Mafia Island offers an adventure of a lifetime as it’s home to some of the world’s richest coral reefs and abundant marine life. A brilliant addition to your Tanzania trip.
Mafia Island, off the coast of Tanzania, is a water baby’s paradise. A large part of the archipelago is a designated Marine Park and its home to some of the world’s richest coral reefs. While only 160km from Zanzibar, it’s much quieter and calmer than this popular tourist trap so don’t choose Mafia if you’re after a wild holiday. For a lovely, low key break where you can relax, unwind and enjoy the beauty of nature, here are a few of our favorite things
to do on the island:
Scuba & Snorkeling
The diving on Mafia Island is tidal which means, depending on the time, you might be diving inside or outside of the bay or directly off the shore. During my dives, I saw huge grouper, turtles, and rays as well as tiny seahorses, frogfish, ghost pipefish and nudibranch (sea slugs).
If you’re not scuba certified, you can still see Mafia’s fantastic marine life on a snorkeling trip. After a briefing, the group walked down to the boat and cruised gently for around half an hour before reaching the snorkel sites. There were two or three to choose from so the skipper went with the one with the least current. Two guides were in the water south the group, one of whom had a life buoy (just in case!) and the boat was always nearby for those who wanted to climb aboard for a rest. After nearly an hour and a half snorkelling across the reef, admiring the bright colours and abundant marine life, the turning of the side signal the end of the trip and time to pour a cup of tea, nibble on a slice of coconut and head back to shore.
Whale shark encounters
On the days I wasn’t scuba diving, I headed out to try to see Mafia’s resident whale sharks. The whale sharks are found on the other side of the island from the scuba sites (as that’s where the sharks’ food is) so you won’t see any on your way to or from dive sites. Whale sharks might be an endangered species but, here, we were lucky enough to see more than 15 individual sharks in the water. We jumped in and swam alongside them as they fed on plankton or just cruised along.
At low tide, I went for a quiet walk along the beach to explore the mangroves. Although quiet, perhaps, isn’t the best word. What initially seemed like still, calm tide pools were bursting with life and noise: The popping of mangroves, crows squawking, bubbling rock pools and the loud crack of a crab trying to scurry backward and squeeze itself deftly into a crevice, only to discover another crab was already sheltering there. Frozen in my shadow, its claws shook and teeth chattered, as if nervous I might discover its hidey hole.
Your hotel will be able to help you organize a variety of excursions depending on your interests. On the nearby islands of Chole and Jibondo, you’ll see how the villagers use traditional methods to make the shows and other boats you’ll see in Mafia. The communities here are friendly and you’re much less likely to be hassled than at a more touristy destination like Zanzibar. On an excursion to Kua Channel, you can relax on the beach and enjoy a peaceful picnic, at Kirongwe village – known for its clay pots – you’ll experience traditional village life and you could also visit Jimbo to see its ukili mats. If you’re more interested in nature, birdwatchers will have the chance to see some of Mafia’s interesting bird species, including Pied Kingfishers, the striking black and white Crab Plover, Collared Sunbirds and Black-backed Puffbacks.
Where to eat
Mafia Island Lodge, next door to Mafia Island Divers, was the perfect chill-out zone to wait for my dives with a refreshing drink and burger, pizza or sandwich. On the other side, Waves came highly recommended for its fresh seafood (and didn’t disappoint). At Mafia Island Lodge you can also book a massage, manicure or pedicure if you need some pampering time.
Key Swahili phrases
Although I was only on the island for a few days, I wanted to try to learn a bit of the local lingo. Luckily for me, Dr. Chris Rohner, a scientist at the Marine Megafauna Foundation who lives on the island for a couple of months each year, was able to give me a bit of a crash course. Since completing his Ph.D. in 2012, Chris has spent a significant amount of time on Mafia researching whale sharks and has managed to pick up an impressive amount of Swahili (although he modestly shrugs off that it’s “just a little”). He gave me a couple of easy phrases to start me off:
● Firstly, Karibu is “welcome” or “you’re welcome.” “You’ll hear this a lot. Mafia is a very welcoming place,” Chris laughed. And he was right. Almost every conversation included locals repeatedly telling me I was welcome!
● Asante is “thank you” and asante-sana “thank you very much”
● Pole can be used as either “sorry” or “that’s a shame”and is another phase I heard
frequently. For example, “Oh no, I dropped my pineapple and now it’s all covered in sand “…. oh, pole!”
● Pole pole, though, means slowly – as most things on the island go pretty slowly. You
are on Africa time after all.
● Poa is a slang word which means cool!
To know before you go
● If you’re visiting the part of the island that lies inside the designated marine park, you’ll need to pay a fee of $20 per person per day. For children aged between three and 15, the fee is $10 per day
● If you’re hoping to see the island’s gentle whale sharks, you’re best to visit between November and December when the chance of sightings is highest
● As with all wildlife encounters, make sure you choose a responsible operator if you go on a whale shark excursion, respect the animals and give them plenty of space.