Some of the richest reefs in the world, colourful corals, tropical fish and turtles. With its absolutely magnificent marine life, Mafia Island is known as one of the best snorkelling and diving destinations in the world. What this tiny island is most famous for though, is its whale shark population and the opportunity to snorkel with these gentle giants. Underwater world aside, Mafia Island is also a true haven for anyone seeking to escape the crowds. In fact, this laid-back tropical paradise has to be one of Tanzania’s best-kept secrets. Head here for the chance to enjoy pristine palm tree-lined beaches with no one else around.
Turquoise Water and Coconut Trees
As the tiny plane swoops in towards Mafia Island I almost have to pinch myself. Can this even be real? The water is a shade of turquoise more vivid than I’ve ever seen before and the white sand of the beaches is clearly visible from the air.
Landing on the island’s only airport I spot coconut trees and both red, tin-roofed houses as well as more traditional huts. There’s only one tarmac road, the rest are sand roads.
The way of life is simple and the atmosphere is laid-back and relaxed. There’s no rush anywhere.
What is Mafia Island and Where is it?
Mafia Island is an island within the Mafia Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. It’s part of Tanzania and lies just 25 kilometres offshore from the Rufiji Delta on the mainland and 130 kilometres southeast from Dar es Salaam. The flight time from Dar es Salaam is just around 30 minutes.
The archipelago consists of several islands, Mafia being the largest. However, large is perhaps not the right word to describe it with, as it’s just 50 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide. In other words everything is nice and compact and the distances short.
No matter what kind of associations the name of the island prompts your mind to make, fret not. The name has nothing to do with the Italian mafia. And yes, Mafia Island is a perfectly safe place to visit with no reported crime problems.
So where did the name Mafia Island come from then?
One theory is that it has its roots in the Arabic word “morfiyeh” that means group or archipelago. Others think it might come from the Swahili words “mahali pa afya”, meaning healthy living place (visit the island and you’ll see this makes sense).
Paradise Island With No Crowds
Compared to Zanzibar, that receives a staggering 500.000 visitors annually, Mafia Island is practically untouched by tourism. With just a few thousand visitors per year it’s far from a buzzing tourist hot spot.
In a world that’s increasingly explored and discovered, finding a slice of paradise without crowds feels almost too good to be true. Where on Zanzibar you’ll be fighting off touts on most beaches, on Mafia Island it’ll most likely be just you.
Walk along the white sandy beach, listen to the palm trees sway or watch locals sail away in their traditional fishing boats – Mafia Island is a true paradise.
It’s also a very genuine place, where tourism hasn’t altered the local way of life significantly. Local culture is still local and it’s a great place to learn more about island life.
No Crowds Means Fewer Alternatives
However, it’s important to bear in mind that when it comes to tourism, less developed also means fewer options. There are less hotels, restaurants and bars to choose from and in general fewer activities to do than for example on Zanzibar.
For many, a place like Mafia Island is pure bliss. But if happy hours, nightclubs and great shopping opportunities are a must for you then definitely steer clear of Mafia Island. You won’t find that here.
Mafia Island’s Marine Park
Magnificent marine life, including resident whale sharks, is what Tanzania’s Mafia Island is most famous for. In fact, the area is ranked as one of the world’s best snorkelling and diving spots and it’s not hard to see why. Beautiful corals, colourful fish, seahorses, reef sharks, turtles and even the extremely rare dugongs – Mafia Island’s underwater world is spectacular.
To conserve all these wonderful species a large part of the area is protected. Mafia Marine Park was established in 1995 and it covers the southern half of Mafia Island’s shoreline as well as the nearby islands of Chole, Juani, Jibondo and Bwejuu.
Mafia Marine Park is the largest marine park in the Indian Ocean.
The Mafia Marine Park is home to:
- Over 400 different species of fish
- 49 different corals
- 140 forms of sponge
- 134 species of marine algae
- Two species of turtles use the area as a nesting site
Mafia Island’s Whale Sharks
As already stated, its resident population of whale sharks is what Mafia Island is most famous for. This filter-feeding giant is the largest known species of fish – it can measure up to 19 metres.
A 19-metre shark might sound scary, but these guys are really the ultimate docile giants of the ocean and feed solely on plankton.
We don’t know how many whale sharks exist in the world, but the whale sharks are considered endangered due to fishing, among many other things. For example locals told me that before whale shark tourism began and awareness increased, fishermen used to attack whale sharks because they’d get caught in fishing nets and damage them.
Although whale sharks are usually migratory creatures, the ones in Mafia tend to stick around for some reason. And their number has been increasing. According to WWF Mafia Island’s whale shark population went up from around 100 in 2012 to around 180 in 2017.
The ones spotted in Mafia tend to be smaller in size, around 3-6 metres.
What to Do on Mafia Island
The amount of activities on Mafia Island is perhaps less limited than on, let’s say, Zanzibar. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. Here are a few of the activities I checked out.
1. Swimming with Whale Sharks
The number one activity on the island seems to be swimming with whale sharks. For many who visit, this is a must. Swimming alongside these gentle giants of the ocean can be an absolutely amazing experience and a great opportunity to learn more about these endangered creatures.
There’s a growing amount of tour operators offering whale shark tours. Prices start from around 60 USD.
The whale sharks in Mafia can be spotted all year around, but the best time to see them is between October and the end of February. Just remember: even though you do go during this time, there’s no guarantee you’ll see them.
Watch out for jellyfish! They’re easy to miss while focusing on the whale shark.
Is it Ethical to Swim with Whale Sharks on Mafia Island?
I was concerned with the ethical aspect of swimming with whale sharks, as I’d heard about problems with similar tours in other parts of the world.
However, I read several blog posts where the bloggers specifically wrote that as opposed to for example whale shark tours in the Philippines or Cozumel, the ones in Mafia felt okay. So I figured this would be different.
Turns out I was wrong. There were way too many boats and way too many people. Especially during the first part of the tour when visibility was bad both people and boats got far too close to the whale sharks.
I’ll be writing a separate post on this subject, but in a nutshell let’s just say if I knew what it was going to be like I wouldn’t have gone. It didn’t feel okay.
Thankfully I heard that they’re trying to do something about it, so perhaps this’ll change soon, let’s hope so. That’s why I still wanted to include it as an activity here.
2. Watching Endangered Sea Turtles Hatch
If you’ve followed me for a while, you know I love turtles. I’ve dreamt about seeing turtles hatch for over 15 years, ever since I saw a documentary about turtles and watched those tiny vulnerable babies race to the water, dodging hungry predators.
As part of a turtle conservation programme in Mafia Marine Park, sea turtles are monitored and people working with the programme have exact dates for the hatching of nesting sites. For a small fee, turtle fans like myself can watch the turtles hatch while simultaneously help keep predators at bay.
Profits from the sea turtle ecotourism benefit local communities and help raise awareness. What a win-win concept!
This was one of the absolute highlights of my whole trip to Tanzania. If there are turtles hatching when you visit Mafia, make sure you don’t miss out on this!
3. Snorkelling and Diving on Mafia Island
It’s been stated several times already: the underwater world in Mafia is amazing. This is a world-class snorkelling and diving destination. Visiting Mafia and not taking a peek at the world below the surface would be like visiting Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower.
Prices start from around 30 USD.
I’ve snorkelled in numerous places around the world and I have to say this was truly breathtaking. One of the top three snorkelling destinations –if not the best – I’ve been to.
4. Visiting Other Island in the Mafia Archipelago
Mafia Archipelago consists of several islands. While Mafia is the largest, it’s not the only inhabited one.
If you visit Mafia Island, make sure you check out at least one of the neighbouring islands, like Chole Island for instance. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in local culture and see how people live here.
In addition to learning about the traditional way of life, Chole Island has plenty of sights for history fans.
5. Explore Kilindoni on Mafia Island
The main town on Mafia Island is Kilindoni. It’s also where the airport and port are located.
Have a stroll around town, check out the port and soak up the atmosphere of this tiny island town. In the town centre there’s also a market where you can find food and clothes among other things.
6. Check out the Flying Foxes on Chole Island
Yes, you read correctly – there are flying foxes on Chole Island. The flying foxes, also known as fruit bats, are among the largest bats in the world.
I was really excited about seeing them, but for many locals they’re kind of nuisance as they eat fruit and can spread diseases.
During daytime you’ll find plenty of them in large trees growing in the middle of the island. At night they’re at their most active and can be seen flying over Mafia Island.
7. Brush Up On History
Archaeological evidence suggests the Mafia archipelago has been an important part of the western Indian Ocean trading network as early as 700 BC.
There are plenty of fascinating ruins from medieval and colonial times to check out – on Chole Island in particular.
8. Take it Easy
Mafia Island is all about relaxed beach vibes. This is the perfect place to really unwind, as there’s very little temptation in form of activities. Once you’ve done a few tours and explored the island, well, there’s really not that much else to do than just sit back and relax.
How to Get to Mafia Island
Getting to Mafia island isn’t as easy as getting to Zanzibar that seems to have a never-ending flow of flights and ferries arriving every day. Although the amount of options is more limited, the same methods of transportation apply for Mafia Island as well: plane or ferry.
I flew to Mafia Island, so I don’t know from experience what the ferry is like. What I’ve heard though, is that it’s kind of rough travelling. The ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar takes just around 2 hours, but the ferry from the coastal town of Nyamisati supposedly takes around four hours. From Dar it’s around four hours to Nyamisati.
Needless to say, if you’re seeking comfort opt for the plane.
Is Mafia Island Right for You?
If you’re looking for a perfect paradise island, perhaps to combine with a safari, Mafia Island is definitely worth considering.
Whilst a vast majority of tourists coming to Tanzania will make a beeline for Zanzibar, not everyone will enjoy it. If you’re not a fan of crowds, touristy places, hustlers and touts chances are you’ll enjoy Mafia Island more.
However, just remember that less developed also means more limited when it comes to accommodation, restaurants and entertainment. While I enjoyed Mafia Island now, the teenage me would probably have found it to be bordering on boring.
Pros and cons of Mafia Island
Here’s a list of pros and cons to help you decide whether or not Mafia Island is for you.
- No crowds, no gigantic all inclusive beach resort complexes.
- Empty beaches and that feeling of being in an “original” place where the local way of life hasn’t been altered by tourism.
- Relaxed and easy-going atmosphere, the perfect place for those who really just want to chill out.
- Amazing snorkelling and diving – a must for any marine enthusiasts.
- Great for fans of turtles and whale sharks as chances are good of spotting them.
- Interesting historical sites to explore.
- Not a lot of alternatives when it comes to accommodation and restaurants.
- For those who want lots of entertainment there’s not that much to do.
- Extremely hot and humid.
- Lots of mosquitoes (although this depends on rains).
- English isn’t as commonly spoken as on other more touristy places so interacting with locals and making yourself understood can be hard if you don’t speak Swahili.
How Was My Stay on Mafia Island?
I’m really happy we visited Mafia Island and all in all enjoyed my stay there. Especially exploring the underwater world was a highlight for me, as was getting to know traditional local way of life on the islands.
The biggest shock and drawback for me was the heat. The tropical climate hit me with force and my nights were far from enjoyable, as we didn’t have air conditioning. Temperatures at night were like 28 degrees, but it felt way hotter. Like sleeping in a sauna.
I’m not saying I wasn’t expecting it to be hot; it was just a bit harder to adjust to than I imagined. But remember – I’m from Finland. Generally speaking we’re not built for temperatures this hot! At least not if there’s no escaping the heat. In Chole Bay where we stayed there was no AC anywhere and no wind whatsoever.
I spent a total of four days on the island and that was far too little. I would have loved to do more snorkelling excursions and to explore more of the historical sites. There just wasn’t enough time now.
Would I go back?
I’m not sure. On the one hand yes, if I got the chance. But then again there’s so much more that I haven’t seen. Although I enjoyed myself, I didn’t get that “I have to come back here” feeling that I’ve gotten in other places.
One thing that’s for sure though is that if I ever do go back, I’ll definitely make sure I have a room with AC!