Whale sharks are the largest known fish species in the sea. They are easily identified by their sheer magnitude (the largest is reported to be 41.5 feet long!), beautiful white spots on their heads and backs, and their large gaping mouths.
Although the word shark immediately strikes fear into most people, these massive creatures only feed on plankton, krill, and small fish and are surprisingly docile towards humans. Scuba divers often swim alongside them, and even play with the babies, but it is still advisable to not touch them and to stay away from their powerful tails.
Warm, tropical water is where whale sharks call home and divers travel from all over the world in order to catch a glimpse of one in Thailand, South Africa, or the Caribbean. When I moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I had no idea that I was living 40 km away from one of the world’s most frequented whale shark expressways – Mafia Island.
I visited Mafia Island at the end of December. I had not heard of the island a few weeks before I went, and had no idea what to expect when I arrived. Compared to famous Zanzibar to the north, Mafia is virtually unheard of. While there, I participated in several activities, including snorkeling, dhow (African boats) rides, scuba diving, exploring ancient ruins, visiting the local villages, and fishing. These are all awesome ways to spend time at Mafia, but my favorite, and most under-anticipated, adventure was the whale shark trip.
A small group of us, armed with snorkels and fins, boarded a wooden fishing boat under the supervision of the self-proclaimed “Whale Shark King” and started making our way out into the slightly choppy waters. After about an hour of cruising around and enjoying the sunshine, the first whale shark made it’s debut. Our boat sped up to get ahead, turned left to cut him off, and all the passengers were then rushed off the boat, nearly landing on top of the whale shark. It was slightly scary, yet completely exhilarating, to be nearly within arms reach of the largest fish in the ocean.
This same strategy was carried out six or seven more times and I got up close and personal with more whale sharks in a day than most people see their entire lives. The trip was arranged through my lodging – Mafia Island Beach Bungalows – and cost $40 for water, snacks, and around a five hour trip. The best time of the year to go for optimal whale shark viewing is November-January.
Would you go for the whale shark adventures in Mafia Island? Where else have you seen sharks?