My attitude in life has changed. I used to look at people I admired with jealousy and think ‘I wish I could be like you‘. Now though, I tell my self, ‘I can be like you‘. I used to believe there were restrictions to what I was able to do or become. Because I didn’t have the right skills, the right degree or the necessary knowledge. But the more I stretch myself out of my comfort zone and make my dreams a reality, the more I realise how much potential I have to manifest what I truly want in my life.

I’ve stopped setting myself limits and given myself the belief that I am good enough.

Which is exactly why I have found myself on Mafia Island initiating a whale shark conservation project!

Grabbing opportunities when they come

Last time we were in Tanzania we stayed for a week on Zanzibar’s neighbouring and less well-known Island, Mafia. I completely fell in love with the place. The people, the nature and the mix of Island and Tanzanian culture.

While there we were invited by Afro Whale Shark Tour company to join one of his safaris that take tourists out to swim with the whale sharks. It was one of my usual ‘blogging gigs’.  I get to go on an adventure free of charge and in exchange I write an honest account of my experience, providing exposure for their company via my website. It was amazing, one of the best things I have ever done. And we got on so well with Afro and his team that they invited us back to join them every single day until we left the Island!

We’d made good friends and had been able to help beyond just blogging. I could share some social media and marketing knowledge and Gil updated their website.

Afro also told us of his hope that he could become more of an eco-tour company (he really does love the sharks!), although he didn’t know how or where to start. I’d seen some areas of improvement….inspiring the tourists more with information on the sharks and conservation issues, reducing their plastic waste and logging the sightings of the whale sharks when they saw them for scientific research.

Afro liked my ideas. And asked me if I’d like to come back to initiate a conservation project.

Me, initiating a whale shark conservation project on a gorgeous island off Tanznaia….nah, no chance…..

Small plane to Mafia Island

It’s a two-way exchange

Afro, an ex-fisherman, set up his company 2 years ago and has done incredibly well for himself. Facing the usual challenges of bigger, better-funded westerners stepping in as competition on the island. But he has stood his ground and stuck to his principles of keeping things local.

Each day (during season September – March) Afro takes tourists out to try a find the whale sharks. They’re wild animals so you never know how long it will take to find them. Sometimes half an hour, sometimes 3 hours, sometimes not at all. If lucky enough to spot one, they get an opportunity to jump in and swim with them.

boat ride on Mafia Island

We will be joining the daily tours doing some guiding. Then in the afternoons will help with the business side of things where we can, as well as working on English with the team, something they really want to improve.

They will teach us how to manage the boats, how they find the sharks and a bit of Swahili in exchange. As well as providing us with an unbelievable experience every morning, of course!

It’s an exchange of skills and cultures. As volunteering always should be.

Making Afro Whale Shark a bit more Eco

So I don’t have a marine biology background. In fact, I dropped all related subjects aged 16. You really don’t need to have a qualification to be an expert in something because you can choose to learn off your own back like I did.

Using online courses, books and videos I’ve spent the last 2 years studying all things marine biology and conservation. I also got some practical hands-on qualifications and lots of experience carrying out citizen science when I completed Utila Dive Centres GoEco course. Thanks to that I have a good foundation of knowledge and skills.

INTERESTED IN MARINE BIOLOGY AND CONSERVATION: Check out this comprehensive list of all the resources I have used to learn what I know today!

There are lots of different areas of conservation and the area I’m really interested in – human attitudes, behaviour and connections with the ocean – does not need a science background. It needs passion. People that can connect with others and inspire a change by sharing what they love about the ocean.

There are 2 things I want to focus on when working with Afro that will help make his tours more eco-friendly.

The first is using the tourist interactions with the sharks as an opportunity to inspire them to do something after the encounter. That means them leaving with more information on the whale sharks, their vulnerability and what we can do to help. It’s not a coincidence that most ocean conservationists are divers or free divers. Close encounters with marine life are a powerful tool!

The second will be logging data on the whale sharks we spot. Whale sharks spots are like a thumbprint – unique and individual. If we swim with a whale shark and can take a picture (on the righthand side behind the pectoral fin), note its size and location and this can be logged for free onto a universal database called Wildbook. These sightings can then be analysed by experts and used to help us understand the whale shark better which has all sorts of implications when it comes to protecting them.

We will be working on the tourist’s experience and logging every sighting we have and, more importantly, will teach Afro and his team to do it so they can continue with the system after we have left.

And it is not costing us a penny

Afro really values the time and knowledge we can bring his business. And we really value the experience and opportunity he is giving us. So neither of us will be paying the other.

We will be staying at Ibizza Inn while we are on Mafia Island. We also made good friends with the manager there and have struck an agreement that we can stay free of charge in exchange for Gil building them a new website.

Skills and services can be as valuable as money.

Volunteer with whale sharks

Have the confidence to work on a solution

I’ve had some bad experiences with volunteering before so take a new approach these days. Although I appreciate that volunteer’s money often supports good causes, in most instances I don’t think the volunteering price tag can be justified.

I’m a big believer in grassroots and individual driven projects. So find your passion, see a problem, think of an idea and make it happen. That’s all it takes to initiate a conservation project, no matter how big or small.

But stick to these principles

  • Approach any volunteering as an exchange of experience and skills
  • Collaborate! If you are missing the expertise or knowledge then find someone who has what you need and get them on board
  • Keep things small and focused
  • Build relationships with the locals. Get to know them and understand their culture and needs
  • Think suitability. There’s no point creating something that as soon as you go will disappear. It’s a pointless exercise. It’s the same principle as giving a poor man a fish vs teaching a poor man to fish.
  • Know that it is hard work. You will need to sort out logistics, insurance, etc
  • Think logically and use good business tactics to make your time and efforts as efficient as possible
  • Accept that there is no guarantee that the project will work or that when you get there peoples attitudes have changed

And most importantly…

  • Don’t listen to naysayers (that includes yourself!)

INTERESTED IN VISITING MAFIA ISLAND? You might also like my blog on how to visit Mafia Island on a budget and what there is to do on Mafia Island.