Swimming With Whale Sharks on Mafia Island, Tanzania

Mafia Island. A place I never would have discovered without the Love Her Wild Community. It was their advertised trip dedicated to swimming with whale sharks on Mafia Island, yoga, beach cleans and the opportunity to plan the year ahead that got my attention. Tanzania was not even on my travel bucket list. Nor was swimming with whale sharks. But I do love yoga and adventures with Love Her Wild Founder Bex Band that I’d done another conservation trip with in England about 18 months ago called Paddle Pickup.

I was the only Australian on the trip, not surprisingly given that my journey from Brisbane took almost 30 hours just to get to Tanzania. All other women were from the UK with the exception of Aoife from, can you guess, Ireland. I will say though, the long distance travel for the experience of swimming with whale sharks on Mafia Island was completely worth it. Despite my memory being quite rubbish which is partly why I write travel blogs, these memories will stay with me forever.

Afro Whale Shark Safari

How to get there

From Brisbane I flew with Etihad via Abu Dhabi and Nairobi to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. With these two stops and long airport layovers it took just under 30 hours to get to Dar. From there because the flight times didn’t line up, I stayed overnight in Dar before a local flight with Coastal Aviation to Mafia Island the next morning. This flight only takes around 30 minutes.

Where to stay

Accommodation at Bustani Bed and Breakfast was included in the itinerary and price. I would recommend staying there for its comfortable rooms, food, friendly staff and pool. Oh and Pablo the dog. Bustani is located on the other side of the island to the Marine Park where tourists are more likely to stay so it is quiet and peaceful. It is also a short walk to the beach.

accommodation Mafia Island

In Dar I’d recommend Chibuba Airport accommodation if a minimum 25 minute transfer time by car fits in with your travel plans. Depending on the time of day traffic can be bad so allow for at least double that time. I booked Chibuba Airport Accommodation on Booking.com and the room included double bed, ensuite, breakfast and free airport transfers for $35 USD.

Airport Transit Lounges in Dar is more conveniently located only five minutes from the airport. I booked a Deluxe Single Room for $40 USD on Booking.com which included a large single bed, ensuite, breakfast and free airport transfers. It wasn’t as homely as Chibuba and hearing the planes fly so low overhead gave me heart failure almost every time.

Things to see and do 

  • Swim with whale sharks (pretty obvious)
  • Visit the Marine Park to snorkel along the protected reef
  • Swim in the Blue Lagoon to see the upside down jellyfish
  • Enjoy lunch on the sandbar before it disappears under water
  • Relax by the pool at your accommodation (Butiama also has a pool and games area including Bao which is a traditional board game using a carved wooden board and seeds)

whale sharks Mafia Island

Where to eat and drink 

  • Butiama Beach Hotel for cocktails (try the Butiama Special it’s delicious!)
  • Ibizza Inn bar for a local beer or spirit (try Konyagi if you like gin) where bush babies sometimes visit if the fruit bats don’t steal all the bananas
  • Addis in Dar, an Ethiopian restaurant that Bex recommends, backed up by the women on the trip that ate there on their final night in Dar

What to pack

I had quite a few learnings about what to pack for swimming with whale sharks on Mafia Island despite being provided with a packing list. So much so that I wrote a separate blog post on What to Pack For Swimming With Whale Sharks on Mafia Island including what I should have packed and what I packed but did not use.

General tips

  • Choose Afro Whale Shark Safari as a more ethical and responsible company than competitors
  • Plan to have at least three whale shark tours to allow for days with no sightings, failing to jump quickly enough to see them under the water and because every interaction with them is different
  • You can only get Tanzanian Shillings (TSH) in the country (there are ATMs at the airport in Dar and in town on Mafia Island)
  • How much TSH you’ll need: approx. 200,000 cash (approx. $85 USD or $120 AUD) for 10 days to cover food and drinks outside of your accommodation, transport, tips, souvenirs and the Marine Park fee (approx. $25 USD) however due to recent Government changes this is required to be paid by bank card
  • Payment for things like accommodation and bar bills can be paid by bank card
  • Coastal Aviation has a complimentary air-conditioned lounge a short transfer from the Dar airport
  • Choose accommodation with airport transfers so your driver is connected to your accommodation
  • If you’re considering the ferry, do your research as we were told a few horror stories!
Afro Whale Shark lodge

Afro Whale Shark Safari

Day 1 & 2 – From Australia to Africa

Today was the big day. Three days into the new year (2019) I was feeling nervous about travelling to Africa by myself for such a long journey. Departing from Brisbane at 10:25pm was a good choice because after eating ‘dinner’ I slept for at least half of the 14 hour flight to Abu Dhabi. For the rest of the time, thanks to the Russian woman next to me for sharing her macadamia and cranberry soft nougat, I was able to watch movies and see the end of every one of them. So much sugar.

I had a two hour layover in Abu Dhabi then a five hour flight to Nairobi in Kenya. This was matched with a five hour layover at Nairobi airport. The next flight to Dar Es Salaam was with Kenya Airways. As we were getting ready to depart, a man arrived late and sat down next to me sweating and appearing relieved. We chatted and he told me he was a Catholic priest originally from Malawi. He’d never heard of Mafia Island and asked if I had Googled it. I told him about the whale sharks and it was hard to believe I was telling someone from Africa (now living in Dar) about Mafia Island in their own country. 

After one and a half hours flying time to Dar, I finally landed in Tanzania at 7:40pm. I walked straight past where I was supposed to fill out the Visa application form but was politely directed back to where the forms were. As per usual there were no pens. I asked one of the staff for a pen, completed the form and then proceeded to the counter where I handed over the form and my passport. The whole process including paying $50 USD at another counter and waiting for the Visa to be processed took around 30 minutes. I can imagine it taking much longer on other occasions as today there were only five of us that were not residents able to walk straight through to Passport Control.

Walking outside the airport I was on the lookout for a sign with my name on it. Fifteen minutes went by before I saw it. Jadie instead of Jodie but I assumed they didn’t have many of either around here! This was after a taxi driver had approached me several times asking about my destination and my failed attempt at getting money out of the ATM because the machine didn’t seem to recognise my bank card.

The traffic on the way to Chibuba Airport Accommodation was moving slowly but I didn’t mind. It was all part of the experience watching the cars, buses, motorbikes and tuk tuks weaving around the potholes and each other. The final turnoff to Chibuba was a dirt road in the dark but I wasn’t too worried. The accommodation reviews said as much. A gate opened and I was greeted by two friendly ladies. They took my bags, showed me to my room and how to use the air conditioning and hot water. It was at this moment I thought, I’m in Tanzania! And I’m about the have a shower and sleep in a bed. Yay! 

hot chip omelette

It was around 9.30pm and while I wasn’t too hungry, I was thinking once the excitement wore off that I might be. So, I asked if they were able to prepare a meal. At first they said it was impossible but then said they could make something simple. A short while later there was a hot chip omelette, side of mango and watermelon and a freshly squeezed pineapple juice on the table in the communal area. Walking the few steps back to my room with a full belly I had a shower just in time before the power went out. It didn’t take long for the room to heat up without the air conditioning and as I was kicking off the sheets wondering if there were any mosquitoes in the room, the power returned and I was soon the one out like a light. 

Day 3 – Local Flight to Mafia Island and checking into Bustani 

I was up and ready for breakfast at 7:30am before settling the bill for my accommodation, city tax and meal ($43 USD). The transfer to the airport only took 25 minutes, much quicker than last night. When I arrived at the airport I was greeted by a man with a trolley who took my bag for me. I followed as he took me to a desk outside the airport to have my boarding pass printed. Then to the check in desk inside the building where the lady was distracted by a funny video on her phone. When she looked up she apologised and showed me the video but I was distracted myself by the fact that my bag was 18kg when I left Australia and it needed to be 15kg for the local flight to Mafia Island. The man lifted my bag up onto the scales and after exchanging some words with the woman, guided me through to the departure lounge. He helped me exchange $5 USD into Tanzanian Shillings and I gave him 5000 (around $2.50 USD) for his efforts. Plus no excess baggage fee!

The airport had good WiFi which came in handy to chat with family before posting on the Love Her Wild Whale Shark FB group to see if the others were around somewhere. They responded and six of them were in an adjoining room in the air conditioning. It’s thing like that I probably wouldn’t have found by myself so it was a relief to be with the others after having to be fully alert on such a long journey by myself. 

Our 10:45am flight with Coastal Aviation was announced and we were guided outside to a small plane. It fits up to 12 people and there is a small area at the back to store your backpack. The flight took around half an hour and the views were amazing. They somewhat reminded me of flying over the Maldives with small islands and bright blue and green colours.

Coastal Aviation Tanzania

The Mafia Island Airport is basically a large shed. From there we hopped into a safari vehicle to Bustani. Which by the way we had to ourselves. We were met by our tour leaders Bex and Catherine and after completing some paperwork were given keys to our rooms. Catherine came to check that I had everything I needed and my only question at this stage was about visiting an ATM in the next few days. 

Mafia Island Airport

First things first, an effort to get to know the others and go for a swim. Even with sunscreen on we found that we couldn’t stay in the pool for long before feeling the burn. So we moved underneath the umbrellas onto the sun lounges. Bex and Catherine came to let us know they were going for a walk to the beach which Soraya and I decided to join so we knew how to get there. Pablo the dog who lives at the accommodation walked with us to the water’s edge. On the way we saw locals building a boat under the shelter of the trees that line the beach. 

Lunch was at 1:30pm and everyone chose to have an avocado and tomato salad. I was proud of my rebellious choice to have something different, vegetarian pizza. That is, until we were all served vegetarian pizza the following day. Feeling a bit tired from all the travel, I had an afternoon nap. Then joined a few others practicing their snorkelling in the pool with both the provided mask and snorkel and the full face snorkel mask I brought with me. What was the verdict? The full face snorkel mask was good for duck diving without having to expel any water but I liked the separate mask and snorkel so I could remove the snorkel and talk. 

Shortly after we all met in the bar area for an information session about the whale sharks and the conservation work we would be doing. What I learnt: 

  • whale sharks are the biggest fish in the sea
  • we don’t know much about them
  • one whale had about 300 pups
  • they eat plankton
  • how to tell the difference between males and females (males have claspers which are like extra roll up fins under their body)
  • most whale sharks identified are males
  • they are an endangered species

We then introduced ourselves to the group before having a drink to celebrate making it to Mafia Island. Dinner was vegetable soup, rice and vegetables and fruit for dessert. You might guess from this that our food on the trip was all vegetarian. It had been a long day for most of us so we had an early night. On the way back to our rooms we saw a millipede with a metallic black body and red legs. The rooms has been turned down and sprayed for mosquitoes.

Mafia Island accommodation

Day 4 – First day swimming with whale sharks on Mafia Island

It was an early morning start, up at 5:45am to get ready to meet at reception at 6:30am. I woke up during the night around 3am worried I would miss my alarm. I had a headache and wondered if it was because of the spray in the room. 

Our group piled into two mini buses from Bustani to Afro Whale Shark Safari. Note to self, should have packed reef shoes. We needed them because of the shallow water, longer than expected walk out to the boat and risk of standing on sharp sea urchins. So, I had to sacrifice my new sneakers. And sadly did hear at least one or two crunches along the way! 

Afro Whale Shark Safari Mafia

The water was very choppy today. And looking at the wooden boat from shore, we wondered how we would all fit. But we did and it was comfortable enough. As we headed out to see the whale sharks, we had a banana wrapped in a pancake for breakfast. I started feeling nauseous and sat facing forward with the breeze on my face. Thankfully after around 30 to 40 minutes I was distracted by having to put on flippers, snorkel and mask because the team has spotted a whale shark. 

But, I panicked and stayed on the boat as I watched the others jump into the choppy water. There were quite a few sharks around I could see on the surface and I wasn’t sure how I would react on my own with a massive whale shark in close proximity. Especially growing up in Australia and hearing about shark attacks whilst rare but a real possibility. I didn’t want to miss out and was frustrated that my fears were holding me back. After shedding a few tears and taking on the advice and assurance from the others that I would be okay, I jumped holding Youssef’s hand with Catherine not far behind me.

Unfortunately I didn’t see any whale sharks underneath the water because at this rate I was basically swimming on top of the water. I was still proud of myself because I’d done it. I was in the water with the whale sharks there somewhere and I had at least seen their fins and tail slapping on the surface from where I was in the water. They were feeding. What I did manage to see under the water though was a blue jellyfish with long tentacles. Right before Youssef spotted a whale shark and pulled me along behind him through the tentacles. I felt a sting, let the others know then watched as it developed into a welt in a line across my arm. It was quite the emotional rollercoaster for me that day, again with some jellyfish in Australia causing death. But the swelling went down after a while and apart from the initial sting I wasn’t in any pain. 

whale sharks Tanzania

Despite these experiences so far, I wanted to try again. Especially because I was feeling sea sick again on the boat but a wave of nausea hit me and it was too late. First person to be sick overboard. And from there I stayed in exactly the same spot, hunched over the side of the boat until the others finished swimming with the whale sharks and we returned to shore. I was sick a few more times and a few others got sick too. They didn’t normally get sea sick but it was so choppy and we didn’t have our sea legs yet. 

As our boat returned to the shore at about 9:30am, I couldn’t get out of the boat quick enough. Catherine made me a cup of tea and once our transport arrived we made our way back to Bustani. Along the way we stopped at an ATM in town for me to get some cash out. I was still feeling unwell and not thinking properly, got 100,000 TSH out which is only around $43.50USD or $61AUD. Back at Bustani I talked to Harry back in Australia to let him know I’d survived my first day out with the whale sharks (just!) before going for a swim in the pool, showering, lunch then a nap until yoga later that afternoon. 

Yoga in the surrounds of the Bustani accommodation was, described by feelings, a breath of fresh air and quietness in the mind. As Catherine encouraged us to be present in the moment, I took it all in with each movement. I’m in Tanzania! I jumped into the ocean with whale sharks! Then I got distracted by the trail of ants making their way towards my yoga mat that was obviously in their usual path. After some confusion they eventually worked it out as I tried to stay focused on the yoga. Pablo was laying on half of Kirstine’s yoga mat. He growled when Bex tried to move him and only moved when one of the staff called for him. Whilst attempting one of the yoga poses that I couldn’t do fully, I decided this year I’d like to do some one on one yoga or clinic pilates for strengthening. 

For dinner at 7pm we had vegetable samosas and dipping sauce, aubergine, veggies and chips. Dessert was a coconut slice similar to baklava with a pepper taste. A large fly or cicada joined us at the table near the candlelight, just in time to hear our debate about the dress that some people see as blue and black or white and gold and if you can hear ‘yani’ or ‘laurel’. For the record I can see blue and black from a distance, blue and gold up close and can only hear yani.

My goal tomorrow is to see a whale shark underneath the water.

Day 5 – Second attempt swimming with the whale sharks

Slightly earlier start this morning so alarm at 5:30am. The nerves were setting in thinking about the day ahead. Would I be brave enough to jump into the water again? Would I get stung by jellyfish? Would I get sea sick? I took two sea sick tablets courtesy of Catherine as soon as I woke up, had part of an energy gel and biscuit snack from my supplies to minimise the risk of getting motion sickness. 

Mafia Island yoga

First we did yoga at 6am and Catherine’s words from yesterday to be present in the moment were still with me. The yoga this morning was more energising and the African heat had me sweating in my rash vest top. After a quick coffee, we were off for another whale shark survey. My task was measurement but I would just consider myself lucky to see one under the water at this stage! 

The water was much less choppy so that was a good start. Though we did have a motor issue and had to take one from another tourist boat to get back to shore and pick up another motor and oil. Waiting in the rocking boat I was glad we had eaten breakfast first thing on the boat (banana and pancake again and tomato and cheese sandwich) and that I had taken sea sickness tablets.

We didn’t have to go as far out today before spotting the whale sharks. There were so many of them! I was brave enough to jump with Catherine and achieved my goal to see a whale shark under the water. Biggest fish in the ocean they say? Yep! It was BIG! It was swimming away and I saw its left side, spots and large tail. I squealed with excitement into my snorkel and nearly let some water in. 

Mafia Island

A short while later in the water after hearing the others on the boat shouting “shark turn around”, I put my head under the water to see what I could see. About a metre directly in front of my face was a wide open whale shark mouth. So, instead of appreciating this moment I turned my back to it and pretended it wasn’t there. Catherine kept her face in the water to see where the whale shark was going and moved me out of its way. Apparently it was the biggest whale shark we had seen so far and ended up being the biggest whale shark we saw all week. Mr (likely) or Mrs Whale Shark could have at least waited until I was ready for such a close encounter. Jokes aside, it is their environment so I’m glad the whale shark was comfortable enough to continue feeding with us there in the water. 

Just as I took off my flippers and climbed back into the boat, there were more whale sharks spotted near the boat. I decided to watch from the boat and saw a large whale shark on the surface heading towards Soraya and Gil. They had a similar close encounter with its wide open mouth and it was interesting to see this happening from the boat. That was me a short while ago! 

swimming with whale sharks Tanzania

For something different we moved onto a reef area in shallow waters to snorkel around and see what we could find. The coral lacked colour but some of the fish there were still colourful. I couldn’t help but notice all the jellyfish and instead of my earlier flight response with the whale shark, I forced myself to look at the jellyfish so I could avoid them whilst swimming back to the boat. It helped that today I was wearing a long sleeved top and leggings for better protection.

On the way into shore, the tide was out so we were dropped off at a sandbar to walk into shore. There was lots of sea and wildlife to see along the way including sea cucumber, razor clams, crabs that reminded me of soldier crabs back home and sea eagles. Arriving back at Bustani hot and sweaty from our walk, I had a quick shower and looked at my GoPro photos and videos taken from the boat before going for a swim in the pool. Feeling the burn, I reapplied some sunscreen and got comfortable on a sun lounge chair in the shade and read my book for all of five minutes before falling asleep. 

For lunch we had pasta and vegetables. Bustani were really making an effort to offer different vegetarian meals each time. Then we went straight into a session focusing on the past year. I hinted that maybe a glass of wine might help us with the workbook and that is when Soraya became my ‘partner in wine’ so to speak. Chatting about what we each did last year was helpful to remember along with photos on my phone. I was even feeling adventurous enough to draw one of the answers!

At around 5:30pm we did a beach clean and easily filled five large bags with plastic in 30 minutes. Mostly plastic bottles, thongs (flip flops), toothbrushes and bottle lids. Some had small animals growing on them which was sad to see. On our way back Lou and I noticed two plastic bottles on the beach in the path we had just cleaned. We looked over and there was a young local girl looking our way holding a bottle. She was helping us. Pablo and Gustav (the other dog living at Bustani) enjoyed the walk along the beach. 

beach clean Mafia Island

Another shower was necessary after picking up rubbish before dinner at 7pm. Another new and delicious vegetarian meal. Quesadilla filled with vegetables. Dessert was fruit skewers covered in passionfruit pulp. Yum! At 8pm we went to a local bar called Ibizza Inn by bijaji (tuk tuk) which can take up to three people for 15,000 TSH return. There were a few other tourists at the bar. I ordered a Safari lager for 2500 TSH (about $1 USD or $1.50 AUD). We sat outside by candlelight waiting and hoping to see the bush babies. Instead we saw a mouse running through the trees and the bats eating the bananas that were there for the bush babies. Unfortunately we didn’t see them. 

Back in the bijaji. Home. So tired. Writing journal notes at the end of each day has been a challenge in itself. Goal tomorrow? Taking my GoPro in the water to capture the moment.

Day 6 – Yoga in a chalet by the beach

It was nice for a change to do yoga somewhere different. Today we were in a chalet at different accommodation along the beach front. The sails around the chalet were flapping in the breeze and I couldn’t help but think the water might be as choppy as the first day. Catherine snapped me out of it and I focused on yoga in the present moment.

We were transferred by minibus to Afro’s for another day out with the whale sharks. It took much longer to find them today. At least an hour if not more. They were swimming much further down so it was harder to spot them from the boat. That also meant my goal for today to take a great photo and/or video with the GoPro might be harder from a distance. And I was not yet up to the challenge of duck diving down to get closer to the them. 

My role today was photographer and for the photo to be entered into Wildbook for Whale Sharks, it needs to be the left side from gills to dorsal fin. While I achieved my personal goal of taking a video of the whale shark, unfortunately the still photo images were not close enough to clearly show the required section of the whale shark. Luckily Aoife had taken some great shots with a better camera and at a closer proximity. Interestingly not only were the whale sharks swimming deeper down, there were not as many jellyfish in the water either.

Being out on the boat for a long time in the search for whale sharks meant I needed to pee. Bex called for a toilet break so a few of us jumped into the water. It’s quite the challenge trying to relax enough in open waters to pee. Took a while! On the walk back across the beach from the boat drop off point we saw lots of starfish. Bex rescued the ones we spotted by taking them back out to the water. 

We arrived back to Bustani around 12:30pm to a very happy Pablo. Lunch soon after was beans in a sauce with toasted chapati and veggies. Dessert? A banana and watermelon. I sure was getting my five and two a day! Because of a late night last night and early morning I decided to have a nap after having a peek at my GoPro footage. I enjoyed reliving the moment and taking in everything without having to worry about your surroundings. I noticed the whale shark’s eye in the video but didn’t see it in real life. That will be my goal for tomorrow. 

At 4:30pm we all met up again to go through our combined footage and upload what met the specifications into Wildbook. Catherine did a talk about Coral Watch to prepare for our day at the Marine Park tomorrow and replacing our whale shark surveys with coral surveys. The videos showed people from the University of Queensland talking about the coral reef including impacts such as climate change, bleaching, resilience and how the reef can regenerate if it is given the time and opportunity without further damage.

Dinner at 7pm was a Swahili buffet and the chef was there to answer questions about the food. There was a mix of samosas, potatoes, veggies, salad and rice. Dessert was a donut with a syrup glaze. I tried a local coconut rum spirit similar to Malibu, with coca cola that always seems to taste so refreshing in tropical weather. There were a lot more mosquitoes around tonight. Definitely need long and loose fitting clothes and mosquito repellent. They also lit coils for us every night and placed them under the table. 

Goal tomorrow? Closer footage of the sea life and see what the condition of the reef is like in the Marine Park that has been in operation since 1996.

Day 7 – Day out at the Marine Park and Chole Island

After some sun salutations at yoga this morning at 6am we were on our way out to the Marine Park. The Government recently changed how the Marine Park fee is to be paid, now by bank card instead of cash. So with such a large group to get through and important tide timings, they let us into the Marine Park without payment and instruction to pay on the way out.

We were on a different boat today with plenty of shade for a full day out in the sun. First stop blue lagoon. The tide was already low so the boat took us as far as it could go then we walked through the shallow water to the shore. On the sand crabs were scurrying around and there were flip flops strategically placed to climb up the jagged rocks to the path. It was a short five minute walk before we climbed down a ladder and launched ourselves into the blue lagoon. I’d never seen upside down jellyfish before and could see heaps of them on the lagoon floor on their backs with their tentacles floating above them.

Chole Island school

Satisfied we’d seen enough upside down jellyfish, we returned to the boat and made our way to another inhabited island called Chole. They had 220 visitors last year. The highlight of the visit for me was seeing the schools and walking past the school kids saying “jambo” because they go home for lunch. The money from tourism there is being used to build a toilet block for the school kids. The others got excited about fruit bats but we have plenty of those in Australia. I was more interested in the piles of seaweed being dried in the sun destined for Japan.

Chole Island tour

It was getting hot so as much as we were enjoying Chole, we were also happy to be getting back onto the boat in the shade. Even happier to jump into the water soon after to snorkel and use the Coral Watch charts to do surveys on the health of the coral. Each group did 20 surveys, identifying the type of coral (branching, boulder, soft or plate) and shades of colour to record onto a slate with a pencil under the water. With the current it was challenging to stay with the coral long enough to observe it and write down the information. I did some colour matching otherwise focused on snorkelling. There was some life and colour in these corals though still areas with bleached and dead coral.

The next area we snorkelled around a small island was my favourite. This is where I saw the most colourful corals and fish. Our guide pointed out some lion fish hiding in the coral but my favourites were the red fish that all stayed together under the coral branches and the smaller colourful fish swimming around and above the coral. 

Mafia Island Marine Park

Our next stop was the sandbar for lunch. As the shade sails were being erected for us to sit under, Soraya and I ran towards the crabs on the beach digging their shelters out of sand. We then stood completely still and tricked them to come out while we were still there. They were interesting to watch as the came out and tossed the sand to the side with their claws. 

For lunch we had freshly cooked fish and salad, rice and chapati bread. The fish was cooked right there on the beach using coconut husks and fire. We naturally sat in two groups, those that ate fish and those that didn’t. It wasn’t long before the sandbar was almost fully covered by water so we helped pack up and got back onto the boat. Lunch was at about 3:30pm to fit in with the tides. Plenty of snacking on the boat today! No plastic though. All wrapped in foil. Pancakes, sandwiches and fruit.

Mafia Island sandbarWhen we got back to Bustani I combined a shower with rinsing my swimming gear as was my new daily habit so I could wear the same clothes the next day. Because of a late lunch we had a slightly later dinner at 7:30pm. Spring rolls and a main dish with potatoes, cauliflower and sauce.

Day 8 – Best day with the whale sharks!

Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day so it was already a good start when we had a big breakfast at our accommodation before heading out on the boat. Pancakes and fruit were still on the menu but with the option to have eggs so I had a spanish omelette. Eating before travelling always make me feel better and reduces my chances of getting sea sick. Which I was happy about given that I had run out of sea sickness tablets.

There were no whale shark sightings for a while and we thought it might end up being a day we didn’t see any. And then! It was time to put our snorkelling gear on. On the first jump I saw a whale shark and for the first time actually saw the small yellow fish swimming in front of its mouth. I then made it my mission to see the eye of the whale shark. Bex accepted the mission. For the next jump I was barely ready when Bex pulled me into the water and we started swimming. After popping her head up out of the water to see where the others on the boat were pointing, we quickly changed direction. And there it was.

Mafia Island whale sharks

The whale shark, the yellow fish, the larger fish that look like small sharks and the eye! It was swimming so slowly that I got to take it all in and we were the only ones with it to start with so there were no flippers or bubbles in our view. The water was only around four metres deep and the sun was shining directly into the water so the view was incredible. This was my favourite swim with the whale sharks.

swimming with whale sharks Mafia Island

In that moment I felt so content with the experience that I didn’t need to go in again but at the next and final opportunity I got prepared and jumped with one of Afro’s team. It was the same whale shark and another good view of the eye but it was near the boat and I was getting uncomfortably close to the motor so didn’t relax into the swim initially. We caught up to the whale shark and swam above it as its tail whooshed from side to side right beneath me.

I then realised after the whale shark continued on without us that Bryony had been stung by jellyfish. I was pretty keen to get out of the water at that point! Especially when I realised after getting back onto the boat that she had been stung on her head, finger and leg. Time to go back! The hot water on board helped with reducing the sting.

It had been a late start on the water so arriving back at 1pm meant we had half an hour before lunch at 1:30pm. I rinsed out my swimmers, showered and headed to lunch with my yoga mat for meditation after lunch. It was the first time I ate my fully loaded carb meal AND finish everything before the others. All that excitement swimming with the whale sharks! It was a toasted sandwich with tomato that we removed to make way for the side of hot chips. Chip butty!

After lunch we did a meditation to prepare for an afternoon working through our personal development workbooks. It was difficult not to fall asleep. I had to pass on the group development conversation and head back to my room. I managed to finish the past year section of the workbook where it then says to have a rest. Ok then.

At 5:30pm we did yoga and I noticed my body whilst tired and sore in some places was feeling stronger. Dinner came out a bit later tonight at 8pm. It was gnocchi and a side of vegetables. I could see a small red light moving quickly in the air and the others realised it was a firefly. I had never seen one before.

Day 9 – The whale sharks were hiding today

I kept hitting the snooze button this morning and decided to skip yoga. Instead I used the time to pack for our different activities today. Unfortunately we didn’t see any whale sharks but we did get the opportunity to hang out at Butiama for the afternoon. We had lunch there and a cocktail called the Butiama special with lime and honey. Served like an icy daiquiri it is perfect for the warm weather. Soraya and I played a local game called bao before a more modern dart game. Might I add and hopefully because she is reading this, that I won both games. 

bao game

Butiama has a pool (not as good as Bustani) so a few of us went for a swim. With wrinkly fingers after spending too long in the water, I read some of my book by the pool until it was time to return to Bustani. If you haven’t noticed, I like napping so had a short nap before dinner. I was still so tired that I went to bed soon after dessert.

Day 10 – The whale sharks were hiding – from me – today

Today instead of all of us not seeing any whale sharks, it was just me and a couple of others that didn’t see them today under the water in time. I was on the wrong side of the boat for each of the first jumps and wasn’t quick enough to get around the boat in time. There were also a few other tourist boats today so a bit harder to get to the front of the group. I did however see lots of jellyfish in the water. No stings though. That and jumping in the water and swimming on my own (with a life vest) was today’s achievement. 

We got back to Bustani late today after 1pm and after the usual shower rinse went straight to lunch. For the afternoon, Catherine had a game planned. I was the captain of the blue team. There were rounds and the first one was a beach clean with people acting, one person communicating and one other following the communicator’s instructions wearing a blindfold. We lost this one by far, but it was fun acting and seeing how this translated to the communicator and person blindfolded. There were a few quiz rounds including things we had learnt like what does kichizi kama ndizi in Swahili mean (crazy cool like a banana). There was an art round where we had to make a piece of art out of natural things and both teams chose to illustrate a crab on a flip flop in different ways. This is because we had literally seen flip flops floating in the ocean with crabs on them. My team made the shoe out of sand and used leaves for the straps, mango seed for the crab body and sticks for its legs. Framed with leaves and flowers. The other team used leaves for theirs so it could float on water. 

The final round was to collect actual plastics and pretend plastics like shells out of the pool. You could only collect one at a time to put in your team basket. Overall the blue team won! But not by much and we had an extra person. It was a fun way to spend the afternoon and generated conversation over dinner about things like all the micro plastics being near the blue team basket. 

After dinner some of the girls went to another local bar in the street we drove on each day to Afro’s. I didn’t go as I was tired, had a sore stomach and was saving myself for the last night (tomorrow night). They almost peer pressured me to go and as I went to bed and closed the door I could hear them saying “JODIE” before the tuk tuks arrived.

Day 11 – Last day swimming with the whale sharks! Will I see one?

Yoga at 6am. Departure 6:30am. Brekkie on the boat. It was another day we thought we might not see any whale sharks and started saying how it didn’t matter if we didn’t see them. That we’d had such a great trip. And then a large pod of dolphins appeared! And continued to pop up around the boat riding the waves. I think it was a fun game for them, popping up as a few of the girls swam towards them before they popped up elsewhere. I stayed in the boat but the girls said whilst they didn’t see the dolphins under the water, they could hear them. That alone would be a special experience.

Bex said that if there are dolphins around, there are often whale sharks around. After my failed attempt to see the whale sharks on my own yesterday, I paired up with Catherine again. On each of the three jumps we saw a whale shark three times. The first jump we swam directly above the whale shark. It was swimming a few metres under the water. On the third jump I accidentally jumped onto Catherine from the boat because of the current moving her towards me. After a quick scramble so she could reach the surface and readjust her mask and snorkel, we still saw the whale shark. Phew! 

In the afternoon back at Afro’s, we played volleyball on the beach against his team. Surprisingly we won! Then we got back on the boat one last time for a sunset cruise. Once everyone had a drink in their hands we toasted to our time on Mafia Island and danced to the uplifting and happy African music until the sun went down. Youssef taught us a few dance moves and we each gave them a try as the boat rocked side to side. 

Mafia Island volleyball

At dusk there was a bonfire on the beach out the front of Afro’s and our dinner was being cooked on the bbq. We were offered a fresh coconut at the bar and asked to take a sip to make room for some konyagi. Our final dinner was with our feet in the sand, sitting at a long table all together under the evening sky. Once we finished eating and chatting we continued dancing under the beach hut and my DJ contribution was Coco Jambo by Mr President. The dance floor was sand and we took turns choosing songs and making up dance moves until we were too hot and exhausted. 

But not too exhausted to swim in the pool upon return to Bustani. Pablo the dog watched us from the side of the pool and bats swooped down to the water for a drink every few seconds. After a few laps I gave Pablo a pat, looked up and appreciated the clear night sky before walking back to the rooms with the others when we all agreed it was time for bed. 

Day 12 – Last day on Mafia Island

It was a later start today but I still chose to pass on yoga after our celebrations last night. Instead I stayed in bed as long as possible before going to breakfast. There was a little note and whale shark pin for each of us on the table from Bex and Catherine. That’s when the reality of our last day on Mafia Island really set in. 

In the breeze of the bar area we spent the morning finishing our development books and sharing what we’d learnt about ourselves. With the ‘year ahead’ section of our books completed, I told myself to make sure I looked at it regularly to remind myself of what I wanted to get out of the year. I could already tell with the pending trip home to Australia that it would be easy to slip back into life as it were. To help remind us we had each been given paper and an envelope to write ourselves a letter to be posted to us on an unknown date in the future. I’m looking forward to receiving it whenever that might be. 

Given the focus on conservation and to wrap up our week of whale shark surveys, coral watch surveys and beach cleans, we also talked about what we could each do back home to make a difference. I know for one that I enjoyed eating vegetarian food with the exception of one fish and that I could easily reduce the amount of meat that I eat back home. I already reduce my single use plastics where possible but we can always do better. And working for a large company there are lots of opportunities to have an influence with a larger scale impact. 

To prepare for packing I went back to my room before lunch to hand wash my yoga mat and rinse out all my swimming gear so they had time to dry. What was already dry I started packing into my suitcase and couldn’t help but notice the perfectly folded clean clothes still in the corner of my bag. Could have left them at home and not worried so much about my 15kg baggage allowance! 

Like breakfast, lunch was with everyone again at Bustani except Nikki who had an earlier flight to Dar. From the dining table we moved to the pool side to continue our conversation and wine. Our departure time for the airport was 3:45pm and I left it until 3:15pm before even the others suggested I should go and get ready. So, I had 30 minutes to settle my bar bill, give my backpack full of shirts, pencils, notebooks and more to the staff at Bustani and finish packing. I obviously didn’t want to leave. If I had have been flying back to Australia I would have given myself more time  to shower and pack but tonight I was staying in Dar.

At 3:45pm on the dot we left for Mafia Airport. It’s funny how after a short time with people you can get so emotional when it’s time to say goodbye. I tried to brush it off and jumped in the bus as quickly as possible. There were quite a few of us flying together from Mafia Island to Dar so we didn’t need to say goodbye to everyone just yet. 

Mafia Airport is a short drive from Bustani so we had plenty of time before our flight at 5pm. As we lined up to have our passport checked and name ticked off the list, our bags were weighed using an old large weighing scale. Then as our bags were going through the scanner the power went out and they had to manually search our bags instead and give us a pat down. 

Our flight to Dar with Coastal Aviation was with an all female crew which seemed fitting for our all female adventure. Bex and the others waved to us from Mafia Island (though I couldn’t see them from where I was sitting on the opposite side of the plane). From my side though I could see the buoy in the water that we had often stopped at to find whale sharks. I don’t want to leave! 

As we walked outside of the Dar airport, the driver from my accommodation Airport Transit Lodge was waiting for me. I started another round of goodbyes and this time couldn’t fight the tears. But then our driver said he could take the others to Addis in Dar, the Ethiopian restaurant they were going to for dinner so we all got into the same car! Unfortunately the driver received a call to collect someone else staying at the accommodation from the airport so the others had to reluctantly change over to another taxi before they were on their way. But at least I had some company for the drive to my accommodation and got to say goodbye one last time! 

I checked in at reception, was shown to my room and went back downstairs soon after to order dinner for 7:30pm. Carrot soup and vegetable rice. I got a call in my room at 7:20pm to say dinner was ready and made my way downstairs to a table by myself. It was quiet. Only six guests staying there and no-one eating dinner downstairs. I felt a bit lonely after having dinner with a table full of women every night. I wondered if I should have joined them at Addis in Dar but had an early flight back to Australia in the morning.

Day 13 & 14 From Dar to Australia

Breakfast was included in the accommodation price so at 6am I was served an omelette, coffee and fruit. Half an hour later I was transferred to the airport so had time to browse through the souvenir stores outside the terminal building before checking in for my 8:50am flight. The journey back to Australia with Etihad was the same as on the way over with two stopovers in Nairobi and Abu Dhabi. The only real difference was less layover time in Nairobi. 

As I waited for the flight, I thought again how great the trip had been. I felt proud of myself for pushing through the early challenges of sea sickness, fear and jellyfish stings. For allowing myself to relax in the water enough to really appreciate the whale sharks and take in every detail like their eye and the fish swimming along with them. 

Now that the journey home had begun, I couldn’t wait to share my stories, photos and videos with friends and family back home. Equally I was looking forward to keeping in touch with my new friends to keep this experience – swimming with whale sharks on Mafia Island – alive for as long as possible. 

Mafia Island whale shark company

February 2019


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