After the hustle and bustle of Dar es Salaam, the tranquil peace and simplicity of Mafia Island is a drastic, yet welcome change. Trading the buildings and civilisation for wooden huts and mangos is seen as a dream come true to many – especially those who long for the day where they are out of reach of the buzz of a phone (which to me is more ominous than the buzz of a mosquito!) Located in the south of the Zanzibar archipelago – although not a part of Zanzibar – Mafia is yet untouched by the tourism that has moulded the islands to the north.
I was staying at Mafia Island Lodge which is found in the south-east on the beach of Chole Bay inside the Mafia Island Marine Reserve, a long with its sister residence, Pole Pole. The reserve dominates the waters and coast across the south of the island and stretching up the eastern beaches. I was here to experience the diving of Chole Bay and I can instantly tell you that I was not disappointed.
I had been to Zanzibar two years prior to my trip and the diving was poor. I’m sorry to have broken any dreams you may have of diving the idyllic Indian Ocean Island – but sadly Zanzibar has not looked after its reefs, and therefore the fish numbers and sizes have dropped drastically. So after this experience, I was eager to see what Mafia was like due to the lower tourism numbers (roughly 1,000 each year), and the strict rules regarding the marine reserve.
Even when flying in to Kilindoni (the largest town with the only airstrip) I could instantly see that the reefs were much healthier than their neighbour to the north. When descending after the thirty minute flight from Dar es Salaam, I was welcomed by pristine turquoise oceans, large protruding reefs, and lush mangroves. This was a world away from Zanzibar.
Met at the airport (a rather grand term for a concrete room with a sofa), I was whisked away across the island which only took half an hour. Kilindoni – despite being the largest settlement on the island – is a peaceful and old-fashioned development where the way of life has remained largely unchanged. Small, traditional houses stood proudly next to the more modern residences made with bricks or metal as the people continued with their slow-paced lives of fishing, subsistence farming, religion, and artisanal crafts. Within moments we were outside Kilindoni and driving across flat palm tree forests dotted with family houses. Children played in the fields as their parents sat on the porch at every house we drove past. A few cattle grazed and chickens pecked at the loose seeds scattered on the floor. Everyone here lived vastly different lives to the mainland. Every person we drove past waved and greeted us with genuine enthusiasm before returning to their daily tasks. The smell of fresh food flooded the air before dispersing into the smell of the forests.
I reached the border of the Marine Park and everyone who enters has to pay a fee. Any residents of Tanzania pay 2,000TSH, whilst foreigners have to pay roughly 84,000TSH (depending on which currency you use – USD, GBP, EUR, TSH). Mafia Island Lodge is located just a few hundred metres from the entrance to the park behind some palms that make up the forest that surrounds the small village next door. Entering the Lodge you are greeted by incredibly friendly staff and a huge thatched common area/restaurant that opens onto a garden. Behind the garden is the 5* PADI dive centre and the glint of the Indian Ocean.
I was greeted at the hotel by David and his wife Danni, the couple that own and run the on-site dive centre. David is a Belgian who traded in his life as a computer code engineer in Brussels for a more adventurous life, and Danni is a Kenyan whose life has always been fuelled by wildlife. Their enthusiasm and love for Mafia was instantly recognisable and, as the next day would prove, completely understandable.
After a wonderful meal of local beef, vegetables and chocolate cake, I headed to my room. A double bed draped in a net with fresh flowers on the sheets welcomed me and led to the small patio with table and chairs. Despite the room being small, everything was lovely. The bathroom had a large shower area and a water heater and the bedroom was supplied with a ceiling fan and A/C.
In the morning myself and my girlfriend, Nancy, (a non-diving Tanzanian) went to the dive centre to start our adventure. Nancy took part in a try-dive, whilst I went to some of the deeper dive sites. One of the benefits of Chole Bay is that after a depth of 24m, you will need a shovel to get any deeper making it a perfect location for long dives and warm temperatures. I dived in a 5mm shorty, but a rash vest would have been suitable for anyone who does not feel the cold too much. David always dives in a 7mm long suit due to his fear of the cold! But I can guarantee a shorter, thinner wetsuit is perfectly suitable.
David and Danni have a small fleet of boats made entirely by hand with local materials and a local workforce. The people who were working on one of the boats whilst I was there were all from Chole Island – a small island in the Bay which used to be the capital of Mafia. They were incredibly friendly and told me about the history of Mafia. Chole Island used to be home to the main settlement and home to the majority of the islanders. The main island of Mafia used to be used solely for farming due to the richer soils, whilst Chole Island had easier trade with the Arabic traders. During the 1820s a group of Sakalava cannibals from Madagascar attacked Kua on Juani Island (just behind Chole Island) with 80 canoes. They ate many of the villagers and took the rest into slavery, a story that is still talked about quite a lot according to the locals.
After an excellent introduction to the different sections of the Bay, its seasonal tides and winds, and the different types of diving offered by the Bay, David and his team began the dive brief. The introduction to diving for Nancy was brilliant and fully comprehensive, and David spoke about each dive site with a great knowledge and a sense of pride. David and Danni were very active in having no negative impacts on the Bay and frequently hosted marine biologists who had helped expand the corals and monitored the growth of life.
The dive centre is comprised of a set of beautiful buildings – one main building with an office and pavilion, and two smaller ones including showers. The centre is fully equipped to handle groups of up to twelve people per dive and has nearly two dozen people working to maintain the fleet, the equipment, the area (which boasts a beautiful garden), and to lead the dives. You can learn to dive easily here and can work your way up to master scuba diver.
We loaded up the largest boat owned by the centre – a beautiful traditional Zanzibari vessel that can easily accommodate twelve divers and crew – and headed off into the depths of Chole Bay.
Our first dive location was around a set of underwater coral islands at a maximum depth of 19m and a minimum depth of 6m. After kitting up and rolling into the warmth of the blue beneath, I was instantly surrounded by a shoal of fish that were feeding off the first coral island. We steadily drifted around the coral and inspected each nook and cranny for new types of marine life. David had explained to me that the week before they had discovered a type of nudibranch only previously found in Malaysia, and the month before that they discovered three new fish to the area and two more nudibranchs. We found some beautiful Tanzanite blue sea slugs (appropriate for our location) and a small cleaning station with the most beautiful set of shrimp I had seen for several years. We then finned to the next area, another coral island, but this one was much bigger.
It was at this second location that I realised how successful the marine park has truly been in Mafia. The coral was plentiful and the healthiest I had seen since diving in Los Roques, Venezuela, ten years before. The vast array of hard and soft coral was mind boggling. Clouds of fish drifted back and forth in the small swell wherever we finned. There were clownfish that had reached nearly 7 inches, parrotfish the size of barracuda, and moray eels the thickness of thighs! These waters were so vastly different from Zanzibar. I was saddened at the thought of what Zanzibar had lost, but overjoyed that Mafia had managed to conserve and expand its marine life over such a vast area.
We went around several of these huge coral blooms and watched the fish inspect us. I had never been this close to fish that were inquisitive as to what we were. Many would be within 6 inches of me when drifting over the corals before dashing away to safety. David took me to a small patch of coral that had been damaged many years before. It was only a small patch – roughly ten square metres – but it showed how long it could take for coral to regrow and dominate the landscape again. There were clear signs of revival with the surrounding coral, but it was obvious that much more time was needed. David had told me earlier about coral clippings he and a marine biologist had made and that these clippings had regrown enough to be permanently planted after only eight months. He also explained how biologists had studied the growth of coral and that applying a small electric current to growing coral accelerated their growth even faster. Despite the small reminder of what can happen with damaged reef, the colossal size of the corals was incredible.
After an hour we had to end our dive and deployed the safety sausage. The boat came over and picked us up. When we had dried off David and I spoke about how healthy the coral was looking and he showed me the locations of the coral clippings and where he was planning on hopefully doing more clippings. However, as this was a marine park, any tampering with the coral has to be discussed with the park team which can take some time to ratify.
We had cups of tea and coffee, and a packed lunch supplied by Mafia Island Lodge. We sailed over to our next dive location known by David as coral fields. It was immediately clear to see why he had picked this name.
Huge fields of hard and soft corals covered the seabed and spread as far as visibility would allow (about 30m on this particular day, but visibility can often be 50m). There was no sign whatsoever of any damage for hundred, maybe thousands, of square metres. In 1998 a huge bleaching event caused 80-100% coral death across Mafia Marine Park – but today there was almost no trace of this event. The only damage I could see to the coral was due to either waves, or the coral becoming so big it collapsed on itself!
As we finned over coral fields we were followed by a small shoal of angel fish that were larger than the palm of my hand, and we even found a stonefish bigger than a rugby ball. I had seen many of these fish before in different locations, but I had never seen them reach such a size. In Zanzibar I didn’t see any life like this. I saw a handful of fish and a pod of dolphins racing away from a dolphin tour boat. Yet here in Mafia I was seeing fish at their maximum natural size, more coral than I had ever seen before, and a range of fish greater than I had ever witnessed! I even found half a dozen nudibranch egg sacks- something I had never seen before. They were like roses made from the softest silk you could imagine. The deep reds and yellows of the spiral eggs fluttered in the swell and added yet another vibrant layer to this underwater haven.
Shortly after I found a group of clams eagerly snapping shut and opening again as we drifted by. I have always loved clams and probably spent a bit too much air watching them and the nudibranchs! David signalled for me to follow him and we found ourselves in a small current that carried us about two hundred metres where we stopped at a small group of corals that had risen up higher than the surrounding corals. I circled the stack and found myself watching a moray eel at a cleaning station. It was the same size as the two eels I had seen earlier in the day and was surrounded by a cloud of small fish of all colours. It was a great sight, and a wonderful end to my days’ diving.
Once again we deployed the safety sausage and headed back to the surface where the boat picked us up. We stripped down, dried off, and sipped more tea before lazily heading back to shore where we were in for another surprise.
As we approached the mooring spot, there were more people than usual at the dive centre. We disembarked and were greeted by a Tanzanian documentary crew who were documenting Mafia airport and the benefits it was bringing to the island. They were full of life and eager to hear what we had thought of the airport and what we thought of Mafia Island. We gave our short interviews and how we thought Mafia should continue in the future. I explained that the marine life of Mafia was far superior to that of Zanzibar and that it is essential the Marine Park receives full funding and care. The crew seemed to like this and were very proud of their environmental developments. I was happy for Mafia too. The community had always been a boat trip and a drive away from Dar es Salaam, and now it had, albeit infrequent, air travel with the mainland. Even though the majority of Mafians live a subsistence lifestyle, many things such as medicine and building supplies come from the mainland, which were now far easier to get.
I can’t find the words to describe how great it was to see such a healthy area of coral after so many years of diving small reefs, damaged reefs, or no reefs at all. I was thoroughly impressed (still not a strong enough compliment) by David, Danielle and the whole Mafia Diving crew. Their devotion and admiration for the waters was clear to see and should act as an inspiration for all divers. Mafia is the undiscovered and undisturbed reef haven the world so desperately needs. I do worry, however, that the new flight schedules to the island will bring more tourists and ultimately turn Mafia into Zanzibar. Yet my fears are nothing to worry about as Mafia Island Lodge, Pole Pole Lodge, and Mafia Diving all refuse to expand the number to which they can cater for. They like the small, constant flow of tourists without having to worry that their way of life – and the way of life for all Mafians – will change to cater for holiday seekers. Mafia is a scuba diving haven that deserves to remain remote and devoted to those who crave conservation and the simple life.