Whale Shark Research, Photography & Coral Reefs – Mafia Island

Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are the biggest fishes in the sea reaching up to 20 meters in length. The opportunity to interact with these gentle giants and assist in their research is a humbling and awe inspiring experience. At the enchanting Mafia Island off the coast of Tanzania, you can join our whale shark research team which includes two of the world's leading whale shark researchers, Dr Simon Pierce & Dr Chris Rohner.

Whale Sharks Feeding in Mafia Island - Dr Simon Pierce

Researchers have been monitoring whale sharks for several years now off the west coast of Mafia Island and sightings have been consistently good across the northern hemisphere winter. The team is often in the water with several sharks at once and we often see two or three of them as we fly into and out of the island during peak periods.

We have timed this trip to fit a peak period in whale shark sightings in November, when East Africa’s seas are also usually calm – ideal for diving and snorkelling on some of Africa’s richest coral reefs. Whilst whale shark interactions are the core of this experience, we have also incorporated a full itinerary of diving for qualified divers on reefs on the opposite coast of Mafia, within an 821 square kilometer Marine Protected Area which is afforded complete protection from fishing. This means that you can dive amongst some incredibly healthy fish life. You can find yourself eyeball to eyeball with large numbers of huge groupers and snappers, which in other coral reef locations around the world would have long been destined for the cooking pot. For those who do not dive but wish to snorkel here, we can arrange snorkelling trips if you wish.

In addition to large specimens of fish, the marine park protects an incredible diversity of fish life and marine ecosystems. In Chole and beyond, you can find further excellent hard coral areas, extensive mangrove forests, sponge and soft coral sub-tidal beds and wide inter-tidal flats. This variety encourages more than 400 species of fish to reside here, 400 types of sponges, 200 types of algae and habitat for Green & Hawksbill Turtles. Mafia Island is an important breeding ground for small fish and larvae, and plankton which is what encourages the interest of whale sharks.

Mafia Island itself has a beautiful coastline, combining stunning beaches, hard coral islets with extensive areas of mangrove. You can feel very detached here from mainland Africa, amongst lovely islanders whose dhow sailing boats paint a beautiful picture against the island's varied coastline.

Sand Banks in Mafia Island - Bjeorn Koth

To experience the best of Africa's marine life and terrestrial wildlife, you can consider joining one of our small group safaris before or after this trip to go in search of The Great Migration. The Great Migration brings more than a million grazing wildebeest, plains zebras and Thompsons gazelles into the Serengeti, where we can also hope to see leopards, cheetahs, lions, hyenas, elephants, hippos, buffalo and more in huge abundance. This safari also goes in search of tree climbing lions and monkeys of Lake Manyara; and the bountiful wildlife of the Ngorongoro Crater where black rhino are always part of what we hope to see.


9 Day Itinerary

Please note that actual schedule of whale shark outings and opportunities to dive will change for each trip, optimized to fit in with tide times

Day 1: Arrive in Zanzibar

You will be met upon arrival and transferred to a boutique hotel in the historic centre of Stone Town.

There will be an evening briefing by Aqua-Firma Director Ralph Pannell or Dr Simon Pierce, who will provide a first introduction to whale sharks and research findings at Mafia Island. There will be further talks and reviews by Dr Simon Pierce, Dr Chris Rohner and Ralph Pannell during the week.

Day 2: Fly to Mafia Island

After an early breakfast, we will head to the airport and take a small plane flight to Mafia Island.

Fly Zanzibar to Mafia Island.  There are some great views of the Rufiji River on this flight as well as the many small islands which lie between the river mouth and Mafia. If seas are not reflecting the sunshine, then we might be able to see whale sharks in the water beneath us as we flight into Mafia.

Mafia Island’s airport is very small. We will transfer to a vehicle and take the newly tarmaced road across the dry and sandy island centre to the south east coast.

We will take a quick lunch, or pack lunch, and without any further ado, head west for our first whale shark research trip.

Once we are out of the water, we will head east for a much earned rest and dinner at the hotel.


Days 3 & 4: Mafia Island

After an early breakfast we will head to the west of the island for our second / third whale shark research boat trips. With travel and research combined, this will take approximately 5 hours altogether.

PM: For those who dive, we will conduct 2 dives among the wonderful 'coral mountains' of Chole Bay.


Days 5 & 6: Mafia Island

AM: Double dive on the walls and reef flats outside Chole Bay.

PM: Single dive within Chole Bay.


Days 7 & 8: Mafia Island

AM: Two long mornings dedicated to whale shark research & photography.


Day 9: Return to Zanzibar

We will fly back to Zanzibar (or Dar es Salaam if you prefer) from where you can connect with evening international flights. An additional night in Zanzibar pr Dar es Salaam can be organized at extra cost if you need.



23 Nov - 01 Dec 2019 - from £ 1,990
from US$ 2,450

Plus return flights Zanzibar - Mafia Island £295 / $380
Team includes Whale Shark experts Dr Simon Pierce & Dr Chris Rohner
Ideal for divers and snorkellers

21 - 29 Nov 2020 - from £ 1,990
from US$ 2,450

Plus return flights Zanzibar - Mafia Island £295 / $380
Team includes Whale Shark experts Dr Simon Pierce & Dr Chris Rohner
Ideal for divers and snorkellers

Price per person sharing
The trip begins and ends in Zanzibar, but we can change this to Dar es Salaam for participants where needed.

Single supplement in 2019* £265 / US$298
Divers** add £410 / US$499 (covers 10 dives)

*If you would like to share and we can pair you with someone of the same gender to share with, then you can avoid any single supplement.

Price includes:
- All accommodation
- Local flights (£295 / $380)
- All transfers by land and sea
- Full board on Mafia Island
- Breakfasts in Zanzibar
- 5 whale shark research outings
- Expert leadership from our whale shark team
- Contributions to support ongoing whale shark research on Mafia Island
**10 scuba dives

Price excludes:
- International flights (please ask for a quote)
- Marine Park fees at Mafia Island (currently $23.60 per day)
- Airport departure tax in Zanzibar
- Insurance
- Tips
- Visas
- Alcoholic and soft drinks
- Dive and snorkel equipment rental

Prior experience needed
- Snorkellers need no special experience – you just need to be comfortable
  snorkelling in open water.
- Divers need to be Advanced certified in order to dive beyond Chole Bay. If you
  are not, then you can enroll in an Advanced course during this trip.

Activity Level: Moderate

Standard of Accommodation: Comfortable coastal lodge with white sand beach and lovely views over Chole Bay. Lodge upgrade is available.

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