Life on Mafia Island - First Impressions

Part 1: First impressions, feeling blue...

I had already been in transit about 24 hours, from Amsterdam to Dar es Salaam. Although I love travelling, flying and seeing new places, after two stopovers, broken sleep whilst waiting for connecting flights and mediocre plane food, by this time, I was tired, hungry, and completely over the monotonous process of “check in luggage, empty pockets, walk through scanner, find boarding gate, wait, wait more and then wait even more...”So as I arrived in Julius Nyerere International Airport, Dar es Salaam, standing outside the airport in the sticky, humid air I thought to myself “just one more, one more flight to go” before I could rest my weary body and catch up on 40, no wait 80, actually make that 120 winks of sleep. I felt completely drained.

Trying hard not to nod off (but failing miserably!) in the Domestic terminal, my flight was finally called and I made my way along the hot tarmac, to a surprisingly small plane. Only 7 passengers, hmm, VERY small plane. Oh well, it was only 45 minutes, so I made myself comfortable. The engines started “put, put, put, put, splutter...” then died. Oh dear, let's try again shall we? “put, put, put, splutter, put, put VROOM!” OK! We were good to go!

I love the feeling of take off when flying, detaching yourself from the solid ground to float defyingly in the air (how Physics is a wonderful thing!). Now, I watched the sprawling city of Dar es Salaam fall away, the blue and white squares of the sprawling suburbs, getting smaller and smaller – 'fare thee well to the mainland' I whispered to myself.

As the plane entered the cloudsphere, up in the air I felt my fatigue begin to wane and as the thick cumulus clouds parted to reveal a deep blue expanse of ocean before me, smooth as glass, my tired bones were now tingling with excitement. Long stretches of sandy beach, tiny islands framed by aqua seas and caressed by hypnotic waves cresting then breaking on the surrounding rocky reefs...Wow.

The clouds once again obscured our view of idyllic islands, but soon I was to get my first glimpse of my new island home. The plane, very slowly began its descent and there it was – Mafia Island. When I say that my first impressions of the island made me feel blue, what I mean is that I just can't describe enough, the amazement I felt upon seeing the shimmering waters around Mafia Island. Bright Sky blue, rich Kingfisher blue, deep Prussian blue – my mind was taken back to my prized tin of Derwent coloured pencils I had in primary school – so many shades of blue!

Dotting the picturesque sea scene, were white triangular sails, moving gracefully in the water, my first look at one of the many variations of the African fishing or trading vessels. These, I was later told were called Dhows, a generic term derived from the Arabic language. Dhows come in many forms and with many names, depending on what goods they are carrying or how far they are travelling. Seeing them gliding through Chole Bay, it was like being transported back to the early historic trading days, as of these were the very same vessels of merchant traders (or pirates!) from generations ago, selling spices and cloth and forging a new life in a new place, on a new island.

My reverie was broken as the plane completed the landing (with only a few bumps along the tarmac). Here I was, from the cold and cobbled streets of Amsterdam, now to the coconut lined streets of Mafia Island, my new home.

By Von Sebastian - Assistant Research Officer

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Turtle Hatching On Juani Island

Juani Island is the biggest Island next to Mafia Island. It's was quite the adventure getting,  taking a boat which took about 45min from Utende. We landed on the west-side of the Island which still faces the the bay so we had to march on foot to the other side of Juani to get to the side which faces the Indian Ocean.

After half an hour of trekking through the dense forest of Juani Island, we reached the beach and the side where the turtles hatched. During our first experience of hatching turtles we saw the shortcut species of Hawksbill turtles. After a short introduction about the turtle population on Mafia-Island, our tour guide and his colleagues started to dig the hatched turtles out of the nest. After orientating they started crawling down the beach which definitely took its time because Hawksbill turtles are rather weak and slow when they hatch.

After about 20 minutes the first ones finally reached the water. Although there was very little swell (if any at all), it was pretty hard for them to reach deeper water because they often got thrown back on the beach by the smallest of ripples. After reaching a depth of half a metre they were able to swim into the ocean. Now we were able to take pictures of them and swim around them. On this day we might have seen around 10 turtles which managed to get into the ocean. Unfortunately the guides dug around 10 more dead eggs out of the nest which did not survive.

On our second trip to Juani Island we landed on a different spot which was quicker to reach with our boat. After a longer walk over Juani we came to a different beach on the east-side were the guides located a nest, this time Green turtles! These were way stronger and quicker than the Hawksbills and this made watching them more interesting as they sped towards the beach. Even though the distance to the ocean might have been the same, the Green turtle hatchlings reached the water in less than 5 minutes.

At first we were afraid that the strong waves hitting the beach might be a big problem for the turtles. Fortunately it wasn’t. The turtles were strong and fast enough to reach deeper water in seconds. Moreover they were really strong and fast swimmers which made it hard to follow them without fins. In about 20 minutes we’ve seen around 30-40 green turtles running down the beach and reaching the sea. All in all it was very interesting to see the difference between the two species. Both trips were very cool but personally I definitely preferred the second one with the Green turtles over the Hawksbills because it was quite fun to watch these tiny little Green turtles running over the beach.

By Vincent Struppler - Research Assistant

Photo's by Von Sebastian - Assistant Research Officer

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Mdola Forest Adventure

Mdola forest is one of the last remaining coral forests, stretching the East coast of Mafia for around 30km. Protected to an extent by the Mafia Marine Park, the forest is kept relatively undisturbed, and, as we as the terrestrial research team were about to discover, almost impenetrable. When we were told about the forest and the many wonders it contained: a sparkling blue lagoon with endemic fish species, large troops of Sykes monkeys in the trees, bat caves and a mysterious giant frog hidden in the depths… we were determined to see it for ourselves!

Attempt 1 : Admittedly a little naive, and armed with vague directions, snorkels, and little else, we set off on the dirt roads north on piki pikis (motorbikes) to find the forest, imagining such luxuries as signs, paths, and maybe even a visitor centre full of cakes and ice cream…needless to say, we were sadly mistaken. The hilariously disastrous day included us being directed to what can only be described as a prison-village full of friendly convicts and their families, walking miles to find the village chief who would take us into the forest, and eventually finding what everyone told us was the sparking lagoon but was in fact a shallow muddy lake where the farmers watered their cows. And then the heavens opened. Cue the most difficult, muddy, and wet 3 or 4 hours of our lives as we struggled home on our motorbikes.

Some would be put off by this series of small disasters, but not the Frontier Terrestrial team! Home and dry, we planned our next visit with some significant changes – the main ones being a Landrover, better directions, and a sunny day!

Attempt 2: We had a vehicle, supplies, and a friendly Swahili speaker at the wheel. We were ready. And we made it! It might have taken getting lost a few times, asking one person for directions, who hopped in and took us to another person, who hopped in and took us to the village, where 3 more people hopped in (seeing a pattern?) and finally took us to the guide…. But we made it!

All of our new friends came into the beautiful, dense forest with us as we hiked to the lagoon, which was just as sparkling and paradise-like as promised! After a much needed snorkel in the cool waters, we went to find the bat cave – seemingly empty, until we rounded a corner into a confined space between a couple of boulders.

A rustling and some fast moving shadows alerted us to their presence, out came the cameras. The flash sowed us hundreds of eyes in the recesses of the cave, although it seemed like thousands when we realized we were standing right in their flight path, blocking the only exit. Time to go! There followed a quick and unsuccessful search for the elusive giant frog (yet to be found), and a monkey sighting or two before we returned home, successful at last!        

By Cori Bailey - Terrestrial Research Officer

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Goat More Meat? 

I never expected to bring in my 24th birthday on a tropical Island, but yet here I found myself trying to work out how best to celebrate another year survived! The answer which seems obvious now was a beach barbecue. So after a morning trip to Killondoni, the biggest city on the island, to collect essential supplies like a block of ice that just about fits under our feet into the tuk tuk home, myself and the dive officer (Luke Reynolds) embarked on an adventure to Chole island with one objective: to find a goat.

Upon our arrival on the island by ferry from the beach near camp, we were met by our friend Michael who runs a local gift shop and who took us to our first goat farmer. Whilst her goat was fat it was also very small so after some negotiation we realised this wasn’t going to work and went on to find another farmer. This turned into more of an ordeal than initially planned involving several people. We spotted some goats so walked to a workplace nearby then finally to the nearest house in an attempt to find the farmer himself. His goat was perfect and was appropriately sized to feed all 8 of us so a price was agreed for the whole goat 70,000 TSH (£20). We then walked our new purchase to the butcher who had it prepared for us and we were ready to catch the next ferry home in all of about 15 minutes.

After arriving home, the meat was given a quick clean and then put in containers to marinade in piri-piri rub bought from home, all of this including charcoal, a football and speakers were piled into a tuk tuk and driven to a beach near a lodge managed by a friend under an increasingly gloomy looking sky.

After kicking a ball around for 15 minutes we decided given how much meat we had it was cooking time, a pit was dug filled with charcoal and a fire started. Shortly after this the heavens opened we decided to give it fifteen minutes and see if it would blow over. This plan was abandoned after five minutes as all the rain was so heavy it was difficult to see, and we beat a hasty retreat to the nearby lodge (declining the offer of sheltering with the fishermen). Another fire was made under shelter this time and the entire goat was cooked over the course of six hours, by the end there was still a little bit of goat left which no-one could finish! All in all, a birthday to remember and an experience I definitely wouldn’t have had without being on Mafia Island in Tanzania.

By Tom Bruce - Terrestrial Research Officer

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Back to Basics

So you might be wondering what it’s like to live on a remote, tropical island in the Indian Ocean. Well, camp life is basic. And by basic I mean no electricity, no running water and… no WiFi! But it’s all part of the experience – a different way of life where you’re not constantly in a rush to get somewhere or connected to everyone and everything through a portable device.

The great thing about living in Utende, Mafia Island, is that you not only get to dive head first into the turquoise sea with stunning coral reefs, but also into the local culture. Here it is easy to get to know the locals, who are extremely friendly and more than happy to teach you Swahili, the local language. 
Anyway, back to camp life: How do we survive without all the things we have become so accustomed to back home? Well, here’s a sneak peek into how we do things around here. First things first – electricity. Light bulbs? No. Here we use torches to see what we’re doing in the dark. However, we are lucky to have some help from Mother Nature to navigate our way through camp at night, as the stars lights up the night sky here like no other place on Earth. Fire also eliminates the need for electricity, and serves multiple purposes, whether it be for cooking all of our meals or gathering around a beach fire after sunset. 
And what about water? Water is sourced from a tap in the village, filled into buckets and carried back to camp to. You are bound to bump into locals also filling up their personal water buckets at the tap, which makes for a great opportunity to practice your Swahili. The level of conversation will of course depend on your skills… I won’t go further into details about my conversation topics! The water is used for drinking, showering, washing up and laundry. Showering is done out of a bucket. Yes, it’s possible, and it might surprise you how simple it is and how little water you actually need to get clean! Washing clothes, on the other hand, is a different story. Frontier camp life will definitely make you appreciate the simplicity of throwing all your dirty laundry into a machine that cleans it for you. I must admit, washing clothes by hand was a new experience for me, and frankly I’m not sure if they turned out any cleaner than when I started. But hey, at least they smell clean! As for toilets… I’ll let you work that one out yourself when you get here.
By Simon Rawe - Research Assistant

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An Insight Into The Future

My time on Mafia Island has been different but eye opening. Not many people are given the opportunity to travel to the middle of nowhere with no electricity or sit down toilets to participate in important marine conservation on beautiful coral reefs.

I learnt about it during a college assembly informing students of various activities to take part in during a gap year. I heard the words ‘marine conservation’ and leapt into action, soon getting a temporary job in order to acquire the appropriate funds for my upcoming travels.

When I arrived, I was greeted with heat and humidity like I’ve never experienced before (it would take me a while to get used to it!) and the smiling faces of the team I would be spending the next 6 weeks with. As a budding marine biologist, I was ever eager to get into the water as quickly and frequently as possible, but before any of that, I had to learn how to SCUBA dive! Taking my first breaths underwater was odd, but strangely refreshing. Being completely enveloped by water from all angles but still being capable of breathing certainly unsettled me, but I quickly calmed down and reminded myself that this was my dream and it was slowly coming true! The confined dives went smoothly and time passed quickly, before I knew it, it was time for the open water dives!

The dive sites that were chosen were Coral Garden and Milimani South. We arrived on site, anchored, plunged in and descended to 12 metres. We landed on the bottom and I took a moment to look around and take in my surroundings. I was hit with a myriad of colours and structures that I had only seen from T.V. I was awestruck: fish of all shapes, sizes, and colours surrounded me and swam everywhere around me. We began to swim and explore the jungle of coral and all it had to offer and just as quickly as we started, we were finishing the dive and returning to the surface to head back to solid land. Three dives later I qualified as an Open Water Diver, and moved onto Advanced Open Water training which involved five specialty dives. The dives I chose to do were: Deep Dive, Navigation, Peak Performance Buoyancy, Fish Identification and Boat Diving. Of all of these, deep diving was my favourite. We descended to 26 metres and immediately felt a strong current, turning our deep dive into a drift dive. We calmly drifted along the bottom and were lucky enough to see a massive 2.5 metre long Honeycomb Moray Eel, appearing out of the darkness, unfazed by the group of humans watching it. After getting a few shots, the moray eel swam off and left us in a state of amazement. After this deep drift dive, I completed my Advanced Open Water. It was now time for science and to learn more about the coral reef ecosystem and how to conduct the Frontier marine research surveys.

After some very interesting marine lectures about the fish, coral reefs and benthic invertebrates of the local area, I got stuck into assisting with the surveys, which included swimming along 100 m of a laid out tap measure and recording what we saw within 3 transects which were 20 metres long each (0-20 m, 30-50 m and 60-80 m). I was assigned the task of recording “Territorial Fish” which includes Sweetlips, Groupers, Triggerfish, Spinecheeks, Rays, Angelfish, Butterflyfish and Damselfish. Each site we surveyed had a variety of fish life, which made each dive unique and have a sense of wonder surrounding it. I know that for me this is just the tip of the iceberg and that there is so much more in store for me in the marine science world. Although it saddens me to leave this beautiful landscape of Mafia Island and its surrounding coral reefs behind, my stay here has given me a taste of the future and a new appetite that needs to be satiated – an appetite for adventure and exploration!

By Ben Mason - Research Assistant (Marine)

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