My grandfather had a fish tank stocked with Malawi Cichlids and I have always wanted to dive Lake Malawi to see these pretty fish in their natural environment. This year, my dream trip to dive Lake Malawi became a reality.
Text by Penny Shadow
Images by Penny Shadow and Dana Allen
We landed in Lilongwe and after a 3 and a half-hour drive on good roads, we turned off to venture through the hills of the Lake Malawi National park for our destination, Cape Maclear, where our hosts at Danforth Yachting, Lodge and Yacht Charters, operate from. Receiving a warm welcome from the owners and managers, we were given welcome drinks and shown to our superb, luxurious rooms with fabulous views over the lake. Danforth is right on the beach with a dive deck to the left, emerald-green lush lawn and sparkling swimming pool in front and a large thatched gazbo dining area to the right. Islands surround the lodge, forming a natural bay, where the lodge boats are safely moored. After a quick freshen up we headed to the deck for a chat with the dive instructors over sundowners. With fish eagles overhead, an African pied kingfisher perched on the mast of the hobie cat, the sparkling waters and lush green island in front of us I couldn’t have been happier. The sun gave its final goodbye for the day in spectacular, blazing African style.
Lake Malawi covers one-third of the country of Malawi. The lake is 600 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide at its widest point, and forms part of the African Rift Valley. Malawi is a country of varied topography with lowest altitude being 35 metres and its highest peak, Mount Mulanje at 3002 metres above sea level. Rolling hills, high lying plateaus, cool misty mountains and flat plains make up the terrain. The crowning glory though is the magnificent Lake Malawi, also known as the “Lake of Stars” because its shimmering water reflects the bright sunshine. This is the third largest lake in Africa and the ninth largest in the world. The lake plummets to a maximum depth of a staggering 752 metres.
Our first dive was to a dive site known as Aquarium, directly opposite Danforth yachting and just a short boat trip across the lightly rippling lake waters. No tides, no currents, no salt, no huge surf to launch through, this couldn’t be easier. We kitted up on board the little wooden dive boat, Rafiki, did our backwards roll into the water and descended into the crystal clear, fresh sweet water. An abundance of colourful tropical fish, small, bright, varied and beautiful swam around us. These fish are known as Cichlids (pronounced ‘sicklets’) and are endemic to the region. I felt like I was swimming in Grandpa’s fish tank. Bright luminous blue stripes offset by matt black, yellow and black horizontal stripes, plain blue rimmed with darker blue, mottled orange and black, clear blue with yellow spots, the vivid colours and abundance was breathtaking.
Breeding season brings the dance of courtship and for those privileged enough to see it, fish are no different to other species. Many Malawi cichlids are mouth brooders. During mating season the plainer more drab females are attracted to the bright colours of the males. The male jiggles his body until the yellow spots on his anal fins virtually glow. The female confuses these spots with her eggs, tries to grab the spots with her mouth, thus fertilization takes place in the females mouth. The babies grow within the mother’s mouth. She spits them out in a safe nursery area and swims around guarding them. If the mother senses danger for her young, she will try and fend off the intruder, but for total safety, she scoops the babies back into her mouth.
Our Divemaster pointed out a mother fish frantically swimming around her group of tiny little babies. As we watched closely, the babies grouped into a tight bundle and quick as a flash entered the mother’s mouth. A few stragglers didn’t make it in, so she swam around a second time, they regrouped and in they went. With cheeks bulging the mother swam around. When she senses the danger is past, she releases the young.
These smart little fish have evolved over the years to ensure survival of the species. All have fancy Latin names, for example; Cyathochromis obliquidens, Nimbochromis fuscotaeniatus, but for ease of use, our dive instructors have given them identifiable common names. The ‘around the corner fish’ is a smart little guy. He hovers, well camouflaged on the side of a rock, then darts over the rock at lightning speed and captures his prey unawares. So too ‘top deck’ named after the delicious chocolate slab, brown on the underside and pale on the top, he is also a stealth operator. Just before he strikes he subtly changes shades, the top goes dark and his underside pales, confusing his prey as to which direction he is facing and he strikes with ease. The ‘play dead’ fish is fascinating to watch. He swims at full speed then suddenly all movement stops and he collapses as if in cardiac arrest. As he lies limp and useless, smaller fish move in closer, curious and unaware of the danger at which point, the life flows back into our very un-dead fish and he strikes out at his next meal.
Not all of the Malawi cichlids are predatory. The algae eating fish ‘fat lips’ suck the algae off the rocks like a Kreepy- Krawly. During our 40 minute dive around the aquarium dive site we also saw blue tipped crabs, shoals of nearly transparent tiny sardine like Usipa and the slightly larger one-and-two dotted Utaka fish. The crater-like nests in the sand on the bottom are made by the male blue Chambo or Liani fish. These craters, exactly circular and carefully crafted are worked diligently by the males to attract a mate. Of course, the guy with the biggest, fanciest house gets the girl and competition in the fish world is fierce.
At a deeper depth of 25 metres dwell the creepy catfish. These long whiskered, sleek bodied, slimy looking fish grow to great lengths. Kampango and Vundu are the two main types of catfish lurking in the deeper waters.
Danforth is a prime location for a diving holiday. Cape Maclear is a World Heritage site and a fresh water marine reserve. Within a radius of 2.5 kilometres there are around 22 different dive sites, each unique in topography.
Rocks, boulders and swim-through’s make for some amazing dive experiences. The dive site known as “bakers oven” is a rocky outcrop with fabulous swim-through’s at a maximum of 15 metres.
Rays of light from above penetrate the many holes in the rocks with stage lighting effect. The tunnels are wide enough for diver plus kit, enticing even those divers normally cautious of caves.
Night dives are excellent. We set off just before sunset at 17h45 and were in the water at twilight. With our flashlight beams we spotted the nocturnal fish known as dolphin fish or Cornish Jack. Due to their very poor eyesight they have developed a magnetic field around them which helps them to determine their surroundings, sense danger and not bump into rocks. The Cichlids, in contrast to their daytime frantic swimming activity, were noticeably slower and sleepier at night.
For the more experienced divers, Zimbawe Rock offers a challenging, fascinating deep dive. This site was rated as ‘the best fresh water diving in the world’, by Full Circle magazine a few years ago.
“Zimbawe Rock” is actually an underwater mountain, rising out of the lake. The mountain is tunneled with numerous channels to enter and exit, amazing swim-through’s, tunnels and boulders and abundant fish – brilliant diving in clear fresh water. This site can only be dived on calm days as there is no anchorage for the dive boat.
Danforth has a fleet of boats, all named after characters of the Lion King. The mighty Mufasa, the 38 foot, ten berth catamaran is the glory boat. Immaculately cared for and maintained, she is much loved by owner and Captain, Howard Massey-Hicks, Mufasa can be chartered for lake cruises to the far ends of Lake Malawi. Shenzi is a wonderful dive boat – a cedar wood, inboard engine, user friendly vessel with camping style facilities on board. The sturdy roof top is a great viewing platform, sun-tanning deck or launch pad for plunging off into the depths of cool, fresh waters.
Rafiki is a smaller wooden dive boat, easily maneuverable into nearby dive sites. Bench seats and no rails make Rafiki suitable for rear entry dive rolls in full dive kit. A removable step ladder is hooked onto the side of the boat at the end of the dive.
In addition to diving, Danforth is geared up for other great watersports. Kayaking, dingy sailing on Lasers, Hobie-cat Sailing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, tube rides, mountain biking, hikes, nature walks. There is truly something for everyone. Sun-loungers and shady hammocks around the swimming pool offer a tempting rest between all the activities.
So why dive Lake Malawi?
Easy access to dive sites, no tides, no major currents, no salt water. Warm, fresh clear water. Abundant fish, fascinating species, interesting rock formations, a variety of different dive sites, suitable for beginners through to advanced divers.
|Coolest water temperatures:||23C|
|Average water temperatures:||27C|
|Warmest water temperatures:||33C|
|Average visibility:||15 metres|
|Good visibility:||25 metres|
|When to visit:||All year round|
|Best time to dive:||Best months Sept-Dec|
Danforth Lodge and Yacht charters. Cape Maclear.
Tel. +(265) 99 9960077or 99 9960770
While my lifetime dream to dive Lake Malawi has been fulfilled this has only whetted my appetite for more. Farewell for now. I shall return.