. Finally, nothing keeps you from exploring other Zanzibar beaches. Thankfully, the moderate sizes of Unguja and short distances allow you to reach the other side in only an hour and a half drive across the scenic island.

Where can I find the tide chart?

Hotels often have an information chart on both the weather and upcoming tides at nearby beaches. You can plan the following vacation days in advance, taking into account the natural timing of tides.

It will come in handy to download and install a mobile app that helps you track the current water level and tides just by turning on your GPS or saving your current location manually.

Just google "tide schedule" to find a convenient website or mobile app and select your location (Tanzania or Zanzibar). You can choose the app you like most and keep track of the schedule. 

Zanzibar Tides Chart from www.tide-forecast.com
Zanzibar Tides Chart from www.tide-forecast.com

On the chart above, you can see a sine wave with the daily time and water level coordinates. As you remember, there are two high tides and two low tides in a day. Accordingly, the two peaks on the graph are the points of high tide, and the two lows are the low tides. Thus, the perfect time for swimming is the top of the high tide peak on the chart, while ideal time slots for walking, sunbathing, and excursions are below the midline. Note that the height of the tides is always different, so the water level at the same beach spots changes daily.

In the monthly schedules, you can see a table with the dates and times. The box where they intersect indicates the height of the water rise. An excellent time to swim would be 2-4 hours with the highest values, and the rest of the day is when the water recedes, leaving the shallowed bottom at the lowest points of the chart. There may also be chart options where you simply filter four values to get a particular day and time: highest tide, lowest tide, high tide, low tide.

You can see on the charts that the time for each tide shifts forward by about 30-40 minutes daily. This is due to the difference between the daily rotation of the Earth around the Sun and the full revolution of the Moon around the Earth. For example, on June 1, the highest point of the tide is at 5:15 p.m. On June 2, the same is at 5:45 p.m. Once you get the tidal principle, you can roughly predict the tides and plan your vacation without fear of being caught unawares.

Matemwe Beach, Zanzibar
Matemwe Beach, Zanzibar

We wish you a pleasant vacation on the beaches of Zanzibar! We hope you enjoy swimming in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean at high tide and take a nice stroll on the sandy bottom when the water recedes for a while.

Revised on 03 June 2022
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