Mafia Island Whale Sharks

If you ever find yourself in the warm Indian Ocean waters along the coast of east Africa, take every opportunity to swim with whale sharks. These gentle-giant creatures are beautiful and graceful, and you won’t truly appreciate their size and power until you’re right next to one in its own territory.

Mafia Island is a quiet, lightly developed tropical paradise off the Tanzanian coast, accessible by an easy 45-minute flight from Dar es Salaam. It’s the site of a Marine Park administered by Tanapa, the Tanzania National Parks Administration. It’s a great spot for snorkeling and scuba diving because, unlike most of the rest of Tanzania’s coast, its coral reefs have avoided the devastation of dynamite fishing which afflicts most of the rest of the country’s reefs. I’ve been on reefs up and down the mainland coast, on Pemba and Unguja (Zanzibar) islands, and the reefs at Mafia are the most pristine and varied in Tanzania by a wide margin.

I’ve made three separate trips to Mafia during my 8 years in Tanzania, and I’ve seen whale sharks each time. One of the reasons we keep going back is because one of our favorite places to stay in Tanzania is on Mafia. Chole Mjini is a truly unique place to stay. If you’re going to go to Mafia Island, stay at Chole Mjini. It’s actually located on a tiny island off the coast of Mafia, which means you have to fly from Dar es Salaam to Mafia, take a car across the island to the entrance of the marine park, then hop on a little ferry to cross the straight to Chole Island. Like many things that are difficult to access, it’s worth it. The “rooms” at Chole Mjini are open-air platforms built up in the branches of giant baobab trees perched just above the high-tide line in a mangrove forest. Each one is well-appointed with comfortable beds and all the amenities you’d expect to find in a high-end lodge, and each one is visually private from the others. The food is fantastic, the wine list is lovely, and the whole place is set among decaying 16th-century ruins being slowly covered by strangler figs. As a science teacher, one of my favorite parts of Chole Mjini is the unique outdoor shower design, which uses basic physics to provide plentiful and instant hot water from a tiny little can of kerosene.

The owners of Chole Mjini have been there for a long time and have invested a lot of energy in becoming a part of the local community. Their staff are extremely well trained and knowledgeable about the reef ecosystem which surrounds the island. Each time we’ve sailed, snorkeled, and dived there, I’ve seen creatures new to me, and it’s never been anything less than an amazing experience. One of the true highlights of my extensive travels in Tanzania. Not to be missed.