Tanzania has always been one of those special places I hold dear and no better place exemplifies that love more than Mafia Island in the Indian Ocean. Home to the best safaris in Africa, its highest mountains, and a coastline that are the things of dreams, Tanzania has it all.
Mafia is an archipelago of islands at the mouth of the Rufiji River Delta, composed of Mafia Island, Jibondo, Juani and Chole. Its position as the southern most island in Tanzania made it a point of contention as numerous colonial powers vied for control. Nowadays, it’s home to a few villages where the warm people continue their centuries old traditions of farming and fishing.
I spent a few weeks on Mafia Island, which is home to the world famous Mafia Island Marine Park diving my little heart out. Mafia Island is known around the diving community as some of the best diving Africa has to offer. On the other side of the island, during certain times of the year, is also home to whale sharks.
Getting to Mafia Island
Mafia is not a super touristy island although it has become quite the destination for in the know divers. It’s nothing like Zanzibar as far as tourism goes so if you are looking for a chilled dive island with much better diving than Zanzibar, then this is where you’ll want to go.
Dar Es Salaam to Mafia Island Flight
To get to Mafia Island, you will need to book a flight from Dar Es Salaam. The only flights that go to Mafia are via small propeller jets that leave from Dar’s Terminal 1 which is home to only small jets that specialize in going to leisure destinations like Zanzibar and various locations in the game reserves.
The two airlines as of 2020 that fly from Dar to Mafia are Auric Air and Coastal Aviation. In non-Coronavirus times, they fly daily in the afternoons but during COVID times, it was only Auric that made the daily flights. This flight was full pretty much every day and no matter what era it is in the world, I’d recommend booking these flights in advance if possible. It happened to me both times that the flight I wanted was full and I had to wait.
However, as everything else with Africa, what you see online is not all that you get. Because my flight got messed up (not related to Auric Air), I contacted the dive shop to see if they had any other options. They told me to Whatsapp this guy (because of course you’d book flights through Whatsapp) and he would take care of it. Turns out, there is another charter airline called Pelican Air that makes the flight in the mornings on certain days. I whatsapped the guy and he booked me a flight for the next morning.
The flight takes roughly 35 minutes and offers some spectacular views of the Indian Ocean as you’d expect.
How much is the flight to Mafia Island?
The cost of the Dar to Mafia Island flight is around $120 per person for a one way flight. Residents can get this flight for half price. I met a British guy at Afro Beach that booked the resident fare, showed up, and had zero questions asked to him. I’ve heard if you show up the airport the day before, sometimes they may be inclined to sell you the residents rate.
I met another Dutch couple that actually called Auric Air and said we can only afford $100 per person and Auric went along with it. I guess it just depends on how much you want to risk it and your tolerance for bargaining. You may get lucky sometimes but you may also find yourself in a situation where all the flights are full.
Ferry to Mafia Island
If you are on a budget, then there is the option of taking the ferry from Dar to Mafia Island. There are two boats, a local style ferry and a Military boat (new boat as of 2019). The military boat does not run every day so you’ll have to research this beforehand.
Both boats do not leave from Dar Es Salaam itself but rather
Where to stay in Mafia Island
Mafia island is large in square mileage but in all reality, you will most likely stay in the south with its two towns. The towns on the island are like any other African towns you’d fine. Not the most picturesque but has charms in its own way.
The main town of Kilidoni is where the airport is. Located on the west side of the island, this town is more lively with a few restaurants and bars for those looking for a little bit of action. You can either stay in the town itself at various guesthouses (for a very cheap price), or you can stay on the beach.
I chose to stay on the beach at the famous Afro Beach Bungalows. This hotel was located right on the beach with direct beach access which was fantastic. The rooms were basic but had mosquito nets, a decent sized bathroom with acceptable water pressure, and a somewhat comfortable bed. For $20-30 a night, it more than sufficed for my needs. A slightly nicer and more expensive option next door is the Juani Lodge which had free wifi.
Near to the Afro Beach Bungalows is the much pricier but more luxurious Butiama Lodge. It’s the sister lodge to the Big Blu dive resort that I stayed at while in the Marine Park. Staying at Afro Beach, I actually spent most of my time at Butiama Lodge because they had a more inviting lounge area, as well as unfettered access to electricity (Afro Beach only had solar power).
They are also the same lodge that puts on the Whale shark safaris which I’ll touch on more later in the post.
Stay on the Marine Park side
The Marine Park side of the island is where you’ll want to be if you’re diving. The local village here is called Utende. Of course, you do not need to stay on this side to dive but it’s totally worth it in my opinion. You can easily stay in Kilidoni and take transport to the Marine Park every day as well but I much prefer to stay where I’m diving.
On the Marine Park side there are numerous options at all budgets. The two dive shops on the island are Big Blu and Mafia Island Lodge. These two resorts double as dive shops and accommodations.
Big Blu is the more budget option with bungalows and tents on offer. Mafia Island Lodge is more upscale at higher prices. Both are located on the beach. The beach is nice but I would not come to Mafia island just for the beach (unless you can somehow stay on Mange Island exclusively). Zanzibar has nicer beaches in my opinion.
Pole Pole is another lodge next to Mafia Island Lodge that is much more high end. I walked here one day and it was absolutely stunning what they had going on. They also have a much more private beach than the other two lodges. Here are some photos of the Pole Pole lodge:
There are also a few budget options on this side of the island located away from the beach.
How to get around Mafia Island
Mafia Island is not that big and it’s likely the main transportation you’ll need is between the Marine Park and Kilidoni. This route is on a very nice paved road that allows for a much faster journey than in years past. From Kilidoni to Utende in the Marine Park is roughly 20 minutes by car and 30 minutes by tuk tuk.
There are tuk-tuks and Boda bodas all over the island and the going rate seemed to be about 5000-10000 shillings for a one way drive between the two towns via tuk tuk. Boda bodas will be slightly less.
Staying in the Mafia Island Marine Park
I spent the first part of my trip on the Marine Park side of the island. I knew I wanted to be close to the beach where the boats leave for the dives.
Marine Park Fees
Funny enough, you can only pay this with credit cards which is fine for me as I earned a ton of points paying for this upon arrival. There was another couple that came with me and they didn’t have a functioning credit card so I paid for them as well. $23.6 x 3 x 7 = almost $500 of credit card spend. At 3x points per $1 on my Chase Sapphire Reserve, it was a nice little points boost.
Note that if you are staying in Kilidoni and are visiting the Marine park on a day trip, you will also need to pay this daily fee.
If you decide you love the Marine Park so much and want to stay longer than your original planned dates, you can simply pay the extra days when you depart from the Park.
Big Blu Dive Resort
I chose Big Blu as my dive shop and place to stay. Their prices were about 30-40% cheaper than Mafia Island Lodge when it came to diving and accommodation.
I wasn’t sure what to expect because the pictures on Google Maps and their website were less than appealing. Upon arrival, all fears were relived.
This place is paradise.
It was the ultimate dive resort that I could have asked for. It was located right on the beach facing their beautiful dhow based dive boats. The restaurant also faced the beach surrounded by sand and great food options.
Big Blu offers bungalows and tents for those on a limited budget. The bungalows are a step above basic and includes hot showers and A/C. They also offer numerous dive and stay packages that work out to be very good deals. A 7 night stay with 10 dives for two people staying in the tent is under $1000 total. With a private bungalow, this price is around $1400.
The dive shop is also top notch. They have very a collection of very professional divemasters and instructors that made the experience enjoyable. The equipment is also top notch and they even have Mares Quattro fins so you aren’t snorkeling in currents.
Mafia Island Lodge
Located 100 meters away from Big Blu is the much larger Mafia Island Lodge. They have the best beach access on this side of the island which I frequented often. The restaurant at Mafia Island Lodge is also much bigger and offers a bigger menu, as well as buffets on certain nights. For $15 for the buffet which included fish, meats, and fruit, it was a better deal in my opinion than the $12 dinner offering at Big Blu.
Mafia Island lodge also has a separate dive shop run by a cool Belgian guy that I had drinks with on numerous occasions. It is priced higher than Big Blu but of course that is to cater to the clientele at Mafia Island Lodge.
Waves restaurant is located in between the two lodges. It’s a locally run seafood restaurant on the beach. It doesn’t really look like much of a restaurant but rather a spot with a few tables on the beach. Nevertheless, the food here is delicious.
Make sure to order lunch before hand otherwise it will take well over an hour to get your food. Agree on the price and menu item beforehand. I told the guy the day before I’ll take grilled fish and calamari for lunch at 1pm and agreed to pay 15000 shillings for the meal.
He grilled the fish right on the beach and it was actually one of the best meals I had on Mafia Island!
Diving in Mafia Island
The diving in Mafia Island is world famous. Having dived in Zanzibar, Mozambique, and Madagascar in Africa, I can say that Mafia Island is probably the best that Africa has to offer (for now of course).
The marine life is very healthy with numerous species of fish to see. This part of the world has not seen the over tourism that places like Zanzibar has which helps with the reef. Compared to Zanzibar, the corals are far less bleached here.
Understanding the high tide and low tide
Like most of East Africa, the coastlines enjoy a huge inner reef that appears and disappears during high tide and low tide. It’s not as extreme as say the Quirimbas Archipelago in Mozambique but still very noticeable.
For diving, the tides are extremely important since the marine park is in an enclosed bay where the high tide brings in fresh water from the open ocean, and the low tide sees this water go back into the open seas.
Low tide and high tide happens twice a day and changes every 6 hours or so. The times they occur during the day depend on the moon cycle. If you have low tide at 6am, then expect high tide to be at 12pm, and the next low tide to be at 6pm.This is important because depending on which tide you are diving, it will impact the currents and visibility of the dive. Essentially, you will want to dive on the high tide if possible. This is because the fresh water coming in from the ocean towards the coast brings with it incredibly clear visibility for your dives (25m+). Low tide is the complete opposite and the visibility changes drastically with about 5-10m of visibility.
Therefore, if high tide is at 9am, then expect to leave the resort in the morning to enjoy the dives while on the high tide. If low tide is at 9am, then you can either dive on the low tide, or wait until the afternoon when the high tide comes. As someone that enjoys diving in the morning, try to time your trip to coincide when the high tides are in the mornings.
What you see while diving in Mafia
As mentioned before, the diving in Mafia is absolutely stunning. The marine park has done a fantastic job with preserving the health of its ecosystem which is clear from how vibrant and dense the fish population is. There are a large collection of dive sites within the Marine Park and directly outside of the park.
Within the park is more of the typical corals, reef fish heavy type of terrain. During certain times of the year, there are dive sites outside of the Bay that can be visited when the ocean waves have calmed down. I was told you can sea bigger pelagics in these parts like sharks, and rays.
The first dive I did at Pinnacle saw huge schools of red snapper, angel fish, yellow snapper, and blue trigger fish that reminded me of the Maldives.
Best of all, this was the first time in awhile that I saw nudibranches in abundant numbers. I loved seeing these macro delights in Komodo, Indonesia and it had been awhile since I had seen them again. We saw them on almost every other dives slowly crawling through the ocean surface.
There are excellent examples of giant table corals, delicate sea fans, whip corals, and huge stands of blue-tipped staghorn corals.
Mafia is home to an abundance of large predatory fish and an abundance of my favorite fish, the Napoleon Wrasse. I saw a huge Napoleon here that must have been close to 2m in length.
Aside from that, you will see other typical sea life like moray eels, green turtles, a variety of scorpion fish, frogfish, leaf fish, and even pipefish! We saw loads of pipefish on one of the night dives we did.
It takes roughly 1.5 hours to get to the sandbank from Big Blu. Depending on the time of the month and what’s happening with the tides, you will depart at different times. The sandbank is only accessible during low tide and is completely submerged when high tide comes which is fascinating.
Mange Reef diving
We did our dive upon arrival at the sandbank. The Mange reef was very pretty like everything else around Mafia Island. While not quite as fishy and vibrant as in the Bay, we saw a variety of fish, nudibranchs, and six white-tip sharks.
The Mange Sandbank
After our dive, we docked at the sandbank where we spent the next few hours chilling and eating our delicious fresh fish lunch. I think sandbanks are easily the most beautiful beaches in the ocean. There’s just something magical about this little patch of sand in the middle of the ocean that allows for the most vivid colors possible.
Like the sandbanks I saw in the Maldives, Mange Sandbank in Mafia Island was every bit as stunning. The blindingly white sand with turquoise water on both sides will ensure that any “mountain person” quickly becomes a beach person.
Lunch was being cooked by the dive shop which included freshly grilled fish on the beach, along with fresh fruit and salad. The fish was delicious and something about eating it on right on that sandbank was magical.
Juani Island Tour
It’s famous for a pond located deep in the island home to upside down jellyfish. These jellyfish are non lethal and there are hundreds of them chilling 1-2m at the bottom of this lake.
The boat ride to this island is incredible. You sail through a small inlet surrounded by mangrove forests. The inlet slowly expands to a larger open area the size of a small village. You can only came here during high tide because during low tide, the water is completely gone and it turns into a sort of beach desert.
This really reminds me of the tour I did to Quirimba island while visiting the Quirimbas Archipelago in Mozambique. Just to be in a place of that magnitude knowing that it will be completely submerged in 2m of water in a few hours is incredible.
To book this trip, go to the beach and negotiate with one of the locals. The prices will be MUCH cheaper than what Big Blu or Mafia Lodge offers. I talked to the guys near to the Waves Restaurant and negotiated a price of $50 for four people. In essence, this tour is just a straight boat ride to the island, a visit to the jellyfish, and return. It’s not that much and $50 is more than reasonable in my opinion.
Chole Island Tour
Chole Island is a small island within the Marine Park that the dive resorts directly overlook. It’s a local island that has lots of mangroves, ancient ruins, and settlements. It’s a popular day trip from the island where you can take a boat ferry for 1000 shillings.
You can visit the island on your own but they recommend you go with a guide since it beats aimlessly wandering around on your own. I didn’t have time to make this trip unfortunately but it was highly recommended.
Whale Sharks in Mafia Island
Whale sharks are perhaps the main draw of the island of Mafia. They pass through the island during certain months of the year and can be visited just a few km off the coast. Normally, whale sharks can be spotted on Mafia Island between the months of October and March. I visited in early November and it was prime time for them.
Speaking with a few of the dive instructors, I learned that due to climate change, the whale sharks have been spotted in the area earlier and earlier in the year, with some instances as early as August!
Where are the whale sharks in Mafia?
The whale sharks are on the west side of the island near to the main town of Kilidoni. This is the opposite side of the Marine Park which is the side you’ll be if you’re scuba diving. If you’re staying in Kilidoni town or along the beach, you will be able to visit the sharks very easily.
After spending a week or so diving on the Marine Park side of the island (east side), I stayed on the west side in Kilidoni town for a few days so I could complete the whale shark tour since . Of course, you can also do this tour if you’re staying on the East side of the island as a day trip, but because of the daily Marine park fees of $23, it’s a better value proposition to stay there for diving only.
The whale shark tour is roughly $50-70 depending on your bargaining skills. As I was traveling during Coronavirus times, the price was $50 already and I’m sure I could have negotiated down but felt like it was the right price.
The Whale shark experience
Since I stayed at the Afro Beach bungalows, I did my tour with them. Their boat is located in the beach directly outside of the hotel so it was easy to get going. We started at 7am and by 8am, we already had whale sharks in front of us.
Unlike my horrific experience chasing whale sharks in the Maldives, the whale shark experience in Mafia Island was incredible. They were mostly good in following the rules like not getting too close to the sharks by boat, telling everyone not to touch the sharks etc.
In total, we saw 4 or 5 different sharks and were able to get very close to them. I swear one of them was about to run directly into me and I had to sprint away. There were juvenile whale sharks and a really big one that was 8-9 meters. In total, the excursion lasted around 2 hours and we swam (chased) the sharks for the entire duration.
The pictures never turn out as good as the experience itself, especially since the water is filled with plankton blocking the visibility but my goodness what an experience. Most definitely worth the $50.
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