Mafia Island, Tanzania: Turtles, Whales and Empty Beaches

Flying over Mafia Island, Tanzania, a remote paradise for turtles, whales and a few people. Hattie Rowan photos.
Flying over Mafia Island, Tanzania, a remote paradise for turtles, whales and a few people. Hattie Rowan photos.

A Remote African  Paradise

By Hattie Rowan

It’s not easy to get to Mafia Island.

Lying just south of Zanzibar – its more attention-grabbing neighbor – this barely inhabited island is only reachable by boat or on a 12-seater airplane. As I soared away from Tanzania’s hectic capital city, Dar es

Mafia Island, Tanzania: Turtles, Whales and Empty Beaches 1
Paula runs one of the small inns, Pole Pole Lodge, on Mafia Island, Tanzania.

Salaam, my view was subsumed with the infinite blue of the Indian Ocean, broken only by the occasional speck of some miniature, forgotten island.

Twenty minutes later the plane was descending into a jungle of palm trees which eventually pulled back to reveal a dirt track (the runway) and a two-roomed airport.

The route towards where my Mum and I were staying exposed only more coconut trees and lazy island villages selling lipstick-red rambutans and watermelons the length of my torso.

The ocean would occasionally nip into view, before winking teasingly and dropping back behind the trees.

The Marine Park

This is Mafia: an island where palm trees and mangroves make up for the low population of people.

With only 200 beds for visitors, the island enjoys a peace that is enriched by the Marine Park which protects a chunk of the southern sea and shoreline.

With the Rufiji River feeding into the surrounding waters, this area of ocean has become so fertile it is the chosen breeding ground for Humpbacks and whale sharks, and the reefs spawn a marine life of magnified sizes and intensified colors.

Baby turtles make their way to the ocean on Mafia Island, Tanzania.
Baby turtles make their way to the ocean on Mafia Island, Tanzania.

The adventures start immediately

Arriving at Pole Pole lodge – meaning ‘slowly, slowly’ in Kiswahili: a clear invitation to kick back – we were greeted by our hostess Paula and handed bowling ball-sized mafadus (young coconuts) to drink.

With barely a moment to take in the quietly impressive view of a wide beachfront curled around mangrove trees and interrupted only by the gently knocking tide — Paula told us that a boat from the dive center was going to take a handful of guests to watch turtles hatch on a neighboring island. The implication was clear: it’s up to you, but you’d be idiots to miss this.

The amazing green turtle

“Only 1 in 1000 baby green turtles make it to sexual maturity” Luke, a dive instructor at Mafia Island Diving, told us. “That’s why it’s so important that we take care of the nests which are dug on our beaches, and that we don’t get in the way of the hatchlings.” The group nodded, wide-eyed and earnest.

Getting in the way of a baby turtle whilst it heads to the ocean could mess with its inbuilt GPS system. We are told that this extraordinary sense of direction is what allows these animals to travel the thousands-of-miles to lay their eggs on the exact beach where they themselves emerged into the world.


This dhow took us the 30-minutes to Juani island.
This dhow took us the 30-minutes to Juani island.


A dhow, its dirty-blonde sail quivering in anticipation of adventure, took us the 30-minutes to Juani island. Here we trekked through villages – whilst little kids shrieked with laughter at this strange assortment of sunburnt tourists – and stumbled over vivid green bean plantations contrasted occasionally with the stoic grey of an ancient baobab.

The final stretch of forest broke out onto the most serenely isolated beach I have ever seen.

Yet, at our feet, piles of rubbish had been swept from all corners of the world to be dumped here by the current. The men escorting us had brought bags and we spent a few minutes helping them collect armfuls of seaweed-covered flip-flops which would later be recycled to make surprising objects such as bracelets.

The beach confirmed what Luke had warned us about: the threats facing turtles start even before they make it to the ocean.

Watching turtles hatch

The nest bore about 80 teaspoon-sized eggs, each one shuddering with impatience as the creatures inside fought to break free. A runway has been constructed from bits of driftwood to make sure the turtles headed directly towards the water. As the first hatchling eagerly tore open his shell and clambered up over the rim of the nest, the crowd of spectators fell silent, each of us watching attentively.

Aboard the dhow going to Juani Island, Tanzania.
Aboard the dhow going to Juani Island, Tanzania.

There was a pause as he stopped, looking ahead at the impossible length of sand he would have to cross on tiny flippers. But abruptly he was off, stumbling frantically over shells and crab holes, astounding us all with his haste and that incredible instinct which seemed to pull him magnetically towards the ocean.

As though inspired by this act of bravery, more turtles came rushing out, bumping chaotically into one another. We watched, cheered them on, held a collective breath if a turtle blundered and slipped onto his back, heaved a sigh of relief when he flipped back onto his belly, and finally applauded spectacularly as each one reached the sea and the waves pulled them into their depths.

The golden rules of scuba diving

That evening we drank dawas (a local cocktail meaning ‘medicine’ – an optimistic way of looking at vodka) with our lobster salads and enjoyed a sky heaving with stars no longer outshone by tiresome city lights.

Under the influence of an extraordinary day (and dawas), we enthusiastically agreed to an early 8 AM scuba diving induction.

There, the next morning, yawning into our kikoy towels, we learnt the 3 golden diving rules: don’t touch anything on the reef (“it’s simple”, said David, manager of Mafia Island Diving, “it’s like touching something, except you don’t”), keep your eyes open (“hopefully not too strenuous”) and breath (“something I imagine you are all accustomed to”).

I felt calmed until I was having to wiggle my way into a wetsuit (like pulling on a second skin) and a 14-kilogram set of weights was tied around my waist. Breathing suddenly became more challenging.

Sunset off Mafia Island.
Sunset off Mafia Island.

Trial run

We were taken for a short shore dive to learn how to use the regulator and practice scuba sign language (essentially: if it hurts, point to where it hurts, if it’s good, give a thumbs up). My breath caught worryingly in my throat when the instructor deflated my suit and the weights pulled me terrifyingly to the seabed.

Yet, just like I’d been promised, it was easy. I successfully breathed normally and kept my eyes open simultaneously – a lifetime’s worth of practice paying off.

Thus – except for dropping the weights on my instructor’s toe whilst anxiously trying to get rid of them back on dry land – my first try at scuba diving was triumphant.

The Mafia Archipelago

After a morning spent as the sole individual on the beach – and fruitlessly trying to eat little of a three-course lunch in anticipation of the wetsuit struggle – another dhow came by Pole Pole to pick us up: the motley mix of tourists who had bonded quickly over such extravagant life experiences.

The boat skimmed through the water whilst the Captain pointed out the other islands forming part of the marine conserve: Chole, Juani and Jibondo. We are told about the thousands of fruit bats which live their dark, upside-down lives in Chole’s caves, about the centuries-old Kua Ruins on Juani which reveal medieval mosques and a crumbling Sultan’s palace, and about the villages presiding over these islands which are known across East Africa for their handcrafted boats.

A palapa on the beach in Tanzania.
A palapa on the beach in Tanzania.

Yet none of these fascinations can be seen from the sea; the secrets of Mafia’s archipelago concealed mysteriously behind a dense thicket of trees.

Into the blue

It took half an hour to reach our diving spot; another patch of blue indistinguishable from the blue all around us. However, the Captain knowingly stopped the boat and announced our arrival at Coral Gardens. My Mum and I were to dive with Luke; the electrician turned dive master from Oxford.

He demonstrated how to get into the water: “Just let yourself go.” Luke grinned, before tipping backward, James-Bond-style, off the boat.

My Mum and I exchanged anxious glances before being lifted helplessly onto the side of the boat and – momentarily disregarding the eyes-always-open rule as I squeezed my face in terror – falling blindly and exhilaratingly into the ocean.

The gems of the Indian Ocean

The reef was stunning; obscure-shaped fish darting in and out of vibrant green and pastel pink coral. Some fish I recognized (Finding Nemo lookalikes mainly), but most seemed delightfully alien-like in their unusualness.

Luke beckoned us several times to point out the creatures he found: a lethal crown-of-the-thorns starfish (Luke motions having to saw his hand off after touching it), a couple of python-sized moray eels, and an adult green turtle feasting lazily on a patch of seaweed.

I gazed at her, impressed that she made it this far despite the 1000 to 1 odds. Too abruptly we resurfaced, removing flippers and oxygen tanks which, once out of the water, made us clumsy rather than invincible.

Too many adventures

Beds come with mosquito netting.
Beds come with mosquito netting.

David stopped by Pole Pole on our final evening. He became a diving instructor after deciding he needed a complete life change and quit his job as a computer technician in France. The man, not surprisingly, hasn’t even glanced back.

David delivered the startling news that the Humpback whale mating season had begun, and a boat would be going out the next day to watch them and hear their song, “but we cannot swim with them,” he warned, “you don’t want to get between that.”

We shuddered in agreement. My Mum and I listened enviously, imagining daring excuses not to catch our morning flight back to our much less exciting lives.

However, we obediently and forlornly climbed into the taxi the following day, whilst Mafia Island set the stage for something else incredible.

Mafia Island, Tanzania: Turtles, Whales and Empty Beaches 2
Hattie Rowan

Hattie Rowan is a Spanish and French student at the University of Warwick in England. She is currently working as an English language assistant in Santiago, Chile for her year abroad. Read her blog.

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