It is pretty much an accepted fact that East Africa is blessed with some of the most amazing natural beauty you'll ever see. Much is made of the untouched plains of the Serengeti and the Masai that offer you a wildlife expedition that very few regions of the world can rival in sheer magic and diversity of species.
However, East Africa is no one trick pony and its coastlines and oceans offer travellers a unique wildlife experience that not many may be aware of, one of them being the opportunity to see a whale shark, up close and in the flesh. Swimming with one of the biggest creatures in the sea is an unforgettable experience that you will not soon forget and those in the know flock to the Island of Mafia each year to visit these majestic creatures.
Once you reach Mafia Island and you've settled down a short boat ride from the harbour will take you to their feeding grounds where you can see these large ocean creatures in action. For those who would like a closer look you also have the opportunity to swim and snorkel to get an underwater view of these gentle animals.
What is a whale shark?
We do realise the name is sort of confusing and can easily strike fear into visitors with the term whale and shark two ocean creatures known as dangerous to us tiny humans by comparison, but like the strange name, these are strange creatures. The whale shark is a slow-moving, filter-feeding carpet shark and the largest known extant fish species.
These large tropical sharks aren't your typical shark and tend to swims close to the surface, where it feeds chiefly on plankton. The whale shark is one of the largest known fish in the world and can grow to sizes of over 8 metres long, which is mighty impressive once you see them next to your boat.
Why are whale sharks fond of Mafia Island?
Mafia Island is a favourite feeding ground for these animals towards the end of the year. Thanks to their eating behaviours and the need to eat large amounts of food to remain healthy and active these sharks move inland to forage on shrimp at the surface during whale shark season. As these whale sharks feed for hours you can sometimes see them congregate into groups of up to 24 at any one-time consisting of both males, females as well as juveniles, all beautifully marked with stripes and spots.
What do whale sharks eat?
The whale shark is a filter feeder – one of only three known filter feeding shark species (along with the basking shark and the megamouth shark). It feeds on plankton including copepods, krill, fish eggs, Christmas Island red crab larvae and small nektonic life, such as small squid or fish.
Is a whale shark friendly?
Yes, these massive creatures are remarkably docile and pretty happy to swim alongside humans without much of an issue. Despite their enormous mouths and thousands of teeth, whale sharks pose no risk to humans. With a diet limited to tiny micro-organisms, you're definitely not on the menu.
When a whale shark feels unthreatened it will continue feeding, unfazed by respectful snorkelers. However, if your begin irritating them with a constant pursuit they will feel harassed and escape into the depths of the ocean.