A Mafia Line Up

Here are some images from our most recent Ocean Giants expedition: Whale Shark Research, Coral Reefs & Photography to Mafia Island in Tanzania; taken by trip hosts Dr Simon Pierce, co-Founder of the Marine Megafauna Foundation; Dr Chris Rohner, Principal Scientist from the same; and Aqua-Firma Director, Ralph Pannell.  To enlarge them, just click on any image and you will be able to scroll through.

We enjoyed whale shark encounters every day over shallow sand banks which lie off the west coast of the island. Not only does the white sand spotted with sea stars make for a lovely backdrop for photography, the shallow waters also make it easy to take the spot pattern photograph needed to identify a whale shark.

Here is the kind of image we need to identify an individual shark, which software on the online database www.whaleshark.org can use to determine if a whale shark has been seen before; or if it is a first. Since spots patterns vary from left side to right side, identification is based on left side spot patterns.

Our 9-day trip here funded research across November and December, with the largest daily aggregation reaching 50 identified sharks. New sightings this year has brought the total number of sharks identified at Mafia to 207.
Somewhat unique to Mafia Island, is that many whale sharks remain here year-round. This was confirmed by applying radio transmitters to a sample of sharks and installing radio trackers on the seabed to monitor when sharks swam close by.  Each shark was given a different radio signature so that each could be individually identified.

So why don't we see whale sharks at Mafia Island all year round? Well, the sharks here will feed at whatever depth in the water column their prey food happens to be. It's not until winds from the north create upwellings bringing food to the surface that we can spot them at the surface. This can take place anytime from September to early January, but the peak timing is pretty much when we intend to be there in 2019 and 2020 which is latter November / early December.

Whilst whale sharks are a primary purpose for visiting Mafia Island, there is a lot more reason to be there besides. The coral reefs and fish life are the most healthy and diverse in Tanzania. It is a lovely place to snorkel and dive, with many species of colourful nudibranchs, frogfish, leaf fish, schools of barracuda, turtles and lots more. Underwater photography opportunities are fantastic.

Above water, Mafia and its surrounding smaller islands are enchanting. It is a classic tropical island paradise with clear blue waters; sailing dhows out at sea; lush smallholdings; coastal palms and baobab trees; and extremely friendly people that we work amongst and meet as when we wander amongst villages. As the sun sets and the moon appears in the sky above, huge Flying Foxes fill the skies in their thousands.

Another great asset to this holiday is that it includes a short stay in Zanzibar at the beginning - something we can readily extend before or after the trip if you wish. And then there's the epic flight we take from Zanzibar to Mafia Island. We charter small prop plane for this, which takes us first over the reefs and islands off Zanzibar; then along the sand fringed coastline of central Tanzania; before heading out across a scattering of small islands which lead into ever clearer waters until we reach Mafia. As we approach, all eyes are 'skinned', looking beneath us for whale sharks. We often see them as we fly in.

You can join our inspiring and friendly team of whale shark researchers and photographers 23rd Nov - 1st Dec, 2019 or 21st - 29th Nov, 2020.


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  • Seahorse-Mafia-Island-muck-diving-scuba-dive-underwater-photography-holiday-Aqua-Firma-Ralph-Pannell-Tanzania.jpg
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  • Yellow-boxfish-Mafia-Island-muck-diving-Tanzania-scuba-dive-travel-holiday-chole-bay-underwater-photography-Ralph-Pannell.jpg
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