‘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 the worlds largest fish, whale sharks.
No time for hesitaton 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.
Tour with Afro Whale Shark Mafia Island
Of course, the main reason we had come to Mafia Island was to swim with the resident whale sharks that migrate here between October – March each year.
After doing a lot of research, we decided to go with Afro Whale Shark Safari Mafia Island…..why?
- They had the best 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 int he places I go). Based on reviews, I picked up that another advantage of this in that Afro’s team used to be fishermen so have been finding whale sharks their whole life because the sharks hang out it food rich areas.
- They are one of the cheapest at $60…..one company charges as much as $100 for the same tour!
- 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 with responding when I emailed
We were collected by tuk-tuk from where we were staying in Ibizza Inn (a comfortable budget accommodation option with air con) and taken to Afro Beach Bungalows which is on a scheduled and beautiful stretch of beach.
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. A classic Jaws moment. The engine was cut off and we were instructed to jump in.
In the water, 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 huge!! Maybe 7/8 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 metre) that I could truly take in its awesome size.
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.
Each time we got tired, we would get back on the boat and Afro and his team would take us closer 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 round 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!
If you are visiting Mafia and wondering what else there is to do on the isnald, check out: Top things to do on Mafia Island.
Doing more tours
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 a number of other trips for us (at a discount as we had already done the shark tour with them) including 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. There was a bonfire and a huge sound system set up. The stars were bright and there were so countless fireflies lighting up the area.
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!
In fact, we ended up doing the tour 4 times. It was worth it and each time offered a different experience.
Top tips for swimming with whale sharks on Mafia Island
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 but in actual fact will take you somewhere else.
There are a couple of tours that I wouldn’t recommend. Ibizza Inn who have a really tiny uncomfortable (and slow) boat that is not suitable at all. Based on what I saw in the water, I also wouldn’t recommend Kiti Kiblu who charge $100….I found their driver very aggressive and their boat was really full of tourists at some points having 20 people swimming with 1 shark. They claim on their website to be ‘eco’ following the code of conduct swimming with sharks but that’s not what I saw!
For their experience, warmth and comfort I fully recommend Afro. I also liked that they were relaxed letting us take as long as we want and also offer a longer tour (more chance to see the sharks) than others as they leave an hour early.
I saw another 2 companies while there – Butiyama and Liba – and from what I saw (based on the boat and their behaviour around the sharks) I couldn’t see anything negative.
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) they lose your bag!
- The tour can take anywhere between 2 to 6 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…I noticed that Afro will often stay out longer). So don’t be disheartened if you don’t see them early on. You never know!
- Based on Afro’s statistics, he said the chances of seeing sharks on his tours is 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.
- Most of the time the water was fairly calm but sometimes it got a little choppy. Bring sea sickness tablets if you are prone to seasickness.
- If you get hot on the tour while searching for sharks or need to pee, feel free to 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.
- 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 interfere in this way!
- 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.