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Mafia Island – a healthy dwelling place

Written by: Sarah Kingdom

Contrary to other thoughts that might come to mind, the Mafiaosi have nothing to do with Mafia Island. The Mafia Archipelago most likely got its name from the Arabic word ‘morfiyeh’, meaning ‘archipelago’, or possibly from the Kiswahili phrase, ‘mahali pa afya’, meaning ‘healthy dwelling place’.

The archipelago lies just south of the equator and is made up of a group of islands, atolls and tidal sandbars, scattered in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania. The largest of these islands, Mafia Island, is 50km long and 15km wide, and is surrounded by a barrier reef teeming with marine life.

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Palm trees and sunsets on Mafia Island, what more could you ask for? ©Butiama Beach

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Kick off your flip flops and enjoy beach life on Mafia Island ©Butiama Beach

This is a virtually unknown destination, and the incredible diversity of marine life make it a diver’s paradise. Almost half the coastline of Mafia, about 822km², was gazetted as the first Tanzanian marine park in 1995. The Mafia Archipelago forms one of the most interesting and diverse marine ecosystems and coral reefs in the world.

Given its location and the presence of the marine park, the bulk of activities on Mafia Island are obviously centred on or around the water. Most of the outstanding dive sites in Mafia lie within Chole Bay, a vast circular enclave off the south-east coast of the island, where the water depth ranges from 5-27 metres and there is a tremendous variety of coral, fish and other marine species. Over 50 genera of coral, more than 460 species of fish and five different species of turtles have been recorded in the waters around Chole Bay.

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Take a dive boat out to sea to explore the marine life in the waters around Chole Bay ©Simon Pierce, Mafia Island Diving

Everything about diving on Mafia is fabulous, from the exhilarating boat ride, to the amazing experience that waited for us beneath the surface of the water. Stingrays to barracudas, giant clams to tiny anemone fish, trigger, angel, butterfly and trumpet fish, enormous star fish, vibrant coloured corals, enigmatic turtles, minute colourful nudibranchs and leaf fish… we saw it all. Mafia Island Diving is run by the highly organised Danielle and multilingual dive master, David. It is one of the longest standing dive operators on the island, and they offer scuba certifications, as well as both water based and land based activities.

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Prepare to don your scuba gear ©Mafia Island Diving

Different to the scuba, but just as spectacular, was the snorkelling. There was so much to see just beneath the surface of the water, by wearing only a mask, snorkel and fins. A deep breath followed by some vigorous kicking made it easy to go down to investigate lobsters hiding between rocks and sea urchins bristling between soft corals. Everywhere there were vibrant, shimmering fish darting about; a mesmerising display of colour and movement passing before your eyes.

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Practice your underwater photography by snapping a shot of a shoal of snappers ©Shamba Kilole Eco Lodge

A definite snorkelling highlight of Mafia is the whale sharks, and if you are there at the right time, October to February being the best, you can swim with these gentle giants just a few hundred metres off shore. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, known to reach sizes of up to 14 metres long. Swimming with them is a truly awesome experience. The locals call the whale sharks Papa Shilingi – ‘papa’ meaning shark and ‘shilingi’ meaning coins, because the bodies of these beautiful creatures almost look like they are studded with coins.

In the unlikely event that you do tire of the underwater world of Mafia, or perhaps have just become a little too waterlogged, then there is an abundance of things to do on dry land. Sea turtles have been nesting and hatching on Tanzanian beaches for over 150 million years, and between June and September, it is possible to see this amazing phenomenon for yourself. In the afternoons on Chole Island you can see trees full of Comoros fruit bats excitedly chattering and squabbling, as they wake up to head out on their nightly foray for food. There is even a rogue gang of reclusive hippos that can be spotted in a network of lagoons in the north-western part of Mafia Island.

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Snorkel with green turtles off the coast of Mafia Island ©Shamba Kilole Eco Lodge

Where to stay on Mafia Island

We were lucky to stay in three beautiful places while on Mafia Island and each was special in its own way.

Pole Pole is an exclusive seven bungalow eco lodge, located inside the marine park, where we were pampered by the lovely Paola. It offered great cuisine, an unpretentious and laid-back atmosphere, and warm but discrete hospitality.

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A view from the sea that will have you rushing back to shore ©Pole Pole Bungalows

Shamba Kilole Lodge is a six room eco lodge on a five hectare plot inside the marine park, owned and operated by Marco, who is known as the island’s most knowledgeable and passionate dive master.

Butiama Beach is probably the best value for money place to stay on Mafia, and is the perfect place for families. With a seemingly endless expanse of pristine white beach just footsteps from your room, there’s fun to be had by everyone.

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Life’s a beach on Mafia Island ©Sarah Kingdom

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