As the sun bakes down upon the glistening surface of Lake Malawi, three divers emerge close to the rocky outcrop of Masimbwe Island, a dive site off Likoma Island in Lake Malawi. Bursting with excitement they return to the boat, remove their kit and discuss the fish they spotted on the short journey back to shore. With unspoilt white beaches and pure blue water stretching as far as the eye can see, you continually remind yourself that you are not diving in the Caribbean, but in the 3rd largest lake in Africa. Together with over 1000 different species of Cichlid fish, as well as cat fish and even otters, it is no wonder Lake Malawi has been cited as one of the best fresh water diving locations in the world.
Malawi is a landlocked country in the Southern Region of Africa and is bordered by Tanzania to the north, Zambia to the west and Mozambique to the east and south. The landscape is dominated along its eastern side by the third largest Lake in Africa, and the ninth largest in the world. Lake Malawi is known as the Lake of Stars, due to its impressive ability to mirror the star’s constellations at night in its crystal clear fresh waters. The lake is of substantial importance to the country not only as a means of transport but also as a source of both food and water. As a Scuba diver, its significance lays in its remarkable abundance of different fish species- making it the most biologically diverse fresh water environment in the world.
Lake Malawi contains a greater variety of indigenous species (around 1000) of Cichlid fishes than any other lake. Researchers have identified over 500 species to date that are endemic to Lake Malawi, which is more than all of the freshwater species found in all the waters of both Europe and North America. The Cichlids of Lake Malawi, perhaps even more so than the Cichlids from the other two rift lakes, Victoria and Tanganyika, are brightly coloured and patterned. Cichlids have evolved from a single common species into the hundreds found today, coexisting within the lake ecosystem. The variable species have developed differential feeding techniques to maximise productivity. Some species have developed teeth specialized in scraping algae from the rocks, or aquatic plants. Others use a sand filtration technique to sieve aquatic animals or invertebrates from the sand. Also found are species specialised in snail, plant and fish consumption.
One of the most fascinating phenomena seen on dives is the protective nature of the mouthbreeders, made famous in the BBC documentary series ‘Planet Earth’. The Cichlids of Lake Malawi are among a relatively small number of fishes that look after and protect their offspring. The mothers carry their eggs and fry in their mouths until the juveniles are large enough to fend for themselves. Even at this stage, in many species, the baby fry remain close to their mother in a tight shoal when at the first sign of predatory danger, she opens her mouth and the whole brood are taken in for safety. In the case of many of the mouthbreeders, the males exhibit no parental care; after spawning, they move on to find another female. Often divers can see the males dig large spawning pits- large round craters – in the sand, at water depths of around 2-20 meters (6-65 feet), in order to attract further females.
Other species in Lake Malawi have developed some very unique hunting adaptations, which make them fun to observe whilst diving. At least two species lure small fish within range by feigning death and lying motionless in the sand! These have been given the nickname of “The play-dead fish.” One of the largest fish that can be seen whilst diving is the Kampango. Growing up to 2m in length, the Kampango is a large, territorial and predatory catfish endemic to Lake Malawi, occurring from the lower reaches of rivers to the deepest habitable parts of the lake. A nocturnal predator, it feeds largely on smaller cichlids. Juveniles mainly feed on eggs released by the female, and when slightly older, the male helps the young in searching for invertebrates in and around the nesting site, which both parents will defend. If you are lucky enough to find a catfish pair with babies, you will see perfectly formed miniature catfish – up to 80 of them in one nest! The Kampango is inquisitive and will approach divers entering its territory, particularly when breeding.
Lake Malawi is a fresh water environment; as a result there is no coral growth on the reefs. However, that doesn’t mean to say there is no plant life. Lake Malawi boasts an endemic genus and species of freshwater sponge, Malawispongia echinoides. This little colonial animal occurs nowhere else on earth.
About one third of the lakes’ coast is rocky, which is home to the vegetarian cichlids, the Mbuna, as well as the occasional fresh water eel. These underwater rock formations make for stunning dive sites including countless swim throughs and drop-off walls. The rest of the coastline is characterised by sandy beaches and bottoms. This is where the majority of the open-water piscivores (eat other fish), called Haps, dwell. A few Cichlid species inhabit the muddy and weed-strewn bottom where larger rivers flow into the lake.
Lake Malawi is unusual in that it does not have tides or significantly strong currents, making it a perfect environment for open water training. Diving is possible all year round. However, between August and November, the lake is at its calmest, with very little wind. Water temperatures can rise up to 30 Degrees Celsius during this time, with visibility as good as 20 metres. With these conditions, 3-5mm wetsuits with little or no weight systems are perfectly suitable in this freshwater paradise. Given that Lake Malawi sits at nearly 500m above sea level, special procedures are required when diving at altitude.
Night diving is certainly regarded as a unique experience in the lake. Dolphin fish, resembling nothing like their names sake, can be seen using the torch light of divers to facilitate an easy meal. Numerous different catfish can also be seen rising from the depths of their daytime lairs in search of food. In the shallower waters a plethora of blue crabs can be found on the sandy bottom, whilst a sharp eye can spot tiny fresh water shrimp located in and around the rocky boulders.
For those days that divers prefer to stay topside there is always something to do on Lake Malawi. Kaya Mawa, an award-winning lodge on Likoma Island, offers activities for its guests, such as sailing, kayaks, bicycles, waterskiing and wakeboarding, round island boat trips and quad bike tours. For the 2012 season, Malawi’s first Kite-surfing school has also opened. For those keen on birdwatching, Lake Malawi is a haven for hundreds of species. If you are lucky, you might spot the crimson-rumped waxbill, found only on Likoma Island, or the Majestic Fish Eagle, swooping down to catch it’s prey.
There are several international airlines that fly into Malawi, including South African Airways, Kenyan Airways, Air Malawi and Ethiopian Airways. Internal transport is possible by bus, taxi, rental car, internal flight companies (Ulendo Airlink) and the Ilala ferry, that travels a continuous route around the Lake.