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Gentle Giants: Mafia Island whale sharks

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Islands Islands

Mafia Island is one of the most well-known whale shark hotspots in Tanzania. It attracts thousands of divers and marine enthusiasts from all over the world every year! In this article, we will share more info about this fascinating activity.

Mafia Island, Tanzania

In the pristine waters off the coast of Tanzania lies a haven for wildlife snorkeling and scuba diving enthusiasts. Mafia Island, nestled within the heart of the Indian Ocean, is renowned for its natural beauty and its most impressive visitors – the whale sharks. It's one of the best island vacation spots in Tanzania. Unlike Zanzibar Island, Mafia is a small resort, with easier access to breathtaking underwater life. You can access it via ferry or flights from Dar es Salaam.

These gentle giants draw travelers from across the globe eager for an up-close encounter in their natural habitat. However, amidst the beauty of the island's waters, there are conservation challenges to be aware of. If you're looking for useful tips and information on swimming with whale sharks on Mafia Island you're in the right place!

Whale Sharks

The allure of Mafia Island lies in its pristine waters, home to vibrant coral reefs and tropical fish. With over 400 different species of fish and some 50 species of coral, it's no wonder why Mafia Island is the largest marine park in all of East Africa. But it's the presence of whale sharks that makes this place so attractive to visitors. This species is the largest fish in the world! And with their distinctive spotted patterns, they are certainly one of the most beautiful ones.

When can you see whale sharks in Mafia Island?

Whale sharks migrate to Tanzania's waters between October and March, attracted by the abundance of food. This is because water from the Rufiji River flows down south during the monsoon months, and the waters are rich with plankton - the whale shark's favorite food. Whale sharks will migrate to Mafia Island’s western shores in search of a feast, and divers can have a once-in-a-lifetime experience by swimming with them. This is by far the best season to visit the stunning island, so get your snorkelling gear on, and jump into the Mafia waters.

The shark migration period spans the end of the dry season (June - October) and most of the light rainy season (November - April). Each season offers different touristic appeals, so it presents a broad timeframe and plenty of options to tailor your trip to mainland Tanzania and its islands within the peak whale shark season. 

How do whale shark tours work?

Tours typically include at least community fees, transport from the hotel, and diving gear. Travelers join a group whale shark tour, like Afro Whale Shark Safari, and set off into the sea. Tour guides know the feeding areas the sharks tend to swim in. Sometimes the sharks can be quickly found, however, the search may take over an hour. Even then, nobody can guarantee an encounter with these marine species. It's also important to keep in mind that tours might be cancelled due to stormy weather.

Once seen, the boat will pause to allow these shy creatures to get accustomed to the new presence. Then, the snorkelers gently enter the water and swim amongst these giant, but harmless sharks for an awe-inspiring experience with nature.

A Cautionary Tale: Whale Shark Conservation

While Mafia Island offers an unparalleled experience and a unique opportunity to swim with whale sharks, some challenges shouldn't be ignored. The growing popularity of tourism centered around whale sharks has led to certain conservation issues.


One of the main threats that is becoming increasingly noticeable in Tanzania is overcrowding. The increased influx of tourism disturbs the natural behavior of whale sharks and poses a threat to the stability of their fragile habitat.

The constant presence of boats and divers can cause stress and disrupt their feeding patterns. And, occasionally, reckless behavior by some tour operators can cause harm and further endanger these wild animals. Getting too close or touching the individual sharks is an example of common behaviors that should be avoided!

Boat chasing

Another concern is known as boat chasing, where tour guides contend for the best position to observe whale sharks, often at the expense of their well-being. This relentless pursuit only adds more strain to the shark's already frail environment!

It may be a shortcut to that magazine-worthy photograph, but a little distance and patience will help this species thrive.

Marine research and conservation efforts are constantly being implemented to protect the rich and diverse ecosystems that surround Mafia Island and make it such a beautiful place. However, it is crucial to prioritize responsible tourism and consider the long-term impact on Tanzania's marine wildlife.

Exploring Alternatives

Given the drawbacks that can arise from whale shark tourism on Mafia Island, it's important to approach this activity with caution. While the allure of sharing the waters with these impressive animals may be strong, it's essential to consider the impact of recent tourism on their habitat and well-being. In light of these concerns, we cannot wholeheartedly recommend diving with whale sharks on Mafia Island.

Pemba Island

The waters off the coast of Pemba Islandalso attract whale sharks during their migration season. However, to date, there are no active tour operators that offer such excursions on Pemba. It is true that whale sharks pass through the waters close to this island, but their migration routes remain poorly studied.

Responsible tour operators

Travelers can also opt for responsible trip organizers. These are companies that prioritize conservation and adhere to guidelines carefully set by organizations such as the Marine Megafauna Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund. By supporting responsible tourism initiatives, visitors can enjoy meaningful interactions with whale sharks and other protected species while contributing to their preservation. For more information, visit WWF Tanzania.

For those still keen on exploring the beauty of Mafia Island and swimming alongside its whale shark population, we recommend contacting Kitukiblu. They are a locally owned company committed to sustainable practices and marine conservation efforts. They run half-day tours that allow tourists to encounter whale sharks in a respectful way.

Kitukiblu even offer internship programs for those interested in whale shark research!

Beauty and Challenges

Visiting Mafia Island and its whale shark population offers a glimpse into the beauty of Tanzania's marine life. But as tempting as it may be to book a whale shark tour in this paradise, it's important to be mindful of the conservation concerns associated with these trips.

Looking for an individual vacation package on the Tanzanian islands, perhaps combined with a safari in the stunning mainland national parks? Reach out to us and our Altezza Travel team will be happy to chat with you!

Published on 24 April 2024 Revised on 9 May 2024
About this article
Agnes Mkumbo
Expert Articles: 21
Written byAgnes Mkumbo
Travel Expert Tanzania
Diving Diving
Islands Islands
Safari Safari
Tanzania Tanzania

Agnes is a vital member of the Altezza operations team, boasting extensive experience in Kilimanjaro and in-depth knowledge of Tanzania's safari parks. Additionally, she holds an Advanced Open Water diving certification, a rare achievement in Kilimanjaro. With her diverse skill set, Agnes is the perfect author to guide readers through hiking, safaris, and island trips in Tanzania. Through her writing, Agnes introduces readers to both well-known destinations and hidden gems across the region.

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