Cast away off the coast of Tanzania, Georgia Boscawen discovers a sequestered African island that’s a wildlife wonderland.
My swimming skills are being put to the test as Hillary, Thanda Island’s whale shark expert, heaves me by the wrist through the water off the coast of Tanzania in pursuit of a specimen that is supposedly lurking in the depths. My flippers are thrashing and I’m forgetting the basic principles of a snorkel – surely this can’t be worth the struggle. One final push and there it is: a huge, elliptical mouth heading straight towards me, attached to eight metres of whale shark. It changes course at the last second, flecks of its speckled skin gliding past centimetres from my fingertips, before a last flick of its tail as it vanishes down into the blue abyss.
“I forgot to say, Hillary doesn’t speak English, so if he grabs your wrist, just go with it. You won’t regret it,” says Robbie Swaisland, Thanda Island’s helicopter pilot and, today, standing in as captain of one of the resort’s speedboats. He has whisked us 15 nautical miles towards the coast in pursuit of the world’s biggest fish. Overcome with excitement at glimpsing the vast creature, I am forever indebted to Hillary and his firm grasp.
The turquoise ocean off Tanzania is a special place for these rare and gentle giants, accommodating one of the world’s larger populations. However, the waters here are deserted, with only a sprinkling of traditional Arab dhow boats on the horizon, their skewed sails making for an unusual silhouette. In fact, coastal African tourism is largely overlooked in favour of safaris inland.
For superyachts, the issue has been piracy and doubts about the safety of navigating to and around the region. To arrive here from the Mediterranean, vessels will need either to circumnavigate the continent or cruise through the Gulf of Aden, which has long been regarded as hotbed of piracy. However, the High Risk Area (HRA) on Africa’s east coast didn’t include Tanzania, and the Indian Ocean HRA was removed entirely on 1 January this year in a landmark move responding to the improved situation in the region, largely due to concerted counter-piracy efforts by regional and international stakeholders. According to data provider Statista, the number of piracy incidents off the coast of Somalia (synonymous with piracy on the east coast) has fallen from 358 between 2010 and 2015 to just eight incidents between 2016 and 2021, indicating a decline in the wider region. Yachts heading to this area must still, however, take security measures, consulting insurance brokers and maritime security specialists such as MAST to ensure safe passage.
Due to the diminishing threat, this spot off the Tanzanian coast in a somewhat forgotten archipelago is becoming increasingly appealing to visiting superyachts. And it’s not surprising with luxurious properties such as Thanda Island to discover.
From the island’s custom Eurocopter, Thanda Island appears a perfect teardrop shape, encircled by white sands and coral reefs (it lies within the Shungimbili Island Marine Reserve) with no other land in sight. Taking pride of place is the primary five-bedroom villa, a weatherboarded, whitewashed house with an unspoilt Hamptons vibe and large rooms, each with an outdoor bathtub and shower.
Through the coconut palms and along a boardwalk there are also two double-storey thatched Tanzanian bandas set directly on the beach. Although these may appear rustic, with their simple wooden exteriors and bamboo interiors, they offer air-conditioned rooms with handmade rugs and cloud-like king-sized beds to snuggle into with just the gentle waves as a soundtrack.
Wandering along the immaculate white sands, sprinkled with pink conch shells, towards the main villa, I catch sight of the raised glass-sided swimming pool protruding onto the beach. Meanwhile, staff on the beach are beginning to position tables, chairs and even a chandelier on a newly assembled pole as the sun begins to bleed into the horizon.
As I curl up on one of the white-curtained beach cabanas, the scent of freshly baked bread and newly lit fire waft across the sand, a hint of what the evening has in store. The table, which sits on the empty beach next to the flickering firepit, has a white tablecloth that’s scattered with shells and lit with candles.
I walk barefoot down the avenue of tiki torches leading to it, just a few metres from the lapping waves. A crisp white Burgundy is poured into my glass to accompany the warm, freshly baked selection of bread being placed on the table. A soft, buttery lobster, dressed in lemon and herbs, lands before me, having been cooked on the nearby open flames. For pudding, homemade chocolate ice cream, fresh strawberries and a roasted banana arrive on the table, topped with a light dusting of grated chocolate. Feeling suitably replete, I roll over to the neat row of chairs on the beach before the fire and see out the evening with a nightcap of sweet amaretto on the rocks.
But Thanda is more than simply a luxury resort. Twenty-eight nautical miles south lies Mafia, a banana-shaped island known for its thriving coral reefs and abundant wildlife. Thanda guests are met with warm welcomes here, thanks to the philanthropic approach its owners have taken towards the local community, funding schools and sustainable fishing practices and boosting employment. In the buzzing markets, the colourful containers of tropical fruits and vegetables crammed onto stalls within the narrow avenues provide vital ingredients to Thanda’s kitchens. The shops are filled with vibrant fabrics, many of which are recognisable from the island.
However, wildlife is the major draw here. A morning in the water swimming with whale sharks, snorkelling above grouper and unicorn fish and spotting the rare humpback dolphin would be enough to satisfy even the most discerning marine life enthusiast for the week.
I approach a seemingly deserted sandbar, protruding from the shallow blue lagoon. As I get closer, a tent comes into focus, then a second, before I realise that there is a spectacular beach set-up. The island’s general manager, Antigone Meda, strolls down the beach smiling, having orchestrated the creation of this magical scene, complete with a Persian rug and a long white table decorated with porcelain coral and blue sea-urchin ornaments.
Seabobs and paddleboards await on the sand as Moscow mules are handed to guests on the wooden sun loungers. Soon, perfectly tender, herby octopus, surrounded by ribbons of pickled cucumber, is brought to the table, matched with a crisp Chardonnay. In just a few hours, the sandbar will be completely submerged, leaving no trace of our decadent lunch. Thanda prides itself on its commitment to the conservation and protection of the local environment.
The surrounding reefs are teeming with marine life and, from one of the island’s paddleboards, I spot butterfish, striped Moorish idols and angelfish in the shallows. However, their presence is no accident and is actually the result of positive action. The region has experienced overfishing in the past, which the island’s CEO, Pierre Delvaux, worked to tackle. “In 2007, the three islands that include Thanda were proclaimed as separate protected marine reserves,” says Delvaux. “[The island] became the first foreign-owned family commercial initiative to enter into an exclusive-use, long-term lease with Tanzania, where a private enterprise would become a partner to jointly protect, preserve and improve the marine environment.”
The results of this commitment can be seen in Thanda’s extensive coral restoration projects, solar farm and philanthropic activities that benefit local communities. There is also a remarkable absence of single-use plastics.
With outstanding service, head-turning wildlife and immaculate white beaches, Thanda has all the key elements of a tropical island paradise, but there is something more besides. It’s a place where you can peer into the true workings of conservation and see thriving aquatic life. Thanks to spots like Thanda, this corner of the Indian Ocean is primed for revival and it won’t be long before the secret is out. thandaisland.com
First published in the February 2023 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP NOW