‘Jump, jump’ the captain yelled at us and the 4 other tourists that were on the dhow boat. I put my mask on and awkwardly stuck my legs over the side, fins attached. I looked down at the dark blue water below. It looked deep. The thought of swimming in open sea has always made me nervous, the idea of not knowing what is there, what is moving in the depths below you, it freaks me out. But this time, it was even worse because I did know what was there. Whale Sharks. The largest sharks of the ocean, spanning up to 10 metres in size. Everyone else had already jumped ship and were clearing their snorkels. If I hesitated a moment longer, I would talk myself out of it. I took a deep breath, held my mask to my face and pushed myself off the side of the boat…
Mafia is the less known neighbour of Tanzania’s popular island, Zanzibar. Unlike Zanzibar, which is fully equipped for tourists, Mafia is still relatively untouched. Despite the lovable laid-back locals, the beautiful palm tree beaches and vibrant reefs, the place was void of tourists. Those who do venture there, usually come in search of an encounter swimming with whale sharks who migrate to the area each year between October and February. It was what drew me to the island. Plus the thought of spending a week in a tropical paradise where you didn’t have to fight for a spot on the beach.
Not the best of starts
My journey to Mafia hadn’t started well with a severe delay into Dar es Salaam, which resulted in me missing my connection flight to the Island. Thankfully, we were able to book on a flight the next day – they aren’t very infrequent. As if the extra expense, plus loosing a day, wasn’t bad enough, the airline also lost our bag meaning that our first day in Mafia was spent trying to scrape together an outfit and essential toiletries from the small market on this remote island. Not an easy task! There were no swimsuits in site, so I’d be swimming with the sharks in shorts and T-shirt. At least I wouldn’t have to wear my trousers!
Whale Shark tour on Mafia Island
We booked to do the whale shark safari on New Years eve with Afro Whale Shark Safari. It was an early start, 6.30am. Afro and Mbaraka, our guides, collected us from our inn and took us to the dhow boat. We were kitted out with a mask, snorkel and fins. and given a talk. As we had been warned when booking, we were told that there is no guarantee of seeing the sharks, they are wild animals after all. As someone who has been on 6 dolphin tours without ever spotting a wild dolphin, I was well aware of the risks!
Amazingly, it took less than half an hour before Afro was able to spot them in the water. I saw a flash of a large fin break the surface not far from where we were bobbing. A classic Jaws moment. The engine was cut off and we were instructed to jump in.
Whenever I snorkel, the first thing I always notice is the stark contrast of the noise above the ocean to the sudden silence you experience when your head is underwater. I could hear nothing but the sound of my own breath. I started kicking my legs slowly, propelling myself forward. Gil was next to me but the rest of the group seemed to have dispersed already. Gil grabbed my arm and pointed at something below me. Coming from the depths was the dark shadow of whale shark. I heard my breath quicken and felt the goosebumps go up on my arms. It was a surreal moment.
The shark was moving slowly but at surprising speed, right towards us. The whales head to the surface to feed (on plankton, not us, in case you are wondering). It wasn’t until it was right by us that I could truly take in its awesome size. Being so close to such a huge creature, with nothing between you and it…it makes you feel real small.
Shortly after, a second whale shark joined. It didn’t take long before their docile and gentle way rubbed off on me. It was calming being in their presence. They were circling around a buoy which meant that we got to spend a lucky amount of time with them; at least an hour. This still didn’t feel long enough.
New Year on Mafia Island
In the short time that we had been on the island, we already felt that we had become good friends with Afro and Mbaraka. They were looking after us well and had arranged for us to join a local night party on the beach to celebrate New Years Eve. There was a bonfire, BBQ and a huge sound system set up. The stars were bright and there were so many fireflies that the bushes looked like they were tingling with electricity.
It didn’t take much time for me to get caught up in the atmosphere and drink too much (easily done when the drinks cost a dollar!). Soon I was with the energetic locals on the dance floor….much to their amusement. Damn, the Tanzanians can move!
It was a memorable day to say goodbye to what had been a great year. It seemed fitting that 2017 should start with a bang, there was only one thing I could think of doing…whale shark safari, take 2!