By Adam Cruise

Images by Láura-Jéan Edeling and Marco Balenovic

Adam Cruise relates his diving adventures in Mafia where he experienced the best diving East Africa has to offer.

“If you think Zanzibar is good, you should try Mafia.” These were the words of a renowned underwater wildlife filmmaker. Mafia? This is not a name typical of East African tropical islands. Zanzibar, Lamu, Medjumbe and Pemba all sounded right. This name, however, brought to mind darkened back rooms behind spaghetti restaurants in downtown Philly or New York. So, I asked the filmmaker to repeat the name. It was Mafia. The name’s origin is sketchy. One theory claims the name is derived from the Arabic word morfiyeh, meaning “group” which could also be construed as “archipelago”. This is apt since Mafia is not one, but a series of interconnected islands. The Sultanates of Zanzibar used the archipelago as an important economic centre for hundreds of years, spring-boarding trade with the wealthy African kingdoms to the east and south east.

Much later, the German colonialists preferred Mafia as the principal port for their vast East African colony because a deep channel runs between the main island and the smaller Chole Island which is perfect for their heavily-laden merchant and warships. The old German colonial headquarters are still visible, albeit as ruins among the lianas of giant mangroves that now groan under the weight of fruit bats.

The deep channel was the objective of the filmmaker’s discourse. He claimed that with its daily tidal wash, the channel offers the best diving in East Africa. The mineral- and plankton-replenished tidal wash attracts plankton feeders like whale sharks as well as game fish and their adjutant predators such as reef sharks and huge brindle and potato bass. Turtles too, he chimed, are a-plentiful.

It was a bold statement. Better than Seychelles, Madagascar or Maldives? I reckoned, though, as an underwater wildlife filmmaker, he ought to know. Still, I had to see for myself. Just weeks after the conversation, I boarded a flight bound for Dar es Salaam. From there, I jumped on a light aircraft and flew among floating, puffy clouds above a glass-smooth sea for a couple of hours before touching down on the dusty strip on  the westward side of the main island. The pilot expertly dodged grazing cattle on the verges. After a bouncy drive to Chole Bay on the eastern side, I was accommodated in a luxuriously middle-eastern styled lodge, which was one of a clutch of lodges on the island, with quaint chalets set among the tall palms that swayed gently in the tropical evening breeze. With its daily tidal wash, the channel offers the best diving in East Africa. I came to dive and shortly I was rolling backwards over the gunwale of a traditional dhow, commissioned and built by the latest generation of boat builders on the island. The visibility in the channel is excellent and the constant replenishing of minerals ensures a healthier-than-normal bed of hard corals. It’s hard to describe this underwater scene without using superlatives. Indeed, pick any half dozen and it will describe the scuba diving in Mafia to a tee. All I can say is that the filmmaker was not wrong. The Tanzanian government, with the help of WWF, has recognised its potential as a unique marine environment and declared most of the bay a nature sanctuary. Unlike many other underwater habitats in East Africa that are facing immense environmental pressure, Mafia remains a shining beacon of how it ought to be.

The short & sweet

Best time to go: October to March is the best time to go.
Ave. viz: 25m.
Ave. water temp: 27°C.
Common critters: Turtles, nudibranchs, cleaner shrimp, napoleon wrasses, potato bass, rays, moray eels and various other tropical fishes.
Diving feature: The beautiful wall dives and the romance of diving off a dhow are special to Mafia Island.
Other things to do: Snorkelling, whale shark snorkelling trips, whale watching, tours to the smaller islands and ruins, and fishing.