‘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 apprehensively. This was the moment I had flown all the way to Mafia Island for. To have a chance to swim with the worlds largest fish, whale sharks. No time for hesitating now. I pushed myself off the boat and slid into the water.
Mafia Island; Tanzania’s hidden gem
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 (which was great).
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.
If you are planning a visit, check out my blog: Visiting Mafia Island on a budget.
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 connecting flight to the Island. Thankfully, we were able to book a flight the next day – they aren’t very infrequent.
As if the extra expense, plus losing 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!
Tour with Afro Whale Shark Mafia Island
We booked to do the whale shark safari on New Years eve with Afro Whale Shark Mafia Island safari. It was an early start, 6.30am. Afro and Muba, 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 briefing. As we had been warned when booking, 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 didn’t get my hopes up.
It took less than half an hour before Afro was able to spot a whale shark in the water.
I saw a flash of a large fin break the surface not far from where we were cruising. A classic Jaws moment. The engine was cut off and we were instructed to jump in.
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.
The shark was moving slowly but at surprising speed, right towards us. It wasn’t until it was right by us that I could truly take in its awesome size. We were within touching distance.
Shortly after, a second whale shark joined. I was loving their docile and gentle manner and had no problem keeping up as they circled the area feeding.
We got to spend a lucky amount of time with them; over an hour. By that point, we were tired from swimming and ready to head back.
What an epic experience!
You might also want to check out: 11 things to do on Mafia Island.
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 Muba. 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 countless fireflies lighting up the area.
We drank lots ($1 a beer!) and attempted (unsuccessfully) to keep up with the locals.
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!
Top tips for swimming with whale sharks on Mafia Island
- Do your tour on day 1 of arriving on Mafia Island so if you don’t see them, you have as many chances as possible.
- Keep your swimming costume in your hand luggage in case (like us) they lose your bag!
- I can really recommend Afro Whale Shark. They were very professional and good at finding the sharks. They will also do you a good deal if you return to do a second whale shark tour or any of the other activities they offer.
- Take plenty of sunscreen and sunglasses. If you burn easily you might also want to wear a top while in the water.
- Included in the price of the tour was pick up and drop off at our accommodation, water, snacks, community fees and snorkelling gear.
- Don’t take anything with you on the boat that you don’t want to get wet unless it is in a dry bag.
- When you jump into the water and swim near the sharks, try not splash too much. The calmer you are and the less noise you make, the less likely they are to swim away.
- Once you’ve got your photo, have a swim with the sharks without worrying about pictures.
- NEVER touch the sharks. The guides will tell you this but I kept seeing arrogant, disrespectful tourists ignoring this instruction. We have no right to disrupt them as they feed.
- If you are spending longer on Mafia Island, I’d suggest spending a day visiting the lagoon and snorkelling in the marine park. Check out: 11 things to do on Mafia Island for more ideas.