Diving in Lake Malawi, one of the best freshwater diving spots in the world

As the sun sets over the shimmering surface of Lake Malawi, three divers surface near the rocky outcrop of Masimbwe Island, a dive site off Likoma Island in Lake Malawi. Brimming with excitement, they return to the boat, remove their gear, and talk about the fish they saw on the short trip back to shore. With pristine white beaches and pure blue waters stretching as far as the eye can see, you are continually reminded that you are not diving in the Caribbean, but in the third largest lake in Africa. Along with over 1000 different species of cichlid fish, as well as catfish and even otters, it’s no wonder Lake Malawi has been cited as one of the best freshwater diving spots 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 on 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 reflect the constellations of the stars at night in its crystal clear and cool waters. The lake is of substantial importance to the country, not only as a means of transportation, but also as a source of food and water. As a diver, its importance lies in its remarkable abundance of different species of fish, making it the most biologically diverse freshwater environment in the world.

Lake Malawi contains a greater variety of indigenous species (around 1,000) of cichlid fish than any other lake. Researchers have identified more than 500 species to date that are endemic to Lake Malawi, which is more than all the freshwater species found in all the waters of Europe and North America. Lake Malawi cichlids, perhaps even more so than cichlids from the other two rift lakes, Victoria and Tanganyika, have brilliant colors and patterns. Cichlids have evolved from a single common species to the hundreds found today, coexisting within the lake’s ecosystem. Variable species have evolved differential feeding techniques to maximize productivity. Some species have developed specialized teeth to scrape algae from rocks, or aquatic plants. Others use a sand filtration technique to sift aquatic animals or invertebrates from the sand. There are also species specialized in the consumption of snails, plants and fish.

One of the most fascinating phenomena seen on dives is the protective nature of mouthbreeders, made famous in the BBC documentary series ‘Planet Earth’. Lake Malawi cichlids are among a relatively small number of fish that care for and protect their young. The mothers carry their eggs and fry them in their mouths until the juveniles are big enough to fend for themselves. Even at this stage, in many species, the fry remain close to her mother in a tight shoal when, at the first sign of predator danger, she opens her mouth and the entire young is taken in for safety. In the case of many of the mouthbreeders, the males do not exhibit parental care; after spawning, they move on to find another female. Divers can often see males dig large spawning pits, large round craters, in the sand, at water depths of around 2–20 meters (6–65 ft), to attract more females.

Other Lake Malawi species have developed some very unique hunting adaptations, making them fun to watch while diving. At least two species attract small fish by pretending to be dead and lying motionless in the sand! These have been given the nickname “The Dead Game Fish”. One of the largest fish that can be seen while diving is the Kampango. Growing up to 2m in length, the Kampango is a large, territorial and predatory catfish endemic to Lake Malawi, found from the lower reaches of the rivers to the deepest habitable parts of the lake. A nocturnal predator, it feeds mainly on smaller cichlids. Juveniles feed mainly on eggs released by the female, and when slightly older the male helps the young forage for invertebrates in and around the nest site, which both parents will defend. If he’s lucky enough to find a catfish pair with babies, he’ll see perfectly formed miniature catfish, up to 80 of them in one nest! The Kampango is curious and will approach divers entering its territory, particularly when breeding.

Lake Malawi is a freshwater environment; as a result, there is no coral growth on the reefs. However, that does not mean that there is no plant life. Lake Malawi has one endemic genus and species of freshwater sponge, Malawispongia echinoides. This small colonial animal is found nowhere else on earth.

About a third of the lakes shoreline is rocky, which is home to the vegetarian cichlid, the Mbuna, as well as the occasional freshwater eel. These underwater rock formations are impressive dive sites that include countless swims and drop walls. The rest of the coastline is characterized by beaches and sandy bottoms. This is where most open water piscivores (eat other fish), called Haps, live. A few species of cichlids inhabit the muddy, weedy bottom where the larger rivers flow into the lake.

Lake Malawi is unusual in that it does not have significantly strong tides or currents, making it a perfect environment for open water training. Diving is possible throughout the year. However, between August and November, the lake is calmer, with very little wind. The water temperature can rise up to 30 degrees Celsius during this time, with visibility up to 20 meters. With these conditions, 3-5mm wetsuits with little to no weight system are perfectly adequate in this freshwater paradise. Since Lake Malawi is almost 500m above sea level, special procedures are required when diving at height.

Night diving is certainly considered a unique lake experience. The dolphins, which are nothing like their sake names, can be seen using divers’ torchlight to facilitate an easy meal. Numerous different catfish can also be seen coming out of the depths of their daytime dens in search of food. In the shallower waters, a plethora of blue crabs can be found on the sandy bottom, while a keen eye can spot tiny freshwater shrimp nestled in and around rocky boulders.

For those days when divers prefer to stay on the surface, there is always something to do in Lake Malawi. Kaya Mawa, an award-winning accommodation on Likoma Island, offers activities for its guests including sailing, kayaking, biking, water skiing and wake boarding, island boat tours and quad biking. For the 2012 season, Malawi’s first kitesurfing school was also launched. For bird watchers, Lake Malawi is a paradise for hundreds of species. If you’re lucky, you might see the Crimson-rumped Waxbill, found only on Likoma Island, or the majestic Osprey, swooping down to snatch up its prey.

There are several international airlines that fly to Malawi, including South African Airways, Kenyan Airways, Air Malawi, and Ethiopian Airways. Internal transportation is possible by bus, taxi, rental car, internal flight companies (Ulendo Airlink) and the Ilala ferry, which runs a continuous route around the lake.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *