I couldn’t believe it. Here I was…..about to swim with the gigantic Mafia Island Whale Sharks!

‘Jump, jump’ the captain yelled at us and the 4 other tourists that were on the traditional dhow boat. I put my mask on and ungraciously 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 whale sharks on Mafia Island – the world’s largest fish.

No time for hesitation now. I lowered myself off the boat into the water (ok, it was more like an ungracious flop into the water, despite my best efforts to not to splash so I didn’t scare the shark away).

In the water, Gil grabbed my arm and pointed at something below me. Coming from the depths was the dark shadow of a Whale Shark. I heard my breath quicken and felt the goosebumps go up on my arms.

It was huge!! About 8 or 9 metres.

The shark was moving slowly but at surprising speed, right towards us. It wasn’t until it was by us (it literally came within a couple of metres) that I could truly take in its awesome size.

Shortly after, a second whale shark joined.

The wait had been so worth it…..this was one of the best travel experiences I’d ever had!!

You might also want to check out my other Mafia Island blogs:

Mafia Island Whale Sharks

Mafia Island Tanzania: a hidden gem

Mafia is the less-known neighbour of Tanzania’s popular island, Zanzibar. Unlike Zanzibar, which is fully equipped for (and overrun with) tourists, Mafia is still relatively untouched. Despite the lovable, laid-back locals, the beautiful palm tree beaches and the vibrant reefs, the place was void of tourists.

Note that the island is still very cut off, so life there is basic. For me, this was all part of the charm.

Those who venture there usually come in search of an encounter swimming with whale sharks who migrate to the area between October and February each year.


Afro Whale Shark, Mafia Island

After doing a lot of research, we decided to go with Afro Whale Shark Safari Mafia Island…..why?

  • They had great reviews on Tripadvisor
  • They are the first to leave each morning, which means you have a chance to see and swim with the sharks before the other tour boats join in as well (on most tours the tour boats all end up together)
  • They are a locally owned and run company (most of the other tours are owned by Westerners, and I like to support locals in the places I go to). Afro’s team used to be fishermen, so they have been finding whale sharks their whole life because the sharks hang out in food-rich areas.
  • They are one of the cheapest at $60. One company charges as much as $100 for the same tour and experience!
  • The tour includes everything (pick up, drop off, snacks, water, fins and mask), so all you need to bring is your swimming costume and sunscreen.
  • They were super friendly and quick to respond when I emailed.

It was easy to book. We sent Muba (the manager) an email in advance. Once on the island, we realised this wasn’t necessary. as you can book last minute.

We just needed to ask our hotel to call them the night before if we wanted to do a whale shark tour the next day. Mafia Island doesn’t do the planning! (Watch out because some hotels will sneakily book you with a different company. Some of the tours on the island are terrible and to be avoided.)

Swimming with Mafia Island Whale Sharks, the experience:

We were collected by tuk-tuk from where we were staying in Bustani Lodge and taken to Afro Beach Bungalows which is on a secluded and beautiful stretch of beach.

Need somewhere to stay? I can really recommend Bustani Lodge. Great value hotel for the level of luxury you get and one of the few places on the island with a pool. For the budget option, I’d suggest Whale Shark Lodge

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 six dolphin tours without ever spotting a wild dolphin, I didn’t get my hopes up!

Afro’s team were a little shy but very friendly and happy to answer our questions.

Afro Whale Shark Mafia Island review

First sighting of Mafia Island Whale Sharks

It took less than half an hour before Afro’s team was able to spot a whale shark in the water. (THis was very different to the other tours during our stay when it took more like 4 hours.)

I saw a flash of a large fin break the surface not far from where we were. A classic Jaws moment! The engine was cut off and we were instructed to jump in.

Afro Whale Shark Mafia Island
swimming with Whale Sharks Mafia Island
Mafia Island whale sharks

Each time we got tired, we would get back on the boat, and Afro and his team would line us up again with the shark so we could jump back in. There was no pressure or rush, so we could jump as many times as we liked.

After an hour, we were all tired and unanimously agreed we were happy to head back.

Afro passed around some snacks (much appreciated, as after all the swimming and adrenaline, we were hungry), and we all sat soaking up the sun, grinning ear to ear.

What an epic experience!

Not happy with doing it just once!

In the short time that we had been on the island, we already felt that we had become good friends with Afro and his team.  They also organised several other trips for us (at a discount as we had already done the shark tour with them).

This included visiting the marine park for snorkelling and a BBQ on a secluded sandbank. They also arranged for us to join a local night party on the beach to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

And arranged for us to collect some fabric in the market and for a local tailor to make clothing and bags for us to take home as souvenirs.

We ended up doing the whale shark tour 4 times. It was worth it, and each time offered a different experience.

Insurance for swimming with Whale Sharks

Make sure you have good insurance that covers you for open-water swimming. Although Mafia Island has a hospital, the island is remote, and the facilities are basic. It’s also common for airlines to lose bags (I learnt this the hard way. You’ll see below I’m swimming in the clothes I intended for pyjamas because the airline lost my bag).

So make sure you’re insured!

Swimming Mafia Island Whale Sharks

Things you might want to take with you:

  • Mask and Snorkel.….although these are provided, you might want to have your own for comfort. It’s also a great gift you can leave behind to a local fisherman or whale shark tour guide!
  • Anti-fog spray…..so worth having!! It’s really annoying if your mask keeps fogging when you are trying to see the Whale Sharks.
  • Basic rash vest…..keeps you protected from the sun and means you don’t have to worry about the odd jellyfish you might encounter. This is another nice gift you can leave behind.
  • Eco sunscreen….protect you and the reefs
  • Extra pair of sunglasses….if you lose your only pair then you’re really stuck as there are none to buy on the island!
  • Tanzania guide book

Top tips for swimming with Mafia Island Whale Sharks

……The lodge or hotel that you are staying with will be happy to organise your whale shark tour; however (!!!) be careful as they will often say they have booked you with the tour company you asked for but, in actual fact, will take you somewhere else. (This won’t happen if you stay in the hotel I recommend, Bustani Lodge, as they are fair and professional)

…….For their experience, warmth and comfort, I fully recommend Afro. I also liked that they were relaxed, letting us take as long as we wanted, and also offered a longer tour (more chance to see the sharks) than others as they left an hour early.

Whoever you choose to book with, here are my top tips:

  • 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 (or if you get addicted, you can go again!)
  • Keep your swimming costume in your hand luggage in case (like us!) the airline loses your bag! It’s also worth keeping your anti-malaria tablets and a summer outfit in your hand luggage.
  • The tour can take anywhere between 2 to 5 hours, depending on how quickly (or if at all) you see the sharks. On one tour with Afro, we saw them after 5.5 hours as we were starting to head back (the other boats had already gone back to the island, so we were alone, which was great). So don’t be disheartened if you don’t see them early on. You never know when they might show up..
  • From speaking to tour guides on the island, I understand the chances of seeing sharks during peak whale shark season to be around 70-80%.
  • Take plenty of sunscreen and sunglasses. If you burn easily, you might also want to wear a top while in the water. I saw lots of tourists red with sunburn. There is little shade on the boats and the sun is really strong
  • Most of the time, the water was fairly calm, but sometimes it got a little choppy. Bring tablets if you are prone to seasickness.
  • If you get hot on the tour while searching for sharks or need to pee, just ask to take a break and a 5-minute swim to cool down
  • 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.
  • 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: Top things to do on Mafia Island for more ideas.

Love the whale sharks? protect the whale sharks!!

Since writing this blog post, I have returned to Mafia Island a further three times. In fact, that first visit and experience were catalysts for me, and I changed my career to work more in marine conservation. I even wrote a book about the experience!

Whale Sharks are a vulnerable species whose numbers are in serious decline. They face threats from fishing, pollution and finning.

Swimming with Whale Sharks offers an incredible experience that really connects you to our ocean. While on Mafia you can do your bit to look after these creatures. I really urge you to encourage your tour company to follow the code of conduct when swimming with the sharks and if you see anything that isn’t ok (like littering or aggressive driving) that you speak up.

The rules that should be followed on these tours are: leaving 10 metres between the boat and the shark. Cutting the engine when the boat gets near. Not jumping from the boat (only lowering yourself in the water) and also not touching the sharks. And there should be no more than 10 people swimming with the shark at one time.

Following the rules actually leads to a much more relaxed experience and the sharks are less likely to swim away from all the noise and splashing so it works in your favour too. Swimming with more than 10 people in the water feels like a scene from the Titanic….it’s not fun!!

Overfishing is also a huge issue in the area. You can MASSIVELY reduce your impact when visiting Mafia (and other islands) by not eating lots of seafood when you are there…..tourists are effectively taking away the food source from locals and marine life. It’s worth thinking about!

Lets all do our bit to help protect the Whale Sharks.

Help with planning your visit to Mafia Island…

If you plan a visit, I’ve done all the groundwork for you with my Tanzania Mafia Island guide. You might also want to check out my list of things to do on Mafia Island and my complete budget breakdown in how much does it cost to visit Mafia Island. And if you are thinking about diving, check out Mafia Island Diving guide

If you have any questions, please do ask using the comment box below, and I’d be happy to help!

For more travel inspiration and to follow my visits when I return to Mafia Island, I’m on Facebook and Instagram. Or you can subscribe to my YouTube channel.

31 thoughts on “Guide: Swimming with Whale Sharks, Mafia Island

  1. Bex, thanks for the great review of your whale-shark adventure. I had a couple Qs. My wife and I would like to swim with the big fellows, have some time on an idyllic beach, and then safari on the mainland. My first question has to do with that idyllic beach. Is there/are there such places on Mafia island, or should one spend some time on Zanzibar or any other island in the chain to get the idyllic-beach experience? I have communicated with Afro and with Kitu Kiblu (who you seem to poo poo a bit) asking about the best time frame to visit, can it be narrowed down a bit from Oct to Feb to get the best experience. Neither have narrowed it down, but KK suggests that Nov/Dec is good because there are fewer people visiting at that time and the whale sharks are thus disturbed less. Do you have any comment on “best time?” I’ve signed up to receive your blog and look forward to reading about more adventures. Thank you. Best regards, Tim Stevens, Cleveland, Ohio USA

    1. Thanks Tim! You’re going to have a great time. Nov – Feb really are all great months for whale shark swimming so you can’t go wrong during that time. November and December are a little quieter but you never get the crowds like you experience on Zanzibar.
      On the marine park side of the island there are lots of beaches you can lounge on. Afro Beach camp also has a nice stretch of beach. The beaches aren’t as perfect as Zanzibar but they are still beautiful and you can swim – but maybe just a bit more rugged and natural (you won’t get the rows of pagodas and beau bars that you do on zanzibar). The upside to Mafia is you don’t get the hassle from sellers.
      If it was me I’d stick to Mafia! Zanzibar just feels like a busy, tourist trap after spending time on Mafia.
      I hope that helps 🙂

  2. Bex, thanks a lot for your quick and comprehensive reply. I’ve done a bit more whale-shark research, and Chloe island in the Mafia group has popped up as a good base for whale-shark adventures. In fact one site says “the most interesting and responsible whale shark encounters” are to be had from Chloe island. The Chole Mjini Lodge is mentioned in that context. I’m following up on that statement, and wondered if you had any comment. Thank you. Best regards, Tim

    1. I’ve visited Chole a few times – it’s even quieter than Mafia. I wouldn’t read in to the ‘more reaponsible’ Comments too much. Ultimately when there are whale sharks every company ends up at the same place swimming with them! I’m not a big fan of K Kiblu because I’ve found their boat to be very aggressive in the water getting to close to the whale sharks. I’d also avoid Ibizza Inn who have a small boat that is not suitable.

      Every tour company has to pay marine fees which looks after the area and most drive responsibly and look out for the sharks. I like to go for companies that support the locals which is why we support Afro so much. Butiyama is run by a lovely couple who also do a lot of work locally so can also recommend them.

      I’m actually going to be on mafia in Jan so if you do end up coming then it’d be great to meet up for a drink. 🙂

  3. Bex, again, thanks for your instant and helpful reply. What’s the timing of your 2019 visit to Mafia island? Best, Tim

    1. No problem at all 🙂

      I’ll be on the island from the 2nd Jab – 3rd Feb. I’ve got a couple of trips I am leading (between the 5-14 Jan and 27 jan – 3 Feb). I’ll have a lot more time off in between my trips to meet and maybe even join you on a whale tour with Afro. Even when I’m leading the trips though i’ll Have some time off in the afternoon to grab a drink.
      Let me know if the dates work out 🙂

  4. Bex, thanks for the reply. We’re still very much in the planning stage, so I don’t have a firm date as yet. I’ll keep your timing in mind. we’re also planning to add significant safari time in Tanzania or Kenya, so it’s a bit more extensive than just the whale-shark adventure. Right now I have World Cup Argentina v France on the radar! Best, Tim
    P.S. What does it mean “I’m leading trips?”

    1. I’m leading 2 all female conservation trips on Mafia Island – https://www.loveherwild.com/whale-shark-retreat/

      Having been on safari a number of times in both kenya and Tanzania I can really recommend Tanzania – the scenery and wildlife can’t be beat. Make sure you get yourself to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater…both incredible.
      Good luck!

  5. Hi Bex,
    I came across your Mafia Island blog whilst reaserching a bit more about the island.
    My husband and I are heading out there in Nov’ to join a Whale Shark conservation project for a month – so excited!
    Your thoughts and insights are very helpful.
    We are staying on the Magemani Camp site, just wondered if you experienced staying there and/or had any tips to pass on?
    Also, I’ve travelled a fair bit and where ever I’ve been, the insects love me !!
    I’m guessing the mosquitoes are pretty pesky – what was your experience of them and do you have any personal advice about malaria tablets.
    Many thanks,
    I look forward to your reply.

    1. Hi Mandy
      Amazing! I’ve not heard of them or the project before but am sure you are going to have a great time. How can you not when you are swimming with whale sharks each day?! 🙂
      I never find the bugs too much of a pest on the Island. Make sure you have good bug spray for the evenings and that your accommodation has a mosquito net. I’ve always used Doxycyclin for Malaria protection but it is a personal choice so definitely speak to your doctor.
      Enjoy every minute!!

  6. Hi Bex,
    My friend and I from Ireland will be visiting from the end of January sometime into mid Feb or so. Thanks so much for all the very helpful information you have shared on here – i’m very excited about swimming with the sharks just reading what you have to say and Mafia island sounds just perfect as a place to stay. We would hope to meet you when we are there for a drink and to find out about all the wonderful work you are doing – the retreat also sounds amazing! Two quick questions i have – one is what about accommodation on the island – Whale Shark Lodge looks interesting but open to other suggestions – on somewhat of a budget…Other is that I just invested in full face snorkel mask and wonder if it’s worth hauling there (going to Serengeti first) or are snorkels there adequate – would probably go with Afro tours as you suggested. Have small underwater Olympus I can bring but wondering if I should invest in a go pro!
    Thanks for an information you might have and look forward to hopefully seeing you there….
    Cate and Aileen

    1. Hey Cate and Aileen!

      Great that you are coming to Mafia Island….you will love it!
      I’m not sure if I will have time to meet as when I run expeditions I am usually quite busy. But it is a small island so hopefully we will bump into each other.

      Firstly, read my blog with all the tips for affordable hotels on Mafia Island (http://www.www.theordinaryadventurer.com/travel/tanzania/mafia-island-for-budget-backpackers/). Whale Shark lodge is basic but good for the price. Afro Beach bungalows are another good basic option. Ibizza Inn have AirCon and are clean but the management and food isn’t great. Really there aren’t any mid-range options.

      Full face snorkels don’t work well with the whale sharks. Every tourist I saw who brought these were struggling. Definitely just stick to the ones provided – they are usually good quality.

      Do use Afro….such a fab team! People will try to sell you more expensive tours but you will just be putting money in westerners pockets!

      Let me know if you have any more Qs 🙂

  7. Hi Bek,
    lovely to hear back from you so soon and just great to get recommendations about the places to stay and also about the snorkel mask! I work as a Marine Mammal Observer so if there might be anything I can do to help you when we’re there please do let me know – maybe even gathering data on sharks who knows…..I do have one more question though…
    My friend and I are planning our Northern Serengeti trip and wonder if you have any recommendations about where exactly to go there and safari companies you might recommend. We both have a preference for being in a basic lodge or permanent camp and have had to cut the days short to a 4 day trip to find the price that works for that type of package. It seems everyone books through this Mohji team and wondered if it’s possible to go direct to company and perhaps get better price on mid-range option. I’m sure you’re busy but maybe you know of some contact offhand that we could get in touch with – there’s also of course the questions of where to go. At the moment we’re booked for 4 day Serengeti and Crater (can’t spell it!).
    Thanks so much
    Kind regards,

    1. No worries at all Cate!!
      In terms of a safari I can really recommend Misele. I wrote about my experience with them in this blog: http://www.www.theordinaryadventurer.com/travel/tanzania/safari-guide/
      I don’t think lodges are worth the price so would suggest going with a camp option. Your Misele guide puts up the tent and rolls out mattresses. And you have a cook preparing your meals.
      4 days is the right amount of time. Serengeti and NgoroNgoro Crater is a must!

  8. Thanks again Bex for the quick response!
    Great to get good recommendations. Only thing is that we are nervous about being in small tent with wild animals all around outside – my friend especially! The prices are such that really we could only afford the camping so will have to see if that will work – great to know that just 4 days is enough. Will think about it and figure it out soon….but thanks again for kindly sharing this information and your blogs are just great…
    Kind Regards,

    1. No need to be worried about that….hundreds of people sleep in the national park campsites every week. The animals just see the tent as a rock. So don’t let that put you off!
      Thanks for your kind words and have a great time!!
      Bex 🙂

  9. Hi Bex,
    Looks like I will be travelling alone as friend couldn’t afford all the extras with immunisations etc. which run to about €700! So, I am thinking of coming to Mafia first for ten days around the 12th or so of January and then figuring it out from there. Do you think I need to book the safari in advance or can I do it when there? Just wanted to maybe talk to you and a few people to get a better sense of things – especially the part about camping as will now be doing that alone! Hope to go to Arusha after Mafia and book things from there and maybe take in Kiliminjaro also and doing a little hiking there maybe. Any suggestions would be welcome if you have time to write back. I think your retreat finishes on the 14th of January so might be able to meet up and have a chat about things. Am happy to buy you dinner or a coffee in exchange for all the useful information you’ve already provided – it’s inspiring to read about all that you’ve done there and really makes me want to go and spend time on Mafia and especially swimming with the whale sharks which I’m sure will be a highlight of the trip!
    Thanks again

    1. You can definitely book the safaris when you get here. Especially if you’ve got time to be flexible.
      The camping is safe. There are always guards at the sites.
      I’m actually running 2 retreats back to back so don’t think I’ll have time but thanks so much for the offer 🙂 If I’m not working I sometimes help Afro Wale Shark with his tours so I might catch you on one of those!

  10. Hi Bex,
    Just to let you know that i am deferring my trip to Tanzania until 2020 due to various complications and will go to Baja instead where I hope to swim with Whale Sharks in the Sea of Cortez and also see the Grays and their calves on the Pacific side. Really looking forward to that but definitely have Tanzania on top of my list for the following year. Thanks again for all your help and kindness…
    Catch you sometime out there I hope…
    Kind Regards,

  11. Hi Bex,

    Thanks very much for your reviews/blogs/ impressions from your adventures there! I’ll be headed there this weekend and had decided to stay with Afro Bungalows and their Whale Shark tour prior to reading, so reading your post was really affirming and reassuring- I can’t wait!! Good luck on your trips and I’m excited for the magical time ahead.


    1. That’s amazing! Thanks for letting me know.
      I’m actually on Mafia Island at the moment for the whole of January so look out for me. I’ll be in and out of Afro Beach Bungalow so look out for me 🙂
      Excited for you – the sharks are incredible!

  12. I am planning to stay 3 weeks on Mafia island from April 17th till May 10th (during the raining season) I will not stay into a luxury hotel as I normally do but in a tent in Afro Beach Bungalows My first question: is there enough to keep one occupied on the island for 3 weeks? Also is there an atm there or do you advise me to carry cash with me and if so local money or usd?

    1. There isn’t a huge amount to do on Mafia Island other than relaxing. It’s a very small and undeveloped island. The only activities are swimming with Whale Sharks and snorkelling and diving in the Marine Park….these activities are expensive.
      I recommend checking out my guide for more details: http://www.www.theordinaryadventurer.com/travel/tanzania/mafia-island-for-budget-backpackers/
      There is an ATM on the island. Almost everywhere accepts dollars except for in the market where you can buy local food (there are no crafts or souvenirs).

  13. Hi, Your Tanzania guides are amazing!! thank you 🙂
    do you know if anyone does diving (rather than snorkelling) with the whalesharks?
    thanks, fla

    1. Glad you had a good experience with them – they all work very hard.
      There’s nowhere in Tanzania where you can dive with Whale Sharks. In fact, I’ve never heard of anywhere doing this as the sharks move fast and usually don’t like the bubbles. Of course in areas where there are lots of whale sharks one may swim by if you are diving but I think it’s very rare.
      You’ll have a better experience snorkelling anyway as you can stay with them for longer and will be closer.

  14. Thanks for the info Bex! Friends and i were debating Mafia vs. Pemba for diving. Friends went a couple of months ago to Pemba and loved it, suggesting Afro Divers. Is the Afro Divers on Mafia affiliated?

    I’m vegan and i couldnt find any veg restaurant on Mafia on Happy Cow. Are there any?

    Thanks! Caron

    1. Hi Caron
      They are not affiliated. Last time I was on Mafia I was vegan and it was fine. You can have beans, rice and chapati from the market. All the hotel restaurants had lots of variations of meals to offer me from salads to curries. Apart from eggs, the locals don’t tend to use a lot of dairy anyway as refrigeration is limited on the island.
      Hope that helps!

  15. Hello. For this year, is late November-early December a good time to see whale sharks?

    1. It’s impossible to predict but you should have a good shot at seeing them during this time 🙂

  16. Hi Bex

    Loving the blog but it’s quite old pre-COVID. How are things now? We want to do the trip in Jan combined with a safari but I have seen that it’s not the best season as it’s rainy. (Selous not recommended at this time. However you seem to go quite a bit then so I’m assuming it’s not bad!

    1. Hi Sarah – I visited the Island in October (6 months ago) and updated this blog then so everything in it is accurate and up-to-date.

      I’ve been on the island several times in january. If it rains it’s usually just for a couple of hours and then it clears. And it doesn’t happen often. So don’t let that stop you!

      Enjoy your whale shark swim 🙂

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