Take part in this whale shark conservation internship project on the stunning Mafia Island in Tanzania.
Mafia Island really is a traveller's dream, with its white sandy beaches and sparkling waters, and this whale shark internship offers volunteers the once in a lifetime opportunity to swim with whale sharks in their natural habitat, as well as gain valuable skills in both marine conservation and the tourism industry.
Whale sharks are the misunderstood gentle giants of the deep, and are a vital component of the marine ecosystem, as the presence of whale sharks in an area reflects the overall health of our oceans. Sadly, however, they face many threats for which human activity is primarily responsible. As the largest fish in the world, whale sharks are hugely profitable to international markets for their meat, fins, and oil. They are also often involved in fatal boat collisions due to irresponsible whale shark tourism, or accidentally caught by fisherman targeting other fish.
To help combat this, you will lead whale shark excursions and show tourists how to view these magnificent creatures in the most responsible way. You will also collect valuable data to contribute to the Global Spot Pattern Identification Project, as well as take part in beach cleans to help keep the beaches and waters around Mafia Island free from plastic pollution.
This project provides a unique opportunity to interact with whale sharks whilst gaining valuable skills and experience in both marine conservation and the responsible tourism industry. During the project, you will get the opportunity to take part in the following, with all whale shark excursions coordinated by trained professionals.
You can join this project for 2 to 12 weeks, and we recommend a minimum of 3 weeks to ensure you have the best opportunity to see whale sharks and get involved in a variety of activities. Below is an example of a 3-week itinerary, but please be aware itineraries are subject to change.
To secure a place on this project a deposit of $245 is required at the time of booking, with the remaining balance due any time up to 60 days prior to your start date.
Select a duration below to see the project start dates. Please note that this project does run every day of the week; so if your preferred date is not shown, please feel free to get in touch with our travel team and they will be more than happy to assist you. It is possible to add extra nights to the durations shown if necessary!
This project supports important ongoing marine conservation efforts and hosts research projects in an effort to learn more about whale sharks. Recently, the project hosted a team of researchers affiliated with the King Abdul University (KAUST) and the University of Queensland, funded by the WWF, who were looking at oceanographic factors influencing the occurrence and distribution of whale sharks in the Mafia channel. In previous years, the project has supported other integral WWF-funded whale shark research around Mafia Island.
Through the volunteer programme, the project continues to contribute to the global spot-pattern photo identification project which seeks to map the migration of whale sharks. Their location can be added to a worldwide database, which can then be extrapolated and utilised to assess the health of the species within the area.
The project is also designed to help research aspects related to tourist behaviour surrounding these magnificent sharks, such as adherence to codes of conduct and understanding the behaviour of whale sharks during encounters with tourists and fishermen.
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Whilst on the project you will be staying at the Magemani Camp which is situated right on the beach amongst the trees of an old coconut, mango and cashew nut plantation. Traditional thatched houses of different sizes make up the camp, which are shared, same-sex dorms that house two people per room. All dorms are equipped with beds, pillows, bed linen, mosquito nets and fans. In true 'bush style', the camp features dry, composting toilets and outside showers. Free Wi-Fi is also available for volunteers to use.
If you would like your own room in the dorms, then you can do so for an additional fee of £20 per night. It is also possible to upgrade your accommodation whilst at the project to a private stilt house which is pictured here (subject to availability). The cost of this is $45 per night for solo travellers and $28 per person per night for couples. These prices are valid for the whole season except between December 20th and January 6th where the upgrade to stilt houses costs $90 per night for a solo traveller and $56 per person per night for a couple.
Three meals of fresh local food are prepared here daily by local chefs, including a lot of fruit and seafood such as fish, octopus, and squid. Chicken and beef are also often served, and for vegetarians, there is plenty on offer. You will also be provided with tea, coffee and according to your preference, bottled or filtered water. Any extra snacks or drinks, other than what is mentioned, are not provided but can be purchased for an additional cost from the beach bar.
To join this project, it is important that you are fit and healthy and are also a better than average swimmer. Before booking, you should understand that the in-water activities are physically demanding and, if you are deemed medically unfit, you may not be able to fully participate in the in-water activities and your time in the water may be restricted or, if necessary, totally curtailed.
You will also need to complete a short medical questionnaire and, if necessary, you may be required to obtain clearance from your doctor/physician.
Upon arrival, you will complete a swimming assessment to ensure you are able to take part in all aspects of the project and that you will be safe doing so. To fully participate you will be trained to do the following: pull yourself out of the water and onto the boat without assistance or ladder, swim alongside a whale shark for at least 10 minutes, assist others in the water if they are struggling, stay in the water for prolonged periods of time and free dive to 10 meters so that you can get below the whale sharks to check their sex. We therefore highly recommend improving your fitness and swimming abilities before arriving.
A dive qualification is not required for this project and almost all the work is done whilst snorkelling and skin diving.
The vaccinations required will depend on the individual medical history of each volunteer. We recommend that you consult with your doctor/GP regarding your own vaccination needs as this will ensure you are protected and prepared to travel. Please also be aware that malaria is an issue here and the entire coast of Tanzania is a high-risk area, so it is important to take preventative measures. Additionally, although the yellow fever vaccine is no longer required, it is likely you will be asked to have one on arrival anyway, so we advise volunteers to arrange this at home and take the certification along with them.
This project runs from October 1st to March 15th, as due to their migration patterns, this is the only time whale sharks can be seen around the island.
October – December: This is a popular time as the weather is often favourable, meaning you are likely to have a lot of opportunities to go out to sea to swim with the whale sharks.
January – March: The weather during these months can be varied, meaning there may be days when you are not able to go out to sea. During periods of bad weather, it is also more difficult to see whale sharks as they do not come to the surface to feed. These are, however, the best months to go scuba diving due to increased visibility. So, if you plan on diving during your free time, we recommend joining in these months.
The peak travel season for tourists is December 20th to January 6th, so if you join during this period, more time is spent assisting with whale shark tourism excursions.
You will need to arrive at Mafia Island on your chosen start date with most flights going via Dar es Salaam.
To do this, we recommend arriving into Dar es Salaam (DAR) and then taking a domestic flight to Mafia Island. We recommend flying with Coastal Aviation or Auric Air as both offer direct flights from Dar es Salaam to Mafia Island. Please note, these flights depart from a different terminal (1.5km away), so please allow at least 2-3 hours between your domestic and international flights to get through security and make your connecting flight.
Alternatively, you may wish to arrive the day before your start date, stay overnight in Dar es Salaam, and take a flight to Mafia Island the next day.
Most nationalities can purchase a tourist visa upon arrival into Tanzania for US$50 (US$100 for US citizens). Tourist visas are valid for up to 3 months, although you will need to make sure that your passport has at least three blank pages spare. Alternatively, it is possible to purchase your visa prior to arrival, but please ensure to speak to your local Tanzanian embassy in advance to check their application requirements/processing time.
The first time you see one of these huge animals swimming calmly by is so memorable. Our stay was wonderful, the accommodation, staff and food were all excellent.
Brenda Gallantree, 2019
This has made me want to change career paths and go into eco-tourism/conservation. I had an unbelievable time! Jean and Anne were fantastic and really took all of us interns as family. I learned so much from the daily lessons and from being around the other more experienced staff!
Matthew Arends, 2018
Helping tourists experience whale sharks was amazing, but also the learning opportunities for me personally, in diving, Swahili and biology, as well as the friends I made, are memories I'll take away with me forever. The organisers were wonderful; experience superb.
Alex Connor, 2018
The people there made the project a great experience. I would tell anyone to take a leap of faith and just go, even on your own as I did - it didn't matter who you were, how old you were, what colour or nationality you were - we all had the same aims and bonded as friends. I'll never forget my first day on the boat when, for reasons no-one understood, for that one day only we were surrounded by up to 50 whale sharks. It was just amazing!
Jacqueline Norton, 2018
Swimming with whales sharks was totally awesome. Leading boat trips was a dream come true. The camaraderie on camp was incredible; full of love and laughter. I can't wait to return!
Mandy Partridge, 2018
The whole trip was amazing...but if I had to choose my favorite part was when I saw my first whale shark. And of course the first time I swam with one. I think the itinerary was full and fascinating! I can't think of anything else I would add.
Alexandra Gibson, 2018
We got to spend over 30 mins in the water with two really chilled out whale sharks who kept circling around us. It was amazing to get that close and spend so much time with those amazing creatures! We were also lucky enough to spend an hour in the water with two curious wild dolphins - a completely unexpected bonus to one of our whale shark trips.
Janine Burrows, 2017
The team are the most inspirational people I have ever met. I was drawn to the project for the whale shark experience but found myself immersed in their community project teaching local girls to swim. I go so much more than I ever imagined.
Katrina Neal, 2016
This is a great organization and I was very impressed about how responsibly they conduct both tourism and research encounters with the whale sharks. My favourite moment has to be when swimming with the whale sharks with a double-rainbow in the background!
Madalena Reimao Pinto, 2016