THE SPACIOUS, PURPOSE-BUILT DHOW slid through the calm Indian Ocean. We were briefed sitting under the shade area of the deck, then kitted up and went through our buddy checks before a giant stride took us into the 30°C sea.
I could just make out the dive site, an old British vessel 27m below me.
The day was going well, and it was only 9.30am. I had flown in two hours earlier on the Cessna from Dar es Salaam to the west coast of Unguja, more commonly known as Zanzibar. Ten minutes in a taxi, and I was in the One Ocean Divers reception area.
One Ocean started in Stone Town 14 years ago, and in 1999 was taken over by Australian Gary Greig and his South African wife, Gail. They now operate five resorts around the island. Kit was dished out while more coffee was brewed, then we walked past the palm trees down the small beach and onto the waiting dhow.
On the leisurely cruise out to a reef near Bawe Island acquaintances were made and the been-there-done-it-all-in-25-dives American was quickly identified and avoided as a buddy.

THE WRECK WAS A TAD DISAPPOINTING. The briefing by guide Amani had covered all the essentials and been thorough in terms of safety procedures, but the size of the wreck had not been indicated. So my initial thoughts of: With a lifeboat that size, it must be a huge wreck! quickly turned to disappointment as I found that a lifeboat was exactly what we had come to see.
The wreck hosted a large school of striped eel catfish and long strands of whip coral (one fewer, following a display of unusual buoyancy skills from across the Atlantic). Following
the dive plan, we then finned away, following the contours of the sandy bottom up to some outcrops of reef, home to a bearded scorpionfish and an assortment of triggerfish, butterflyfish and coachmen.
By the time we had started puttering along to the Aquarium at Murogo Reef, bellies were rumbling, and the crew laid out a spread fit for an Omani sultan - the Omanis who once ruled Zanzibar were the most successful slave and spice traders in Africa.
Samosas, spring rolls, chapattis and fresh fruits required a leisurely spot of digestion, during which we tried to convince our US expert that a stonefish sting really would spoil his day.

ON OUR NEXT DIVE, visibility was around 15m, and the site deserved its moniker. Table and plate corals adorned the reef, and we spotted common lionfish, lots of nudibranchs, an undulate moray eel, hermit crab, huge gorgonian fans, a giant clam and two blue-spotted rays.
The highlight was the large remora that took a fancy to Captain Americas bare leg. His squeals were vaguely reminiscent of dolphin chatter, as he thrashed around trying to avoid its
Back on the dhow, he was informed that remora like to live on sharks, and that one is never very far from the other. I couldve been killed then! he shrieked. Yes, we thought.
The reefs around Stone Town are fairly plentiful and other, larger wrecks exist. And while any first-time reef diver would gawp in amazement at the coral formations and fish life, the reefs have suffered greatly from plagues of crown-of-thorns starfish, draining the coral of colour.
Back on shore, central Stone Town is a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways, flanked by crumbling mansions and mosques. Main attractions are the massive Zanzibari wooden doors, Mercurys Restaurant & Bar (Freddy of Queen fame is Ungujas most famous son), Big Tree, the House of Wonders, the Omani Fort, Tippu Tips house, the Hamamni Persian Baths, and the fish market (conservationists beware: you will find sharks here).
The night food market in Forodhani Gardens is alleged, by the guidebook I used in Dar es Salaam, to be the best in East Africa. If the book was written for flies, this is undoubtedly true.
Close to Mnemba Atoll, a shallow expanse of coral reef with a tiny heart-shaped island on its western fringe surrounded by steep drop-offs, Matemwe is Zanzibars must-dive.
With average vis of 20m or better, it offers many sites in calm conditions that make it suitable for everyone.
One Oceans friendly and efficient dive centre is on the premises of the Beach Village, where standard rooms are comfortable and clean and the Shamba suites huge and charmingly decorated. We went for a bumpy 45-minute drive in a daladala to transfer to another purpose-built diving dhow, the Jessica.
The flat sea and baking sunshine made for a relaxing atmosphere - even the open-water students were looking like seasoned veterans.

IF IT WAS ALL TRANQUILITY on the boat, beneath the ocean it was buzzing.
Our first site was West Bank which, starting at 6m and rolling into a 50m drop-off, was covered in reef fish and eels, hard and soft corals, and large schools of fusiliers.
There were the intriguing juvenile black snapper, damsels in the staghorn coral, royal and emperor angelfish, chocolate dips, blue-spotted rays, two-bar clownfish - thumbing through the book back on the dhow, it was a case of: Saw that, saw that, loads of them, two of them, few of those...
Turtle Reef was not one unbroken reef, but rather coral mounds interspersed with sand, where unusual sightings included two left-eyed flounder, a huge octopus in some rocks and zero turtles between eight divers.
However, lionfish fans were delighted; there was an abundance of these delicate-looking but venomous members of the scorpionfish family.
We returned by road due to extra-low tides. Beers were cracked around the poolside bar and new arrivals greeted like distant cousins, before dinner and a relatively early night under the sleep-inducing whir of the fans.
Next day, it was time to blow bubbles at Mnemba again. Small Wall was home to porcupinefish swimming slowly above the table corals.
False stonefish hid on the rocks while peppered and white-mouthed morays skulked in crevices, paperfish swayed gently in rocky recesses, rock cod went about their business and, looking off into the beautiful blue, a Napoleon wrasse cruised by, unperturbed by a school of kingfish.
Then there was Mnembas take on the Aquarium theme. We drifted on the gentle current from one coral outcrop to another, marvelling at the size of the schools of fusiliers and the number of green turtles.
We saw 12, including three resting on one outcrop, with remoras, being cleaned by accompanying wrasse, attached to their carapaces.
Then the divemaster led us to a vast sandy patch - the ideal spot for a safety stop, as it turned out, when hundreds of garden eels stuck their heads out and started swaying to the tune of an invisible snake-charmer.

I CAUGHT A RIDE across the top of the island, where there are two resorts. Nungwi was a dusty village that has rapidly grown into the most frequented resort on the island.
It has the liveliest nightclubs and the most restaurants, but is also overrun by tourists and has poor swimming beaches. For divers there are a few local sites, but the best dives involve a long dhow trip to Mnemba.
The less-publicised resort of Kendwa has a huge beach ideal for bathing even at low tide, offers a choice of eight places to stay, ranging from thatched bandas at US $15 a night, to air-conditioned en-suites, has six restaurants, has the only dive centre using Zodiacs and some great local reefs.
Using the faster craft, Scuba-Do can get its divers past Nungwi, round the tip of the island, and onto Mnemba dive sites in just under 30 minutes, quicker even than from Matemwe, which overlooks the atoll.
Situated next to the excellent Bikini Beach Bar are very reasonable Sunset bungalows ($50 for a spacious en-suite double with a traditional Zanzibari bed that could sleep four).
The BCs were coming up for replacement so were not as new as at One Ocean, but each one came with an SMB in the pocket and a briefing on how and when to deploy it.

LOCAL SITES INCLUDED Kichafi and Haji reefs and their extensive lattice coral formations, peacock mantis shrimp, paperfish and bearded scorpionfish; Nankivell, with its giant plate corals in fascinating formations, rays, Napoleon wrasse and grouper;
and the stunning Hunga Reef, with its interconnected bommies and a huge variety of hard and soft corals, reminiscent of a fantasy world.
Hunga was home to even bigger schools of snapper, and the impressive crocodile flathead, which can be found in numbers on the sandy bottom in gullies and between bommies. Visibility was 15-25m.
Post-diving, one of the bars would generally have something going on, and they could all be reached by walking down the beach.
The only hazard at night was either nausea or hysteria brought on by the insincere declarations of local playboys to female tourists.
With reduced travelling time and morning and afternoon dives with a long shore-break in between, Kendwa is also more suitable for mixed parties of divers and non-divers, children and adults.

GETTING THERE: Fly to Dar es Salaam from the UK. SAA flies to Zanzibar daily.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: One Ocean Divers and Matemwe Beach Village ( Scuba Do ( Sunset Bungalows, Kendwa ( Hotel Kiponda, Stone Town (
WHEN TO GO: Its driest and calmest from July through to March. Water temperature 24-26°C
PRICES: Flights with BA from £330. Matemwa Beach Village offers rooms with half board from US $65 per person (two sharing). A 10-dive package with Scuba Do costs US $350.