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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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Adventure Travel

May 19, 2017

Finding Barefoot Paradise on Mafia Island – Part 1

Despite its ominous name, this virtually unknown island has been discovered as a utopia for anyone willing to make the journey—a truly ‘off the beaten track’ experience and a scuba diver’s dream.

WRITTEN BY

Sarah Kingdom

Dar es Salaam’s airport is not exciting at the best of times, but at 4:30 in the morning, once we had passed through immigration and been ejected into the airport concourse,  the only signs of life were a lady sweeping and emptying rubbish bins. It felt like we had arrived in a post-apocalyptic world. The handful of shops were all closed and we had to spend an hour or so sitting on the stairs outside the airport, waiting for the only “restaurant” to open its doors, until it was time to check in for our short flight to Mafia. ‘James from the UK’ summed up The Flamingo Restaurant pretty accurately on Trip Advisor when he wrote: “being clean and having many plug sockets are really the only two positives to this pretty dire airport restaurant”, which, though clearly not a great review, is decidedly better than ‘Lampan from Austria’ who had this to say:

Looking for hell on earth? That’s as close as you can get”.

We, however, knew this would be our last time ‘roughing it’ before we got to the laid back luxury of the island—not even having to make our ‘breakfast snack’ last for four hours could dampen our spirits.

Our seemingly endless wait over, we eventually boarded our flight for the short hop to the Mafia. Most of the other passengers on our flight were headed further down the coast to the natural gas fields of Songo Songo and so only four of us got off when we touched down on the island.

We were collected and driven the 14km stretch of tar that represents the only sealed road on the island and to the ‘Mafia Island Marine Park’ gates, where we signed in and paid for our permits. This was our last taste of ‘officialdom’; shortly we would abandon our shoes and our cares, barely thinking of civilisation again until it was time to leave.

Goodbye civilisation. Photo by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

Mafia Island

Contrary to any other thoughts that might come to mind, Mafia Island has nothing to do with the Mafiaosi; the Mafia Archipelago most likely got its name from the Arabic word ‘morfiyeh’ meaning ‘archipelago’, or possibly from the Ki-Swahili ‘mahali pa afya’, meaning ‘healthy dwelling place’. In fact, in precolonial times the island was known to the Portuguese and British as Monfia, and it was only after Germany took control of the island in 1890 that the spelling changed to Mafia. The archipelago lies just south of the Equator and is made up of a group of islands, atolls and tidal sandbars, scattered in the Indian Ocean off the coast of the Rufiji Delta in Tanzania. The largest of these islands is Mafia Island itself, which is approximately 50km long, 15km across and surrounded by a barrier reef teeming with marine life.

This is a virtually unknown destination, a jewel in in the Indian Ocean.

Picture perfect beaches and incredibly diverse marine life make it a divers’ paradise. With a total population of about 40,000 and annual tourist numbers in the region of 4,000, the island is one of the safest and quietest places in the Indian Ocean, virtually devoid of crime and free from the crowds and hustlers that can ruin a holiday in paradise.

Yes, looks like paradise to us. Photo courtesy of Mafia Island Diving

Mafia is a remnant of the old Swahili coast. Very little is known about its early history, but it is believed to have been inhabited for a millennia. The first settlers are thought to have crossed from the mainland to the islands in the 3rd and 4th century. The Mafia archipelago is home to antiquities and ruins ranging from a barrel-vaulted mosque built in the 15th century to a number of well-preserved buildings of the latter half of the 18th century. Relatively recently, a discovery has been made of what appears to be a ‘sunken city’ off the coast. Some believe this could be the remains of a Portuguese fort that was washed away by the sea some time in the mid 1800s. A more tantalisingly hypothesis? One researcher suggests it could possibly be the ruins of the lost ancient city of Rhapta, dating back to pre 50AD. Although unfortunately, this is thought by most to be extremely unlikely.

From the sunbathers to the restless, what to do on Mafia Island:

Mafia has something for everybody. There is plenty to do, but if you want to lie on a beach and ‘do nothing’, you can. In fact, we met a French honeymoon couple doing just that! The newlyweds appeared to spend their time basking in the sun, with the occasional break to head out on a sunset cruise, an ‘introduction to scuba diving’ course or the occasional pampering massage.

Understandable why some people might want to let themselves be pampered while taking in this view. Photo courtesy of Pole Pole, Mafia Island

My husband, unlike the French honeymooners, is ‘allergic’ to lazing on the beach; sitting ‘aimlessly’ on the sand makes him restless, fidgety and, in general, a pain to be around. Fortunately, we had no time at all to test his patience levels. Between boat trips, snorkelling, scuba diving, watching baby turtles hatch, a walking tour of a nearby island, long beach walks and more, we were kept very active. Don’t get me wrong, Mafia is the perfect place to relax and unwind. In fact, the ‘beach sitting allergic’ husband rapidly got into the habit of post breakfast naps, post lunch naps and even some pre dinner naps, while I occupied myself with some early morning beach runs and yoga.

Almost half the coastline of Mafia, about 822km², was gazetted as the first marine park in Tanzania by the Government in 1995. The Mafia Archipelago and the Rufiji Delta form one of the most interesting and diverse marine ecosystems and coral reefs in the world. Both the coastal and marine environments are protected by the presence of this Marine Park. The area has a high biodiversity and is considered an important habitat for endangered species like the dugong and a variety of turtle species. The immensely rich marine life makes for some of the finest snorkelling and diving sites in the Indian Ocean and beds of seagrass and the open waters around the islands support some of the world’s most endangered marine life.

To dive deeper into Sarah’s scuba adventures and all her tips, stay tuned for Part 2 coming next week!

We were lucky to stay in three beautiful places while on Mafia Island and each was unique and special in its own way:

Where to stay

Pole Pole is an exclusive seven bungalow eco-lodge, located inside the Marine Park, where we were pampered by the lovely Paola. Great cuisine, unpretentious and laid-back atmosphere, and warm but discrete hospitality.

Shamba Kilole Lodge is a 6 room eco lodge, on a five hectare plot inside the Marine Park, owned and operated by Marco and Francesca. Marco is known as the island’s most knowledgeable and passionate dive master.

Butiama Beach is probably the best value for money on Mafia. Owned and operated by the indomitable Maura and her husband, Butiama is the perfect place for families—with a seemingly endless expanse of pristine white beach just footsteps from your room.

Mafia Island Diving is run by the highly organised Danielle and multilingual dive master David, and is one of the longest standing dive operators on the Island. They offer scuba certification and both water based and land based activities. /

Feature image by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

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How-To

Jun 18, 2019

Five Ways to Improve Your Underwater Photography

Fly, float and roll with these tips to capture your sublime subjects underwater.

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WRITTEN BY

Prathibha Easwaran

Most of us spend too much time in our day worrying about things in our life that are happening on land. Then there are those of us whose imagination trails off to what lies beneath the vast blue extents we humans refer to as ‘water bodies’. When nearly seventy percent of the earth is covered with water, it’s hard to ignore the world beneath that could be explored. When peering out over a large body of water, whether it be the ocean, a sea, a lake or a river, one can not really comprehend what might lie beneath the waves. All faiths that have ever come upon the earth have considered water as holy and account for its healing characteristics. Many have taken inspiration from its fluidity. For those of us passionate about underwater photography, we venture below to capture a glimpse of a moment within this alien world. With experience, we learn the techniques to return to land with the snapshot of a lifetime.

“Remaining steady might seem a laughable.”

The way life thrives underwater, with the slow dances of kelp, the tickling in your ears by fish crunching on coral, the distant call of a whale, all in the sublime silence borne by the pressure of the water, is quite the contrast to the world we live on land. The land is engulfed with loud motors, machines and human chatter. On the contrary, the water is home to peaceful silence which brings us divers a calming sensation of awe and wonder.

Of course, it is sad to note that most of our trash is directed to large water bodies, polluting what’s left of Earth’s beauty. Turtles with straws stuck in their nostrils and whales swallowing hundreds of plastic cups, nets, bottles and much more are not new to us, yet we let this atrocity continue as we can’t hear the cries of the beings underwater.

“You never know when a stone you’ve been staring at was actually a local resident in camouflage!”

With advanced technology so readily available, almost every vacationer brings along their trusty action cam. Although available in many models, the most popular by far is the GoPro. After all, there’s no better way to relive a memory than via a video or picture. Whether you are working with a GoPro or another brand, the following tips can help you make the most out of your undersea memories.

1. Be Steady

With a current against your elbow, and breathing with your mouth closed, remaining “steady” might seem a laughable suggestion! However, it is possible, this skill just takes time and practice to hone. No matter how well an action cam is designed to stabilize, it always helps to consciously be graceful and steady with your movements.

When shooting video, make a game out of it, try to feel the flow and movement of the water. Feel your pulse synch with the current.

When shooting photography focus on slowly exhaling, whilst keeping an eye on the viewfinder and subject of your shot.

You might consider it to be a smart idea to invest in a camera mount for action cams. Something that you attach to your head or chest, but the latter don’t provide much control over what one captures. Instead, especially for beginners, consider the wrist mount. If you’re comfortable holding it with your fingers, then that’s an option too, but be sure to attach it to a water-float. We don’t want memories forever lost down in the depths of the ocean.

2. Roll… Continuously. 

Keep that camera on. This is a good tip for a beginner cinematographer. Try to perfect your movements, but keep capturing marine life as you do it. You never know when a stone you’ve been staring at was actually a local resident in camouflage! Of course, when using this strategy, be prepared with an extra battery.

If you’re on a holiday and need extra batteries, worry not, almost every dive shop and local diving community has camera outlets. Even our phones can double as underwater cameras if dressed in the appropriate housing. Just make sure that you test your gear in a controlled environment before taking it into large areas of water.

3. Fly and Float

If you’ve ever gone SCUBA diving before, I’m sure you understand the weightlessness one feels whilst underwater. Use this to your advantage and drift around. Whilst diving, alternate distances between yourself and your subject, switch up the perspectives. Shoot through plants, corals and rock structures, just make sure you don’t drift too far away from your dive buddy.

If in a pool, practice by trying to shoot midway through the surface of the water with the help of a dome. Alternatively, shoot from the floor, use water toys, or even your buddy’s legs. The number of perspectives you can capture is endless! Move around and try to frame around your subject in a way that seems aesthetically appealing to you.

4. Lighting

Lighting is hard enough to perfect on land, let alone underwater, but practice can improve your results over time. Good visibility and the sun are your best friends while shooting underwater. According to the Tyndall effect, with its gorgeous shimmers, water bends light to create different shapes and patterns, teasing the lens. If you run out of daylight, or go on a night dive, the next option is to carry a waterproof light during your shoot.

5. What to shoot?

The ocean is so vast, that it’s not unusual to be caught by the beauty of a shot that has nothing but just blue within it. Often such a shot is quite breathtaking, with the sunlight streaking into the abyss, the underbelly of the water shimmering down onto the sea bed. The lack of a subject is substituted by the subject instead being the beauty within the frame. Usually, whilst in the ocean, the major subjects are divers, boats and aquatic flora-fauna. Observe the behavior of beings and try to capture their presence by framing their movements.

In a pool, the best way to avoid empty shots is to be prepared with props, a friend or both. Try creating a story with your shots. Focus on the different elements and use any light to your advantage.

Everything underwater is slow, but if you stay in control of your own movements, this slow motion can be translated into graceful content.

Ready to take the extra step? Edit your pictures and videos.

First of all, understand that upon descending into the water, a loss of colour is inevitable. Reds turn to browns for example. Fortunately, there are solutions, such as shooting with a red filter. If not, one may also choose to add the same effect in post-production when you’re back in front of your computer.

Sound mixing can really enhance the cinematics of your footage. The sounds captured from beneath the ocean by divers is usually the sound of their breathing, motors of boats, a distant call of a sea creature and maybe the crunching of corals by fish. Consider adding these sounds in small doses, with careful volumes to the edit for full effect.

Every score has the goal of enhancing the experience of your audience. Dulled out tones, muffled sounds and slow music usually achieves the purpose. You might also add informative voice overs if you’d like to share the thoughts you had during a dive.

There are many methods to optimize your underwater memories, and those above are just a few for beginners to get their feet wet. Something new is learnt on every dive, so get out there, practice and experience those magical undersea moments.

 

Introducing The Outdoor Voyage

Whilst you’re here, given you believe in our mission, we would love to introduce you to The Outdoor Voyage – our booking platform and online marketplace which only lists good operators, who care for sustainability, the environment and immersive, authentic experiences. All listed prices are agreed directly with the operator, and we promise that 86% of any money spent ends up supporting the local community that you’re visiting. Click the image below to find out more.

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