Mafia Island

Mafia Island is an unspoiled and little-know alternative to other Indian Ocean destinations. This often overlooked tranquil and secluded island lets visitors avoid the crowds found at Zanzibar’s tourist-filled beaches. Yet this remote and charming island – with its surrounding archipelago encompassing the smaller islands of Jibondo, Juani, Bwejuu and Chole – has lots to offer.

Mafia Island is a water enthusiasts’ paradise and a-well-kept secret among snorkelers and divers. The surrounding waters are crystal clear and permit amazing views to the pristine coral reefs and an unimaginable number of colorful, tropical fish. Some of the most exciting diving spots of the world are found here. But Mafia Island’s main attraction is the majestic whale sharks. Do you dare to swim with them?

Mafia Island is a true off-the-beaten-path destination with only a few lodges for tourists and a strong focus on conservation. If you are interested in an undisturbed, relaxing and authentic beach holiday far away from the crowds – and with impressive marine encounters – don’t miss Mafia Island!

Main Facts:

  • Offshore island in Southern Tanzania
  • Domestic flight connection to Dar es Salaam (DAR)
  • Size: 435 km²
  • Inhabitant: roughly 40.000
  • Capital: Kilindoni

Main Habitats:

  • Coconut palms and baobabs
  • Cashews, mangos and papaya trees
  • Mangrove forests

When to visit Mafia Island:

  • All year around, except April and May
  • Whale sharks: October to March

Activities on Mafia Island:

  • Sunbathing and relaxing
  • Snorkeling and diving
  • Sea kayaking
  • Boat trips to sandbanks in traditional dhows
  • Cultural tours to ancient ruins and fishing villages

Where is Mafia Island and how is it reached?

Mafia Island is located 20 km offshore from Tanzania’s mainland and roughly 120 km south of Dar es Salaam. Domestic flights operate twice a day from/to Dar es Salaam with the domestic airlines Auric Air, Coastal Aviation and Safari Airlink. It is also possible to connect from Arusha, or other airstrips within the national parks, to Dar es Salaam and then onwards to Mafia Island.

Flora, Fauna & Wildlife above water:

The five islands of the Mafia archipelago all feature lush vegetation with coconut palms, cashews and mango and papaya trees as far as the eye can see. The islands are also home to a few animals such as bush babies, duikers, flying foxes, genets, velvet monkeys, squirrels and wild pigs. The coast, with its tidal mangrove thickets and scrubby coastal moorlands, attract a large variety of sea birds. Indeed, more than 120 different bird species have been recorded here.

Mafia’s claim-to-fame is its underwater glory…

Mafia Island is known for its glorious underwater landscapes and biodiversity. The island’s surrounding turquoise waters entice travelers to explore these wonders. Snorkelers and divers will be enthralled by this world-class underwater destination, which is home to some of the richest coral reefs on earth.

The Mafia Archipelago forms one of the most complex marine ecosystems of the world. The government took first steps, in 1975, to protect this area by declaring it a marine reserve. Today this marine reserve covers an area of 822 km² and encompasses both inhabited and desert islands, inter-tidal flats, mangrove forests, seagrass beds and various coral reefs.

During your snorkeling and diving adventure you can expect encounters with marine life, including more than 50 species of corals and sponges and more than 460 documented fish species. The special characteristics of this amazing underwater world arise from Mafia’s unique location in the estuarine delta system of the Rufiji River on Tanzania’s south coast – a melting pot of oceanic and reef fishes.

The further you venture into the deep, the better your chances of coming across dolphins, sharks and occasionally manta rays. Mafia is also home to five different turtle species that come to nest on the remote beaches. As part of a dhow excursion, it is also possible to witness whales that pass the islands between July and August.

Mafia’s main attraction: Majestic whale sharks…

From October up until March, the north monsoon winds, the-so-called “Kaskazi”, push the plankton-rich surface layer of the nutrient-rich Rufiji River towards the island. Whale sharks will gather in areas with the densest plankton occurrences. With their wide mouths, they filter-feed on the abundant supply of suspended materials in the water.

Whale sharks are the biggest known fish. They can measure up to 18 meters in length and weigh more than 20 tons. They are very social and calm when undisturbed and not scared. According to the WWF, the population of whale sharks around Mafia has increased to 180 individuals as of December 2017.

An excursion to witness these gentle giants is an overwhelming experience. Just watching them swim next to the boat is an impressive sight but actually swimming with them in the water will take your breath away. Despite their size, the whale sharks will not bump into you. If they feel threatened, they simply swim away. It’s a great privilege to be able to get so close to them.

Diving in Mafia or Zanzibar?

Within the sheltered waters of Chole Bay, the heart of the marine park, diving is possible all year round and the shallow reefs are perfect for snorkelers and diving beginners. The diving sites outside the bay are ideal for advanced divers.

The diverse snorkeling and diving opportunities offered by Mafia Island are much better than those found on Zanzibar. Whereas Zanzibar, for example, has nothing to offer advanced divers, Mafia has plenty in store for them. If you are looking for wide, white sandy beaches, however, Zanzibar would be the better choice for you. Nevertheless, all lodges offer boat trips to the nearby sandbanks where the typical white beaches await you!

Please note that any sojourn or water sport activity within the Mafia Island Marine Park is subject to an entrance fee of currently USD$ 23.60 per person/per day that needs to be paid in advance. Please be advised that Tanzania Safari Bug cannot pay these fees on your behalf, nor can the local lodges on-site do this for you. The fee must be paid at the Marine Park Gate (credit cards only).

And what about safety on Mafia Island?

Politically and administratively, Mafia Island belongs to mainland Tanzania and not – like some of the other islands – to the semi-autonomous state of Zanzibar. The island is politically stable and unaffected by the problems and disturbances that, at times, affect Zanzibar.

The island is still very untouched and authentic – visited by a few tourists only. The local population is very polite and much less intrusive than Zanzibar’s. It is, however, expected that visitors respect the local customs and dress appropriately when leaving the lodge.

 

Which travelers are bound to particularly enjoy Mafia Island:

  • travelers who are looking for a quiet and authentic beach vacation far away from any hustle 
  • travelers who are looking for accommodations with character and Swahili charm 
  • travelers who love to snorkel or dive 
  • travelers who are adventurous and wish to witness the mighty whale sharks

Our travel tip:

Choosing accommodations that come with a pool is highly recommended as Mafia Island is subject to tidal movements; during low tide it is not possible to swim in the ocean.

Accommodations

 

Butiama Beach

 

Pole Pole Lodge

 

Shamba Kiole