Meeting the Whale Sharks – Mafia Island, Tanzania, Africa
I am a keen traveler. I had already been in Tanzania a few years ago, decided on a second trip because I loved the country and wanted to explore
the Southern Circuit and Mafia Island (previous trip was in the North and Zanzibar). I want to share something about Mafia Island and its whale sharks.
I arrived independently after a safari organized by a tour operator ended in Dar es Salaam. At the time of the trip (November 2008),
there were two airlines operating daily flights: Coastal Travel and Tropical Ai.
During the safari I gathered from several tourists and managers at the camps where we stayed that in Mafia Pole Pole Lodge there was the best choice for those seeking comfort and nature. I was not sure anything was available on short notice, since there were
only a few bungalows. The small size of the hotel, the promise of great cuisine and relaxation after a long safari attracted me. We allotted our first 3 days in Mafia. Well, I left Pole Pole after one week, almost in tears!
Bookings are only usually accepted via email; I thought we (I was with a friend) were about to end in one of those stiff places where it looks like you have to be pardoned for
disturbing owners or management. When we contacted the office though, they got the manager to call us. She was very kind and helpful. We were assisted with flights and the following day, we were on a small plane (only 12 seats) flying over countless hues of blue surrounding reefs and small islets.
Immediately before landing, I felt a strange excitement two rows behind; I saw a couple of young tourists pulling out binoculars and cameras – they were
spotting whale sharks! They helped us locate them – amazing to see their dark silhouettes in the surrounding light blue. We were probably no
more than 100 meters above the sea in the final approach to the airstrip. We instantly felt that Mafia
was the right choice. Around the "airport" were a few houses surrounded by coconut plantations.
A colorful crowd of people were buzzing around; nobody was trying to sell us anything. There were no agents/promoters of taxis, hotels, tours, curio shops – what a difference from
An almost shy, young and smiling guy were holding a discrete signboard with our names. He welcomed us on a beautiful open land rover; those are usually used in
He handed us some bottles of cold water, badly needed in the heat of the day. Twenty minutes later, after letting our eyes fill in the pristine landscape
(and after quick formalities at the marine park gate – there is a $10.00 per person per day fee), we heard the magic words pronounced
at the entrance of Pole Pole: Karibuni, Welcome in Swahili. And welcome we felt for what was to become our home for one week.
We had read a lot of great reviews about Pole Pole, so we wouldn’t waste time repeating what other people had experienced. It’s a wonderful place, well managed,
staffed by terrific people, the food is good, you are pampered like royalty. Luxurious yet simple, plenty of relaxation or activities – whatever your choice. We
wouldn’t know since we had to pass it to meet the whale sharks!
The diving instructor and director of sea activities is from Mafia Island. He knows everything about the island that he loves and he has a real passion for his work, notable experience too. Of course
we asked him a thousand questions about whale sharks. He tried to reassure us that there was no hurry because they were around and usually seen every day from October
The following day we joined four other clients for the excursions: two were
relatively young, fit honeymooners apparently lost in their romantic dream; two were aged, one of them still recovering from
a car accident, not able to swim (we wondered about that). In our late forties, neither outdoor guys nor potato couches, we felt in the middle range of the expedition.
A land rover brought us to the main harbor of the island – a kaleidoscope of colors (and a typical array of smells
due to drying fish) where hundreds of people were busy in their daily activities.
The whale shark excursion was organized in cooperation with local fishermen with the objective of making them directly benefit from the activity, involving them. Ally, our guide, spoke fluent English, explained a lot about the island, its inhabitants, and especially about whale
sharks. We boarded a local engine boat with snorkeling equipment provided by the hotel, a cool box full of drinks, and in few minutes, the wooden launch left the
shore for the calm sea.
Apart from a few dhows sailing in the distance, there was nothing in front of us. At least that is what we thought! We saw Ally pointing in a direction, we heard him
exchanging a few words with the captain in Swahili and then he turned to us saying: You are very lucky! We looked in the
direction he was pointing; we saw the unmistakable dorsal fin of a shark, not that we had ever seen one "live", but we are keen watchers of documentaries.
What Ally "meant" was not that we were lucky to find them. In season, chances are 80/90% sharks will be seen. (In the morning calls are made to the fishermen to check
whether they have spotted the sharks and where). We were lucky; we had only spent 15 minutes on the boat. Five whale sharks were swimming
in a relatively small area, which is uncommon.
The captain slowly and cleverly drove the boat in the middle of them while they were feeding. I realized the excursion was well worth it, even for the guy who could not swim; you can see them from the boat. They swim on the surface with their huge mouths open. They are amazing, they are beautiful, they are big, they are gentle and elegant. We were completely enchanted; Ally let us shoot
a hundred pictures just a few meters from them.
Later he told us that while we were busy filling our memory cards, he was trying to figure out which one was the quietest and less likely to
swim away when we jumped in the water.
His advice was for us to stick to the simple rules of not making a lot of noise, not touching the shark as it isn’t good for the shark’s skin; it may suddenly dive and disappear. He also told us to check for tags since the captain had been spotting marked sharks.
Skillfully, the captain and Ally chose the best moment for us to enter the water; one of the largest sharks was swimming in our direction. Whale sharks are harmless. What a thrilling experience to see the open mouth, probably more than a meter wide, come toward us. The gentle monster came close, then slowly turned. Ally signaled when we could start swimming next to him. We did. It was one of the best experiences of our life.
Without too much effort, we matched its speed while it ignored us, kept feeding on plankton. The pilot fish was in front, remoras hanging from his head, trevallies following trying, I think, to snatch the pilot fish. Unbelievable! Ally signaled us to stop and rest, promising we would see more later. And we did – a total of 12 in a day, a record. We swam with 4, watching the others from the boat. None was as thrilling as the first. We named the whale, U-boat, for its size and for his dorsal fin that was cut at the tip, giving it
the shape of a submarine. We took note of the whales that were tagged.
Exhausted and happy, we went back to Pole Pole, stuffed ourselves and crashed on the Zanzibari bed in our breezy
verandah for an afternoon nap.
I’ll share more adventures in Mafia Island with you soon.