Some compare Mafia Island Marine Park to the Great Barrier Reef, others boast its underwater world to be even better. The reefs here are among the healthiest in the Indian Ocean. For snorkelers, the park shows its best in Chole Bay, which we were happy to explore.

The horseshoe-shaped Chole Bay extends over 50 square kilometers, to the maximum depth of 28 meters. Shallow reefs are perfect for snorkeling and offer a matchless variety of marine life from soft to hard corals and schools of colorful fish. The best part is that you are going to have all those stunning underwater sceneries exclusively to yourself.

Diversity in Mafia Island Marine Park is among the highest in the Indian Ocean and corals are beautifully bright. While the majority of corals suffered deadly from the “El Nino” in 1998, the reefs of Chole Bay remained mainly intact. The savior was the fresh ocean water that flows into the bay through Kinasi Pass at every flood tide.

Snorkeling in Chole Wall, Mafia Island Marine Park, Tanzania

Sailing With a Traditional Dhow Through Chole Bay

The first surprise awaited us in the knee-high water: a wooden, traditional Swahili fishing boat called a dhow. We were expecting a modern motorboat, but this dhow turned out to be a way more atmospheric solution. Off we sailed with happy grins, passing a few local boats transporting people and drinking water to the island of Jibondo.

Lushly vegetated shores of Chole Island were soon left behind. This tiny island in the shadow of Mafia actually became the capital of the whole archipelago after cannibalistic Madagascans attacked Mafia in the 19th century. Several overgrown ruins just off the shore await to be explored – and would deserve a day of their own. Just after Chole rises the island of Juani, one of the largest in the archipelago. The lagoon between Chole and Juani is so shallow that you can walk between the islets at low tide.

Snorkeling Inside the Chole Bay

After taking in the scenery for about 30 minutes, we were ready to anchor beside beautiful rock formations that I believe were called Kinasi Pass Islets. These coral islets are also home to several birds, like fish eagles, little egrets, and ibis. There are many stunning “bommies” or coral outcrops, which are separated by sand or occasional sea-grass.

The fun began immediately after plunging into the azure waters of Chole Bay. Scorpionfish was the first to greet us, but soon after we were enveloped in clouds of tiny fish. In the next hour or so, we adored parrotfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, and Moorish idol – just to classify a few from the supposed 460 species inside the boundaries of the Mafia Island Marine Park.

Fish and corals came in different shapes, sizes, and colors. I certainly wish that we’d had a camera with us! Fragile sea fans and gold-hued fire corals emerged from the mosaic of bright colors. Blue-tipped staghorn, a gorgeous violet branching coral, was also present in great numbers. There are supposed to lie more than 50 identified species of coral, including extinct forms, such as tabulate coral. If you are lucky, you might also spot some really weird creatures like unicornfish, giant Napoleonfish or Spanish Dancer. Also five species of marine turtles roam around the turquoise waters. If you’re visiting Mafia between June and September, be sure to check out the great hatching at Juani Island!

After eventually getting a bit tired and chilly, we sailed to our last location while enjoying delicious tuna sandwiches on board. It might have been Chole Wall, but I’m not quite sure about it. The currents were stronger, which made the experience a bit different, and the corals were slightly deeper. Drifting above a huge table and brain corals felt serene anyway. At the end, we encountered a large area full of dead corals. Our guide said that at this particular spot the corals were too soft and weak to resist the temperature rise. Fortunately, the reefs here are recovering well.

Year-Round Snorkeling and Diving Destination

Whereas underwater activities are seasonal in Zanzibar, Pemba and other Indian Ocean destinations, the islands around Chole Bay protect the waters from the monsoon winds and make snorkeling and diving on Mafia enjoyable throughout the year. Visibility is great, though a bit tide-dependent. The best timing for snorkeling is when the tide is at its lowest, as with the outgoing tide the water becomes mixed.

There are some pretty incredible diving sites inside Chole Bay, such as sloping reefs, walls, small caves and caverns, drift, and coral gardens. Wall diving outside the bay gives an opportunity to see bigger creatures, like rays and reef sharks. Between October and March, it’s possible to swim with the whale sharks at the other side of Mafia island, just in front of Butiama Beach. We did that in Mexico, and can’t recommend the experience highly enough!

Mafia Island Marine Park is said to offer the best snorkeling and diving in Tanzania. It’s the first marine park in Tanzania, founded in 1995 and supported by WWF. At whopping 822 square kilometers, Mafia Island Marine Park is also the biggest marine park in the Indian Ocean. In addition to Chole Bay, the park includes the southern part of Mafia Island along with some of the northeastern areas, and the islands of Chole, Juani, and Jibondo. Mafia Island Marine Park remains still as a well-guarded secret among diving enthusiasts, meaning just a handful of tourists and uncrowded sites. There’s also scientific proof that the coral gardens of Chole Bay have the best hard corals in the whole East African coast.

*Disclaimer: Our snorkeling trip in Mafia Island Marine Park and Chole Bay was hosted by Butiama Beach, but all the opinions remain entirely our own.

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Tanzania's Mafia Island offers world-class snorkeling and diving. Diversity and reefs are among the best in the Indian Ocean. #Tanzania #MafiaIsland #snorkeling

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